Must Have Tools for Existing Conditions Surveys

by Chelsea Weibust

Updated 04/30/2019


After you do your first few existing conditions surveys, you'll start to get an idea of what types of tools you need. It's helpful to develop a routine and a method for documentation on site visits so you can make the best of your time on site, have coherent notes, and be able to get all the information you need for the project. Here are the most important tools I have found to help me on site visits and existing conditions surveys. [Full disclosure: some of the links below are affiliate links.]



A bright, wide angled, compact, tactical flashlight is an important tool for peeking into attics, basements, and other dark spaces. I was once on a site visit in a building without power in the middle of winter. We were down in the basement with no lights whatsoever and my iPhone flashlight did practically nothing to illuminate the space and eventually died since the temperature was so cold. The structural engineer with us whipped out his super cool compact flashlight and it was like someone turned on the sun. It was extremely bright (it made my iPhone flashlight look obsolete) and it was wide angled so we could see a good amount of what was around us without having to move the flashlight around too much. It may be useful having a headlamp or clip your flashlight onto the bill of a hat so you can make better use of your hands during your survey. You may even want to try this crank flashlight which has a slew of other functions as well if you're worried about running out of battery life.


Whether you use a smartphone, DLSRpoint and shoot, or all three, pictures and videos will be one of your greatest assets on an existing conditions survey. Always take more photos than you think you'll need; you'll never be mad for taking too many photos and you can always delete ones you don't need later. Panoramas and video are super important to helping you understand a room in 3 dimensions and will help you locate photos when you're back at the office. Videos can be crucial if you're with an owner or consultant who is speaking about specific aspects of the project so you can refer to the video later if you have questions. Just be sure to ask permission first before you start filming. Two things to make sure of is that you have plenty of spare batteries or a portable charger and to have enough memory, so you may want to carry an extra memory card with you.


All of the pens I use now are exclusively from Japan. From the Pilot Razor Point II to the Pentel Sign Pen to the Pentel Twist-to-Erase Pencil I find that Japan is doing it right! While on site visits I find the best pen for me is the Uni Jetstream Multi Function Pen because it's four pens and a pencil all in one! When I mark up drawings for existing conditions surveys I like to color code my notes; the best way I've found to do this is to use the Jetstream pen because I'm able to switch between multiple colors in seconds and don't have to carry around a bunch of different pens.


Whether you're documenting existing conditions solo or with a team, it's extremely helpful to have a variety of measuring tools for different conditions. For measuring smaller things like doorways, trim, material exposure, or other things that would be tough with a laser measuring tool, it's great to have a measuring tape. Cheap measuring tapes will collapse after only a couple feet of extension, I recommend spending a little more to get a tape like this one that will remain sturdy for at least 6 feet and one that has a magnet at the end which makes it easier to solo measure.

Laser measuring tools are AMAZING and can make surveying a building move exponentially faster than working with a tape alone. There are two things you'll need to verify before using your laser measurer: 1. Make sure it's set to the units you're working with on the tape. If you're writing your dimensions in inches only then make sure your laser is set to the same and vice versa for feet and inches. 2. Make sure to verify the base point where the measurement is being taken from. Sometimes you'll want it to be at the bottom of the laser measuring tool, like when the bottom is pressed against the wall to get the dimensions of a room or on the floor to get ceiling heights but other times you might want it to be at the center or the top, so just be sure to set it to whatever you need and don't forget to change it back.

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Since you'll be taking notes and dimensions and will probably be working with larger documents, you'll need a large clipboard or sturdy surface to write on. Sometimes if you're on site for a few hours, carrying around a clipboard can be heavy so you may consider cutting a piece of foam core to the size you need and just use metal clips to fasten your drawings to the board. Using foam core is much lighter, cheaper, and convenient, You can cut it to any size you need and can even customize it with cut out or added handles if you're fancy like that.


For times when you'll be documenting existing conditions from scratch, it can be really useful to have gridded paper on hand to layout the building quickly. You don't necessarily have to scale your drawings on the graph paper, I just personally like to use grids to keep my drawings orthogonal and organized, but large plain paper could work just as well. When choosing a paper size, consider what size scanner you have; it's best if you can keep your scanned drawings and notes on a single page rather than have to scan them in multiple parts.


You only have two hands and will only have so many pockets to carry everything you'll need for a site visit or existing conditions survey. I've seen people carry around messenger bags and purses but they tend to get in the way and can be awkward or uncomfortable to carry for long periods of time. Personally, I prefer to use a small backpack like this one so I can swap out tools that I need or carry snacks, an extra sweatshirt, sunglasses, or whatever else I might need.

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