Engineering Using Google Earth

EarthIf you’ve ever used Google Earth, you know it’s amazing mapping tool from Google, the search engine company, that can help you find out all sorts of really neat geographic details about your property, neighborhood, city or region – and even the whole Earth. It’s such a useful tool that Google Earth is used in everything from the classroom to the board room.

At Helfrich-Associates we use Google Earth as a part of many of our projects. It’s a very useful tool that helps us plan our investigations and determine relevant conditions on a job site.

Let’s take a general look at how we use Google Earth for some of our work and how we used it for one real-world project.

Figuring out the Basics

One of the first things we do before we start a project at Helfrich-Associates is to evaluate the type of property we’ll be working on. Google Earth saves us a physical trip to the property by letting us see what kind of property the project is on – right from our desktop. We can see if the property has a roof and what kind of roof it is. We can see the size of any buildings on the property. Are there hills nearby that need to be accounted for? Google Earth can help us see where the hillsides are near the property. Are there nearby neighborhood properties we need to account for? We can see and plan for that, too. If there was a fire on the property, we can see what the buildings or other features of the property looked like before the fire destroyed them.

Using Google Street View for a Better Look

Now that we have a basic idea of the size and scope of a property from an aerial perspective, we need to try to get even more details about the property and its structures. As I mentioned above, we can use Google Earth to look at the “before” of a damaged property. In addition to Google Earth, we can use an affiliated tool from Google to help us with this – Google Street View. This tool lets us see the exterior of a property’s structures from the “street view” which can often be more helpful than seeing an aerial view which may not include a large amount of cosmetic or other detail. Google Street View can help us when we reach the phase of a project that involves preparing drawings of structures based on what we see from these additional perspectives.

Learning from the Past

Now that we have a good, basic concept of a property and what it looks like right now and what it looked like prior to damage, we can use Google Earth Professional to go “back in time” to see a property as far back as 20 years or further. Google Earth Pro will allow us to view and use a variety of content, including map and terrain data, imagery, business listings, traffic, reviews, and other related information provided by Google, its licensors, and its users.

This becomes useful if we determine that issues with the property may have been a contributing factor in the damage we are inspecting and repairing. For instance, if the property has illegal grading, did that contribute to any flooding of structures next to the property or to a neighbor’s property or structures? Did a retaining wall collapse and cause damage? We can compare historical data against permit data for the property to see if the wall was built to code and with proper permits. We can also see if there are structures on the property that have appeared with no record of proper permitting and so forth.

Going “Back to the Future” and Moving Forward

Once we have good data on the property, its structures and any surrounding areas, we can begin to plot out how we will correct any problems that were uncovered during our inspections. One of the things we’ll start with is a site plan, and we can prepare that site plan using Google Earth to determine approximate property lines and the basics of what the site plan should look like – including where the structures are located on the property. We can also use Google Earth data to develop rough topography maps. It’s very helpful to be able to estimate slope details and drainage patters without having to visit the site or survey.

An Example of Real-World Use

Several years ago we investigated a roof collapse. This project was unique because from the type of damage, the owner should have known the roof was sagging and corrected the issue. Using Google Earth Pro we were able to go back in time and look at the roof over the years. We immediately were able to identify water stains on the structure’s flat roof. In some aerial photos we could see ponding on the roof – all because of improper or absent drainage systems on the structure.

Have you ever used Google Earth or Google Street View to review your property? How has it affected your home or business? Let us know in the comments below.

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