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Improve Your CAD Standards Management for Civil Engineering and Surveying

3 Nov, 2020 By: James Coppinger

Optimizing civil standards may not be a simple process, but as these examples show, addressing some key features can have a big payoff in terms of time — and money — saved.

In the civil engineering industry, setting up standards, defaults, and templates — and getting them all to work the way you want, with the output you need — is no small challenge. Software solutions such as AutoCAD Civil 3D are very powerful and provide civil and survey designers with vital tools to handle 3D modeling and design of site-specific items, but controlling the way those display, interact, and print is a challenge like no other.

Whether you’re using Autodesk’s solution or one from Bentley Systems, Carlson, or Civil Survey Solutions, these civil design systems all have one thing in common: They require specialized knowledge to effectively set up any type of practical standards for drafting and design. The key difference is that these systems don’t just work with lines, shapes, and layers like a traditional 2D CAD system does. They work with 3D objects that are complex design items with multiple sub-items that need to be controlled and standardized as well. In other words, they have display and label styles that don’t exist in other software. Not only that, but your standards need to work with design criteria for items such as pipes and corridors and address all the possible display views: plan, model, profile, and section for every single type of item possible. (That’s a lot of items!)

In this article, I’ll provide a few tips on the key components and features of setting up your CAD standards in a civil or survey environment. I’ll be using AutoCAD Civil 3D as an example system, but the principles apply to whatever software you’re using. I do a lot of consulting work in my day job at ZenTek Consultants, helping companies set up, refine, and optimize their civil standards, and while it’s not a simple process, it’s not outside the scope of any skilled CAD Manager. You just need a bit of guidance on the key features you need to address, so let’s get to it!


Working with templates is vital to professionals working in the civil engineering industry. It’s necessary to set up DWT files with your firm’s standards for various types of work, sheet sizes, locations, or drawing scales so your end users can simply choose the correct template to begin their project. The key point here is geo-referencing. Do you want to set up templates where you already have categories, map zones, and scales set, as in the example below, or do you want to have your users choose these on each project? If you do work across multiple states/countries/regions, then you’re probably going to want to let users select these. That way you can keep a small selection of templates, possibly based on border size and scale, that will apply to any work location. If your firm does the bulk of its work in one or two states, for example, then building a template for each of those areas lets you be sure the geolocations for all your items will be correctly set as a default and not depend on user input.

Setting map zones and scales.

Layers vs. Styles

One area where there’s a very big difference in setting up standards is in the concept of display styles vs. layer controls. This is often one of the biggest points of struggle when companies are first setting up their templates. Traditionally, we all work with layers to control items like line color, type, weight, and on/off display options, but that’s not very important in systems like AutoCAD Civil 3D. Instead, your focus should be on display styles associated to specific objects, like surfaces and corridors. These display styles allow you to set the same properties as layers do, but they can have different settings as the object is moved through different views (for example, plan vs. profile or section). You can also create multiple named display styles, which users can choose to quickly change the look of hundreds of objects at once. This makes it very simple to switch items from existing, to demolition, to proposed states and have all the line colors, line types, etc. change with a single click of the mouse. Additionally, you can create null or “No Display” styles, so the display of entire sets of objects can be turned off, without having to choose dozens of layer controls to achieve the same effect.

Display styles.

Descriptor Keys

For those who primarily work in the survey industry, it’s all about points and importing field data. One of the best tools you have in civil systems is the concept of descriptor keys. These are a list of preset codes, that you build to coincide with the description codes your survey crews use when collecting data in the field. When you import points into a file with an established descriptor key set, the point codes are matched to the key, and drafting of all symbols on your plan are handled for you. In other words, when a “tree” (TR) code is detected, the descriptor key recognizes the “tree” (TR) code and places a tree symbol on your plan, at the correct size, on the correct layer, and even with the text description that you want. Use the descriptor key manager to automatically populate your drawing with inlets, light poles, clean outs, etc. Just about any symbol you’d place on a plan can be automated, saving you hours of drafting time on every project.

Descriptor keys.

Label Styles

In systems such as AutoCAD Civil 3D, label styles can dramatically reduce drafting time. Labels are a combination of standardized text, formulas, and data extractions from civil objects. For example, instead of spending time calculating catch basin rim elevations, then using mtext to label them at the correct scale, on the right layer, and with the right font, and having to repeat the process each time the design changes, you can let the system handle all that. Label styles let you add dynamic labels that automatically update as the design, the scale of the drawing, or even the location of the civil object changes. You can even build labels with formulas so you can perform tasks like label top/bottom of a curb at one time by automatically adding +0.5 to the BC. Not just that, but the elevations can be read from the civil object (a corridor or surface, for example), and as the object’s design changes, the elevations change to match without needing to be relabeled.

Custom label styles.

There are hundreds of more items in the civil CAD standards that can be addressed to make your life easier, help jobs run faster, and reduce costs. Whether you’re working with a consultant like ZenTek Consultants to get your civil and survey standards set up, or developing them from scratch, a bit of attention to detail and understanding of the basic options will go a long way toward ensuring your company gets fast, consistent, and cost-effective output on all your projects.


About the Author: James Coppinger

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