Four (4) Ways A Good Land Surveyor Strives For Excellent Communication

Article Summary

Table of Contents

Introduction

The construction contractor was building giant water pipelines outside of the easement.

My boss delivered that news to me with these three urgent questions:

  1. What did we know about the existing pipe easement?
  2. When did we communicate that information to the client?
  3. How did we inform the client about the problem?

I was a young man when this happened. I had finished helping with the design of two 4′ diameter surface water pipelines. They would run parallel to an older small pipeline to serve an existing water treatment plant. My client was the engineering firm. I was performing the boundary survey for the pipeline design. The city owned the treatment plant. They wanted to avoid purchasing new right-of-way for the pipes.

When I worked on this project, I was a young land surveyor. I wasn’t licensed. I hadn’t done many boundary surveys on my own. While answering my boss’s three (3) urgent questions, I realized I had made a critical mistake.

There was a problem with the existing pipe easement. It was poorly written and almost impossible to locate on the ground. I didn’t think the existing water pipeline even fell in the existing easement.

I had attended a workshop on technical communication a few months before this survey. I decided to apply the workshop by writing a technical report, or surveyor report, with a summary of my work. In this report, I described the problems with the existing pipeline easement. I recommended the city take steps to clean up the easement before installing the new pipes. I delivered my technical report to the engineer with my survey drawings. The design team and the city ignored the report.

Almost a year after my survey, the city had authorized the construction of the pipes. One of the farmers who owned land under the easement sued the city, engineer, construction contractor, and my company. He realized the contractor was building the pipes outside of what he thought was the easement footprint. 

As part of the resolution of this lawsuit, my company paid tens of thousands of dollars to the farmer. (The engineer and contractor also shared in the payment.) Although I had written and delivered my technical report, the report wasn’t dated. I had no way to prove when the engineer and city had received the information. The timing of the report delivery was a critical factor in establishing my company didn’t share blame for the mistake.

This example is one of several similar experiences I had as a young surveyor. These experiences taught me how important excellent technical communication is for land surveyors.

This article explains four (4) ways good land surveyors strive to have excellent communication, including excellent communication with clients and business partners. The article will answer these two (2) essential questions:

  1. Why is excellent communication from your land surveyor so important?
  2. What are four (4) simple ways your land surveyor should be communicating with you and your business partners?

Why Is Excellent Communication From Your Land Surveyor Important?

There are three (3) main reasons why excellent communication from your land surveyor is critically important:

  1. The land surveyor’s early input will shape the final form of the project. At the start of the project the surveyor will assess the size, dimension and topography of the subject parcel being considered for development. In addition, the land surveyor often performs the role of a private land planner in the early stages of a project.  In this role as a land planner the surveyor helps the client analyze potential uses of the subject parcel and to understand restrictions like building setbacks and on-site parking requirements.
  • The land surveyor’s work will be relied upon by the other members of the project team. The civil engineer, the architect, and even the landscape designer will rely on the drawings provided by the land surveyor. These drawings include the topographic maps the surveyor creates to reflect existing site conditions. It also includes the drawing files they create of the parcel’s boundaries and the footprint of easements that encumber the parcel. It is critical that other design professionals on the project team understand how the surveyor did their work, the quality of their work product, and how they handled questions of uncertainty or matters of professional judgement.
  • The land surveyor can identify potential development risks early in the design process and can help mitigate them. What type of problems can a surveyor find during their initial work on a project? This could include the existence of physical encroachments over the parcel boundaries, problem with title to the land, evidence of unwritten rights in the property not disclosed on a land title report, issues with site access, issues with site drainage, and identification of other issues like the presence of wetlands or fire hazards. In many cases, the land surveyor is the client’s very first set of expert eyes on the ground. To benefit from this on-site expert, the surveyor needs to clearly communicate about what they observe and the impacts of potential problems they find. (See the sidebar: “Just an Access Easement?” for an example.)

4 Ways A Good Land Surveyor Strives For Excellent Communication

We’ve explained why good communication from a land surveyor is so important on real estate transactions and land development projects. There are four (4) ways a land surveyor implements excellent communication:

  1. By providing a standard agreement for professional services that is easy to understand. In most places a professional land surveyor is required to have a written agreement for their services with their client. This agreement spells out in advance things like payment terms, the responsibilities of the land surveyor, and the responsibilities of the client. Often these contracts are filled with technical jargon and legalese. A good land surveyor shows their efforts to communicate by having a contract with simple language (or a summary of the contract that is easy to understand.) You shouldn’t need to be a lawyer or land surveyor to read and understand your land surveyor’s agreement for professional services.
  2. By providing a scope-of-professional services that is easy to understand. In most cases, the surveyor needs to provide a written document that explains what specific tasks they will perform for your specific project. This document is called a “scope-of-services” or sometimes a “scope-of-work”. A good surveyor will provide a scope-of-services document that is easy to read and understand. This scope-of-services enables you to know exactly what the surveyor is doing on your project and what you are paying them for.
  3. By providing regular job status updates. The land surveyor will typically attack the work on your project in phases. As each phase completes, they may be delivering work products that you or other members of your project team need. The land surveyor may also discover things during their work that impact your project and how it is executed. A good land surveyor will provide you with regular written updates as each phase of their work on your project is finished.
  4. By providing a technical report with every major work product. As part of their work on your project, a land surveyor will evaluate risks and make judgement calls. (For example: He may pick between one of several possible locations for a parcel boundary based on available evidence.) These judgement calls may impact how your project is designed and built. The judgement calls made by the surveyor and the resulting risks for your project aren’t always easily determined from a typical survey work product like a map. As a consequence, your land surveyor should be providing a technical report, or surveyor report, with every major deliverable on the project. This report should explain the surveyor’s methods, equipment, software, analysis, calculations, professional judgements and uncertainty in their work.

Conclusion

In this article we learned about 3 reasons why good communication from your land surveyor is so important. We then talked about 4 things good land surveyors strive to do so excellent communication is maintained with the client/project owner.

Sidebar: Just an Access Easement?

A few years ago, I was hired by a land attorney to sort out an access easement dispute for a private road that provided access to several residential parcels. The parcels were in the forested foothills of the California Bay Area. All the parcels were worth over a million dollars. My scope-of-services included a boundary survey and preparation of a new access easement covering the physical road that would benefit all the parcels abutting the road.

During a visit to the site to check on my survey field crews, I immediately identified three (3) potential problems. The first problem was the physical condition of the road. It was a narrow paved surface on very steep terrain with poor drainage. Portions of the road were eroding and sliding down hill. The second problem was the inability to access the parcels on the road with fire trucks. The neighborhood was in a high fire risk zone, and there was no way the road was sturdy enough for fire suppression efforts. If there was a forest fire, the homes would be left to burn. The third problem was the number of physical turnouts and turn-arounds that would fall outside of the easement footprint first proposed by the land attorney. We quickly brought these three (3) problems back to our land attorney for discussion with the landowners served by the access road.

Sidebar: How We Strive For Excellent Communication At Redefined Horizons

We take excellent communication very seriously at Redefined Horizons. We want all of our clients and business partners to easily understand and use the information in our maps, reports, exhibits and other work products. How do we strive for excellent communication at Redefined Horizons?

  1. We use a plain language standard agreement. The language in this agreement is simple. We also provide a plain-language summary of our standard agreement that can be read and understood by all non-technical people.
  2. We always provide a simple written scope-of-services for every job. This scope-of-services explains what work we will be performing, the conditions on that work, and what we need from our clients to do our job successfully. We also include in our scope-of-services a list of tasks that aren’t included, so there aren’t any nasty surprises for our client.
  3. We always provide one or more surveyor reports to the clients with our work products. On most jobs this includes a general surveyor report, a control survey report, a topographic survey report and a boundary survey report. These reports tell our clients about our equipment, software, methods, analysis, calculations, and judgement calls. It also explains how we handled risk and uncertainty in our work and how this could impact the project design and implementation.
  4. We provide regular written job status updates. These updates are sent after we’ve accomplished major milestones in our work, or at least every time we send a bill for our services. These job status updates follow a standard format that presents information in a logical way.