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Earthwork Takeoff: Some Blasts From The Past

Earthwork takeoff has always been a part of construction projects, but sometimes it’s fun to think about how early or even ancient engineers managed to handle these tasks without the highly precise software we use today. There’s a reason why the Pyramids of Giza are one of the wonders of the world, while the pyramid-shaped Luxor hotel in Las Vegas is simply an impressive hotel. For those of us in the construction industry, it’s pretty awe-inspiring to think about how many of the structures of the past were created without the use of modern technology.

In case you aren’t an engineer, surveyor or a member of the construction industry and have simply stumbled on this blog post, perhaps mistakenly believing that Earthwork Takeoff was a new alternative band, here’s a quick definition. Earthwork takeoff basically includes estimating the amount of excavation, grading, filling and compaction that will be needed at a construction site.

After all, an empty piece of property isn’t automatically ready for construction. We have to study the dirt, so to speak, in order to ensure that the property is level and compact and ideal for building. Otherwise, you end up with the leaning tower of Pisa or perhaps an even worse disaster. These days, professionals use software and precise equipment to ensure that a construction site is ready for a new project, but in the past, builders, architects and engineers didn’t have high-tech earthwork takeoff software, so what did they do?

Let’s take the Pyramids as an example. These giant structures are nearly as tall as the Washington monument and include millions of blocks of stone. Ancient engineers, lacking earthwork takeoff software, would have to use very basic tools to ensure that the ground was level. Initially, these engineers would have searched for a spot that was already fairly level, above the flood plain and a spot where there was ample bedrock.

Of course, while the site might have been fairly level, it would still need to be graded to ensure that it was as level as possible. Lacking modern tools, an instrument such as a plumb level or plumb line probably would have been used to ensure that the surface of the ground was level. The pyramid engineers also would have to possess a high level of knowledge of mathematics in order to make the calculations necessary for earthwork takeoff as well as the rest of the construction process.

Sighting instruments, such as a groma might have been used as well. One of the earliest surveying instruments, this device was simply a vertical staff with two horizontal cross pieces mounted at the top of the vertical staff. Plumb lines would be hung from each end of the horizontal pieces, and this would help ancient engineers determine if the ground was level. Today, an engineer might use a more advanced instrument such as theodolite or a robotic total station to help with these calculations.

As time went on, mathematicians, surveyors and engineers began developing more precise tools, such as the aforementioned theodolite, to help them make precise earthwork takeoff calculations. Still, earthwork takeoff software has only been around for a few decades, so how did engineers, such as those who built the first skyscraper, create a massive building without any of our modern technology?

The Home Insurance Building in Chicago was the world’s first official skyscraper, although it never rose beyond 12 stories in height. Still, this was the first time that an architect designed a building that featured an external and internal metal frame. Metal, or rather steel, could handle the weight load of a taller building. Additionally, with the invention of the elevator, creating taller buildings became a much more practical idea.

Still, without computers and CAD files, the engineers of these early skyscrapers had to rely on their own knowledge and some basic surveying tools to complete earthwork takeoff tasks. At this point in history, tools such as the theodolite and spirit levels were used to ensure that the ground was level.

While earthwork takeoff is a crucial component of every construction project, large or small, our task at EarthCalc is just part of the process. We provide quality dirt estimates and machine control services for all types of construction projects, large and small. Using technology such as AGTEK and Trimble, we can quickly complete projects for civil engineers and grading contractors around the country or internationally. If you need dirt estimates or machine control files, give us a call today or submit your project electronically. To get started, simply click on the Send Us Work tab at the top of our homepage.