Photo: Stephen Durias/Triad Associates
Erich Hiersche draws on nature and camaraderie to deal with the stress of precision measurements

It is morning and this grassy field within view of Mount Rainier, 20 miles south of Seattle, is the antithesis of a construction site. Baby quail bounce through the long grass looking for their mother; a bald eagle soars overhead and Mount Rainier is brilliant white. Three hundred houses are to be built here and on this day the site belongs to the construction nerds, the surveyors. One of them is Erich Hiersche of Triad Associates, Kirkland, Wash. Even though he doesn't wear a pocket protector, he has crammed his vest pockets with butterfly clips, pens, markers and rulers.

U.S. history is dotted with surveyors like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Lewis and Clark. As people, surveyors are cool and adventurous, with plenty of tattoos and piercings, but their work requires the exactitude of a granny hovering over her knitting. A mistake of a quarter of an inch can be a disaster, and traverse out to feet, depending on how long a distance is between points. For the survey party chief, Hiersche, it's almost impossible to imagine a mistake of that magnitude. "We say surveying is the process of redundant measuring," Hiersche says. Indeed, every point along the walking path the crew is measuring is measured twice to ensure accuracy. "We don't get cocky, cause the one time we don't double check will be the time we make a mistake," says Hiersche.

He sports no tattoos. "I'm a church boy, though I might get tattoos with a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other." But the glee he has for his job, and his professional pride earned him the respect of the crew. It would be hard to find a person prouder of his work. Walking around the plat, he points to stakes he planted, and measurements he's made.

"This is a perfect morning for surveying," says Hiersche. At about 65 degrees, the inside of the gun won't warm up and distort the bubble showing if the tripod is level. Heat waves won't make it too hard to see objects in the distance. And the dust from the dry field is slightly dampened with dew.

The weather is only one factor affecting Hiersche's work. The mathematical relationships between the points on the site, the working relationship with the general contractor and most importantly the rapport between the surveyor and the chainman all come into the mix.

Hiersche and his friend and chainman for the day, Jeff Savage, stay loose. "If you don't have a good attitude, you get weeded out pretty quickly," Hiersche says. They set up and balance the tripods. For the morning, the team is working with a robotic gun. Hiersche holds the rod and Savage is in charge of pounding hubs into the ground, which the site contractor treated with concrete dust to cut back on erosion. Even with all their weight— about 190 lbs—it's hard to get the tripods into the earth. Hiersche banters with himself, as the two set off to measure the centerline of a walking path that runs around the perimeter of the housing site.

"One hundredths to the right, two away," he says. He moves the rod to the new location and double checks the measurements.

"That's it," he tells Savage, who takes a hub out of his bag and hammers it into the hardened earth, with a swing that would do John Henry proud!. The two measure the distance again. Each time it is spot on.

"Usually I'm paranoid as hell" about making a mistake, says Hiersche. He backs up the measurements on a disk inside the computerized gun. He takes notes about what he's measuring and makes careful inscriptions on the stakes that get pounded into the ground after each hub is placed.

Today's work is not particularly stressful, but on more active sites, he can be measuring with heavy equipment right behind him, jiggling the tripod, or with superintendents rushing him out of the way. Arguments with contractors about the correct measurements are common. Sometimes he even runs into fraud. On a recent jobsite the team measures the location of the wetlands, and marked the stakes "wait for permitting." The contractor didn't wait and when the state of Washington Department of Ecology came out inspectors blamed Triad for not taking proper measurements.

"It turned out their foreman was going behind us and throwing the stakes away," says Hiersche. It resulted in a $20,000 fine for the contractor.

The two are full of stories. One of their colleagues found a dead body; Savage ran into a bear. "I love going deep into the woods to measure, but I'm always afraid I'll break my leg or something," Heirsche says. How to use a machete and chainsaw to cut a path in the woods is a frequent safety talk topic.

The teams find ways to alleviate the stress. At lunch time, the guys from across the field drive up and pour a bottle of water on Savage. He retaliates by painting their van hubcap with orange surveyor's paint. Back at the office the pranks can escalate. Savage once found a dead crab under is seat Monday morning. Hiersche is saving his potato salad to retaliate in similar style.

The afternoon's measuring is a little harder. As the day gets warmer, the equipment has to be reset. As temperatures rise, the liquid in the gun expands, moving the bubble in the level. For some reason the rod isn't transmitting the data to the main robot, so Hiersche and Savage break up. Savage collects the data, and Hiersche holds the rod and hammers in the hubs.

Now they are talking to each other across the field with borrowed radios.

"Ok, shooooot it," Hiersche says. "I'm standing by," he tells Savage. Accents change throughout the afternoon. Part of the ribbing is for fun, part is to test stress levels. "My teacher constantly interrupted me to help me learn to concentrate," says Hiersche.

At the end of the day, equipment is carefully stored, a critical task since it costs thousands of dollars.

Still the relationship between crew members is the most important part of the job.

This is a fraternity that flourishes in the outdoors, but they don't always want to be doing such precise work while they experience Northwest nature together. Over the weekend, Erich, Jeff and a bunch of their friends are going camping.