How We Operate: Field Measuring in Existing Buildings


Nearly every design project we undertake begins with an existing building.  This is a factor both of our urban location (not a lot of open space to build up, our general principals (we like re-using existing structures) and the type of projects we generally take on (loft and restaurant, alike, are generally re-fits).

A good set of field measurements provide the foundation of any design project for us.  Without an accurate understanding of the existing conditions, how can we best work to highlight the best features and improve the rest?  So early in each project, as soon as we have a good understanding with the client about what they’re looking for, we head out to survey the existing space.

Since we were out documenting a new project yesterday the importance of the task is particularly fresh.  Here’s what we keep in mind (and in our pockets) when we set out for a field measuring trip.

The Tools of the Trade


tools of the trade1_recrop

1.  Pencil and Pens (several)

Its best to bring several as loosing a writing implement is a near certainty.  We prefer to sketch in existing walls, mechanical systems etc in pencil and then dimension in red ink.  Keeping numbers clear ensures that they all get entered into the computer properly back at the office.

2. Laser Measuring Unit

How did we get along without these things?  Well, we spent a lot more time rolling and unrolling (and untangling) those extra long tape measures.  With one of these in hand, two clicks of a button give an accurate read on the largest spans of the space.

3.  30′ tape measure

Not 25′. A 30′ tape measure. Try to get by with a twenty-five footer and you will come to find that everything in the world measures between 25′ and 30′. As convenient as the new laser devices can be, nothing completely replaces a good old fashioned tape measure.  They’re handy for checking the little measurements, for reaching up to measure transom windows and for slipping behind mechanical equipment and other obstructions that block a clear line for the laser sight.

4. Existing plan(s)

Its best to have some idea of the space even before arriving – if we can get our hands on existing plans we’re happy to use them.  If not, then step one is to create a detailed sketch showing every mechanical duct, outlet and alcove which we can annotate up with dimensions galore.  Even “known” dimensions need to be verified in field (VIF is a note you’ll commonly see on architectural drawings).

5. Camera (or, in most cases, a phone).  

The most important rule of field measurement is TAKE MORE PHOTOS THAN YOU THINK YOU NEED.  We often use a phone for this purpose these days as these snaps aren’t going to be beauty shots – it’s more important to have an image recording device that is easy to shove into a free pocket than one with multiple lenses for the first field measure visit.  We save the DSLR and tripod for the end of the project.  Photo-documenting the project is an important belt-and-suspenders backup for the recorded measurements

NB: There are a lot of other tech options out there for gathering measurements of existing buildings these days up to and including 3D laser scanning systems which use pulsing laser beams to systematically sweep a space and generate an elaborate computer models but those are generally needed only for large projects or for spaces a person can’t get easy access to (think ornate or domed multi floor spaces).

Other Field Measuring Considerations

While on site, an architect is looking for more than just inches and feet.  Visiting an existing building gives us a chance to assess the general condition of the building, focusing particularly on the structure, roof and MEP (Mechanical, Electrical and Plumbing) and Fire Protection systems to see what may need improvement.  We’ll also get a sense of the site conditions, parking, access, adjacent properties and an micro-climate conditions.

elevation sketching 3

The Team

Although the advent of laser measurers means that a person really can go measure most small project spaces on their own, but we prefer to make it a team project.  For one thing, its good for anyone who’ll be involved in design to get the opportunity to internalize the space in person.  Also, it provides a nice division of labor: one person to focus on the big picture (the sketch on paper) and make sure every nook and cranny is recorded, and one to crawl over the furniture of the existing tenant and call out numbers.  Having a multi-person team also helps ensure that none of the mission priorities get missed during that crucial hour or two spent on site.

moss team on the way_recrop

Yesterday we maximized efficiency by bringing three people, two to tag team the inside, and one to double check the exterior dimensions of the existing storefront and the adjacent new area against the existing drawings provided by the owner.  And, yes, we biked to site.  After all, it was nearly three miles away – too far for a mid-workday walk.