Software Review: Moving from Land Desktop to AutoCAD Civil 3D

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series June 2013

Now that Land Desktop has retired, many land surveyors and engineers are wondering where to go next with their design software. This is the second of a two-part series explaining how and why two AutoCAD Land Desktop experts made the decision to move in different directions. The case for Civil 3D is made here; the case for Carlson Software is in our May issue.
In this article, you’ll learn which types of professionals are helped the most by AutoCAD Civil 3D (Figure 1). As with any software purchase, aligning user needs with program functions is critical to achieving success. A better understanding of how AutoCAD Civil 3D can benefit you and your firm is important, whether you’re currently using or moving to Civil 3D from AutoCAD Land Desktop (LDT).

My journey to adopt AutoCAD Civil 3D began from wanting to carry out an integrated surveying and design solution for increased accuracy, productivity, and profit. At that time my land surveying firm was growing, and I knew we needed improved efficiencies to keep up with demand. While Civil 3D was new to the market, after considering our needs, the features of Civil 3D, and its integration with our AEC clients, I chose Civil 3D as our CAD and surveying solution. The transition at first was bumpy, but in the process I discovered the power of Civil 3D over earlier AutoCAD solutions.

Unlike LDT, AutoCAD Civil 3D is a standards-based surveying and civil engineering design software. Autodesk describes Civil 3D as “the Building Information Modeling [BIM] solution for civil engineering design and documentation.” Standards, BIM, civil design, and documentation are certainly helpful features to have, but which features are useful to you? That depends on the type of work that you do.

Between my work as a practicing land surveyor and Civil 3D consultant to other companies, I find that there are three general categories of companies using Civil 3D: firms in land surveying only, land surveying firms working for consulting engineers, and engineering firms with surveyors. Regardless of size or services provided, companies want practical tools for survey tasks and data management, integrated civil design, and efficient and accurate plan production.

If you’ve used LDT for any amount of time, you’re likely accustomed to and adept at using LDT to complete your survey work and civil designs. You probably figured out how to leverage built-in LDT function with a few handy hacks and tricks, which you may initially miss when moving to Civil 3D. But overall, I think you’ll like some of the new features and workflows once you’ve taken the plunge with Civil 3D. Let’s see where it fits your needs.

For Firms in Land Surveying Only

If your work mostly involves surveying-related tasks, with little or no design or engineering work, Civil 3D provides surveying tools and functions to get the job done. The only downside is that setting up Civil 3D styles, standards, and settings is no small feat. Luckily, however, you need set it up only once, and then you’re ready to roll.

The key thing to know when setting up Civil 3D is to fully understand your surveying and drafting workflows and standards. These workflows and standards should be well organized and efficient, too! If not, before you decide to do anything in Civil 3D, first plan surveying and drafting best practices. Too often, Civil 3D gets blamed for existing lack of proper planning, poor business and technical strategies, multiple user-centric company standards, and missing best practices. 

Civil 3D Basics

Unlike in LDT, you can work directly in Civil 3D, using more of your survey data. The data (and processing of the data) is handled separately from its display. Not only does this work well from a workflow perspective, because data and computations have nothing to do with how you choose to display the data, but this method also lends itself to dynamic updates in your surveys and designs. 

Whether you are working with survey data, such as points, surfaces, parcels, alignments, or profiles, you’ll like how Civil 3D dynamically updates your project drawings as you update your survey data. While LDT has many similar functions as Civil 3D, it does not offer this form of robust dynamic updating.

There also are many timesaving survey drafting features in Civil 3D, such as being able to enter survey geometry to draw lines and curves (e.g. using transparent commands) that are not available in LDT. There’s also a point inverse inquiry tool and other inquiry tools for surfaces, alignments, profiles and profile views, section and section view, and corridor sections.

Survey and Points

AutoCAD Civil 3D, like LDT, comes with full survey functionality using survey databases. You can even input and adjust your survey data in a project survey database to use across multiple drawings or projects. Unlike LDT, however, Civil 3D does not reconcile survey points used in drawings. 

For instance, in LDT, if you create a point in a drawing, say point number 1, that point is reserved in the project so that you know not to create a new, differently located point number 1 (duplicate point). Civil 3D, unfortunately, will let you create as many points with the same point number as you would like in separate drawings and in the survey database. 

Because I doubt that many, if any, land surveyors want two or more differently located points having the same point number, it’s up to you to manage your project points (Figure 2). You will need to have a system in place to manage point fidelity between your survey databases and project drawings. This is not as hard as it sounds, but I want to make you aware of this potential limitation

Description Key Sets

If you used description keys in LDT, which I’m sure you have, you will find this feature is also used in Civil 3D. However, the description key file in Civil 3D resides in each individual drawing (Figure 3), unlike in LDT where there is one master description key file used across many drawings. What you will find different in Civil 3D are point styles, point label styles, and point groups, which build on and enhance point display far beyond what you can do with only description keys.


I think that surfaces are the one Civil 3D feature that best shows the benefit of using Civil 3D over LDT, particularly when it comes to dynamic updates. Surfaces in Civil 3D are largely the same as in LDT, except for Civil 3D’s superior use of surface styles for surface display, its ability for dynamic updates when editing surfaces, and its integration with other design features.

Once you’ve set up your surface styles (Civil 3D comes pre-loaded with several) and understand how to add your survey data to a surface, you’ll find editing that surface easier than ever. Because the surface dynamically updates as you edit the data—or surface directly—you immediately see the results (Figure 4). 


There are fantastic parcel features that you can use whether you are working on a small boundary survey or a large subdivision. Parcels are created and fully labeled for dimensions and areas in just a few simple steps (Figure 5). Of course, if you need to revise a parcel, then these labels and dimensions automatically update, too.

It’s easy to see how Civil 3D parcel functionality is useful for subdivision design and layout, which it is, but it is also useful and helpful for quality control and accuracy when used for even the simple surveys, like for one lot. Have you ever seen a survey plan that is missing a dimension, or two, on a property line? Civil 3D makes it easy to label every line at one time so that no label is missing.


Road alignments are useful tools that work with several other Civil 3D design features. However, you can use alignments for something as simple as defining a right of way, like a highway, to automate your survey plan drafting and labeling.

Because alignments also update dynamically, you can enter the record highway centerline geometry before your survey is even started and then later move and rotate the alignment to match your survey results (Figure 6). 

Share the Model

Another helpful feature of Civil 3D is that you need to model your data only once. Then, you can share it across several drawings and projects or with other project consultants such as engineers.

Using either data shortcuts (Figure 7), Land-XML, or Vault, you can, for example, model a surface once in a master drawing and then share that model. The shared model can then be used for design or for plan production display purposes. This not only reduces unnecessary duplication of effort, but when the original model needs updating, the updated model dynamically updates in other drawings, along with any referenced designs or plans as well. 

Land Surveying Firms Working for Consulting Engineers

Land surveying firms working for consulting engineers as clients will benefit from and use all the features described above. In addition, they might extend their capabilities and services beyond the basic “survey”-oriented AutoCAD Civil 3D features into some of the more “design” oriented features. These design features are discussed in the next section, Engineering Firms with Surveyors.

Here, I want to discuss how your land surveying company can leverage Civil 3D when working for and delivering to consulting engineers who then use your survey work in their designs. There are two concerns for these land surveyors: one is ease of use and the other is data fidelity.

Ease of use, in my mind, should not only make work easier for everyone, but should also improve overall efficiency. Professional and responsible sharing of data, however, must stop (or limit at the very least) data corruption and misuse—inadvertent or malicious.

Ease of Use for Improved Efficiency

As mentioned above, you can easily share AutoCAD Civil 3D data. This makes working with Civil 3D easy and efficient because of reduced duplication of effort. Data sharing is not, however, a one-way street. If your land surveying company can share your work with consulting engineers, then it surely is possible for that company to share their design data back to you so that you can more easily finish other project work, such as construction layout services.

In my experience, nearly every engineering firm I’ve worked with uses one of the AutoCAD families of software. More and more, they either already have or are planning to switch to Civil 3D. Imagine the opportunities for your land surveying company because you can deliver drawings, data, and models that the engineers you’re working with can seamlessly and easily integrate into their workflows!

Managing Data Fidelity

Do keep in mind that delivering digital data is problematic if the recipient can change the data. This was the case with LDT, where data fidelity of shared drawings was a common complaint of land surveyors when it came to points. In addition, many surveyors complained (including me) about having to share too much data.

With AutoCAD Civil 3D, you have much more control over the data you deliver. First, survey database points in drawings cannot be directly altered or edited by others. This means that when you send a file to an outside source, it is not easy for them to inadvertently move or edit a point.

You should have the same data fidelity concerns when sharing other Civil 3D data, like surfaces, parcels, and alignments. With Civil 3D it’s possible to share the objects without necessarily sharing the underlying data used to create those objects.

Engineering Firms with Surveyors

If your company is an engineering firm with in-house land surveyors, again, all the above applies, but you might use AutoCAD Civil 3D functionality for advanced parcel use (major subdivision layout and design), sites, catchments, pipe networks, pressure networks and road designs using corridors, and assemblies and intersections. And, these Civil 3D objects are dynamically integrated.

The key to your success is having well-thought-out systems and procedures, along with highly trained users. This is true for any company, at any level of Civil 3D use, but even more so with complex design projects using advanced Civil 3D functions and features.

Because your projects are likely larger in scope, design complexity, and number of drawings, you’ll need greater coordination between your land surveyors and designers. Luckily, with good standards and templates you can do that with Civil 3D.

This article is only a brief overview of why AutoCAD Civil 3D could be the right solution for your land surveying business. When I switched over to Civil 3D I used the transition as an opportunity to re-examine my entire operation. We charted out every step of every process, including non-surveying related workflows, and reduced or eliminated redundancies, inefficient ways, and unnecessary steps. Then, as much as possible, we set up Civil 3D to work with our new systems and procedures and not the other way around.

Regardless of which surveying and CAD software you choose, whether it is AutoCAD Civil 3D, Carlson, or something else, you too should evaluate and improve your systems and procedures for maximum efficiency and accuracy. Then, select the best software program you can afford that lets you meet those efficiencies and accuracies. From my experience, AutoCAD Civil 3D is that right choice for many land surveyors.


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