Building Principles: Pack Rat or Keeper of Treasures

by Rick Stryker, P.E.

Imagine finding a jar full of old coins buried in the yard, and tossing them out because Italy (Rome) doesn't issue denarii anymore! I bet that you didn't know that you, too, have a treasure. It's probably closer than you think, and you won't have to use a shovel. Remember that avalanche of rolled-up drawings that attacks from the back of the storage closet? There's your irreplaceable treasure, chock full of knowledge and information. If they're not where they can work for you, you just don't know what a treasure they are. This month, Indiana Joneses, we're going to look at the gold mine of data you already have, why it's valuable (even if it's old), and what you can do to keep it safe for use long after you're gone.

Valuable Artifacts

Boundary Surveys
Whether your camp is one year old or a hundred, many thousands of dollars have been spent on the planning, design, and permitting of your facility. Aside from the improvements or features that you can see on the ground, paper plans and drawings may be the only artifact left from that investment. Consider a boundary survey. This special map describes the lines and distances that comprise the limits of the property, and the corners are supposed to be permanently marked. Over time "permanent" has had different meanings. For example, while working for a surveyor I was tasked to redraw a boundary map from a very old survey and deed dating back to the early 1800s. The chore was really interesting and educational. There were distance units that I'd never heard of like "perches," "chains," and "rods." One particular property side ended with "to the place in the creek where John Brown killed the turtle." No fooling. Other "permanent" markers included trees, stone and wire fences, and cairns (stone piles). Would you believe that we found many, many of these in the field? Recreating the original boundary would have been a much more difficult prospect without those clues, with the key being that old, old information. I figured that we'd never be able to recreate the boundary, but my boss was a pretty smart and experienced professional and we did. Modern practice often uses iron pins or vehicle axles driven into the ground. But when corners are remote, surveyors will still blaze nearby trees ("witnesses") and construct stone piles rather than lug heavy iron pins, and those are noted on plans all the time. What would those sort of clues be worth if you're having trouble with trespassing, poaching, or a boundary dispute with the neighbor?

Septic System Plans
For some really important work, you may not even be able to see what was installed if the work was done right. Septic systems are a great example. While many older camps have systems that predate "modern" regulations, you may be surprised to find out how many relatively new installations (less than fifteen years) are as lost as their seventy-five-year-old counterparts. So plans for a septic system would contain a wealth of information for both day-to-day operation and future planning. Beyond simply where the system is located, it would tell the size of the installed components, and from that, we could estimate the flow that the system was intended to receive, treat, and pass. Not only that, by knowing where the current system is, we could avoid damaging it when we're looking for a replacement area! Plans for water piping, gas lines, telephone, and electric lines would all help your organization find and repair problems efficiently and more safely, and plan for future construction with confidence.

But what about those things that you can see? What good would "old" plans do if we can see what we have and work around it? In some cases, those old plans may allow designers to skip surveying and mapping. Saving time saves you money. How much? Well, a two-person survey crew can cost $800 – $1,000 per day, and the office work required to make a map of the data usually costs about the same. Did you ever think that old survey from your last construction project could be worth a $2,000 savings on the next project? How about what it could cost to find that septic system you put in just fifteen years ago? Ground penetrating radar can find buried stuff without digging (a useful feature when looking for septic systems and gas lines) at about $2,000 per day. Those companies typically charge by the whole day, regardless of how much time it takes. Once they're done marking whatever they find on the ground, the surveyor comes out, and now you're spending $2,000 for the field and office work. Did you even pay $4,000 for that design? What would it cost to find the septic system, water pipes, or gas lines by accident with the backhoe? I bet you're thinking about rescuing those plans from their exile about now. Go ahead and get them. You'll feel better saving untold buckets of money, but be sure to come right back to learn some more. I'll wait . . . .

Deciphering and Organizing

Welcome back! You've blown the dust off, chased away the insects, and lugged armfuls of rolled drawings to your space, and now they're spewing all over the place. It sure seems like a lot of stuff and some of them look like the same thing over and over and over. It probably is a lot, and some of them may indeed be duplicates of each other. But before you go and start filling the fire pit, connect with your inner pack rat. The fifty years of people before you thought that they were worth keeping so don't be so quick. The dumpster's not going anywhere.

Plans may look very similar but be presenting very different things. For example, a whole set of land development plans would show layouts of water and sewer lines, gas service, parking, roads, earth grading, stormwater components, as well as all of the details for each of those different things. All of that information might be spread over as many as five or six plan sheets. These could all look the same to the layman. How to tell? The title block of each sheet is the best place to start. Look to see if the sheets are numbered "X of Y," and make note of the most recent revision date. Try to assemble a whole set of the numbered sequence with the same most-recent revision date.

If you have other copies of pages in the set that are otherwise identical, pick the one that's in the best shape, and set the other aside for future garbage. Partial sets of multiple revisions are a different deal. Accept that some of the information has been lost to time, but don't set yourself up for hopeless confusion and possible construction disaster by combining sets.

What about ones which aren't part of any set at all? The title block may even say "Sheet 1 of 1." The wrong answer here would be, "Oh well, an orphan! It was only one sheet. It must not have been important, so we'll chuck it." On the contrary: These may be the most important of all, because everything that someone wanted to convey appears in that single document. It probably didn't have multiple revisions. It may as well be camp's equivalent of the Rosetta Stone and be truly irreplaceable.

Archiving Procedures

Having sifted through them, you should have two groups. The base library contains the best copy of everything that's available. The "extras" pile is copies of stuff in the base. Let's talk about these first. With just a little preparation, these are great for reference. The most important thing that you can do is to write a note, right on the drawing, whether there is a later version of this particular plan in the library. This allows you to use the drawing with an appropriate amount of confidence. If it's been revised, you know that there's another document immediately available that will tell you the "latest and greatest" story. If not, then you know that what you have is as good as it gets. What about the base library, though?

Now the work really begins. First, are you a bit frustrated about the darn things rolling up while you were trying to read them? It was probably enough to make you want to quit and burn them after all. That's one of the very best reasons why archive drawings should never be stored in a roll. They're nearly impossible to work with! So right now, begin the process to restore them by laying them in a flat stack and putting heavy books on them. Cover the drawings completely with weights, not just the corners or the middles. Heavy books work well, and higher humidity works better than lower. This may take several weeks, and it will be a pain to work around them.

While you're waiting for them to relax, you need to find a new, safe, happy home for them. The space should be dry but away from direct heat. (Atop or even next to the furnace or boiler is a bad choice.) You should also devise a way to store them flat and remember that doesn't necessarily mean horizontal. There are a number of storage systems that keep drawings and maps without rolling them, including wall racks that will hold all your plans for less than $200! Given our discussion about the value of the drawings, that's an amazing value. You can Google any of these terms to get you shopping in the right places: vertical drawing files, drawing files, plan files, plan racks, plan storage, large format portfolio. If you have the space, consider purchasing a used drawing table that has a plan drawer. This way, you have a place to spread the drawing out when you want to use it. Government surplus auctions are a great source for those.

There is one more step that you should take to preserve the treasure forever. Relax. It doesn't involve miles and miles of clear Contact paper to laminate them. Technology has advanced to the place where you can have all of those drawings scanned and saved into digital format for a pittance. For example, I recently completed an extensive archive project for a huge homeowner's association. They were all scanned (not "digitized," this is a different and much more expensive process) into two formats: Adobe PDF for my client to use from computer desktops and TIF for use as a background in AutoCAD drawings. The total cost for 138 drawings? Only $385, including shipping. The equipment required to get this done is pretty specialized, so you may have to look around a bit to get it done. Some office stores have digital, large-format, reproduction equipment.

You're really limited by your own imagination on how you can make this collection work for you. You could develop an archive that contains important information of each drawing like the company who prepared it, their contact information, and the revision date (all from the title block again!). You could develop a naming convention for the digital files so that simply by reading the file name, you have a good idea of what's in each. But for heaven's sake(!), gather those valuable documents, safeguard them, and use what they can tell you. Will Rogers said, "Buy land because they're not making any more of it." To your organization, your drawings are even more rare and precious.

Originally published in the 2010 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.

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