Photo program makes measuring a snap

Like many rural builders, Paul W. Birkeland goes where the action is, and the action these days is in renewable energy and energy-efficient projects.

One of Birkeland’s successful endeavors is energy auditing and home energy rating. The work is profitable but its initial phase, which requires measuring building components, is boring, time-consuming and even dangerous.

“I spent a lot of time up on ladders and tromping through muddy flower beds to measure doors, windows, vents and the like,” said Birkeland, who works out of an office in Seattle. “Needless to say, here in the Pacific Northwest, that generally means doing it all in the rain, as well.”

Consequently, Birkeland, of  Integrated Renewable Energy, sings the praises of a new computer program called uPhotoMeasure by DigiContractor Corp. of Tarzana, Calif.

Back in his warm, dry office, Birkeland makes a digital photograph of whatever he wants to measure and the software dimensions it for him. Better still, he can hand off the job to a junior technician whom he could not have afforded to bring with him to the job site.

The secret to accurate measurements is to attach an object of known dimensions ? called the digitarget ? to a prominent place on a wall or whatever is being measured. The insertion of a target can be eliminated if the dimension of some object in the picture, such as a window, is known. The software then can calculate the unknown dimensions from the known dimension.

Four steps and done
The calculation is a four-step process:

• Attach the digitarget if necessary. The vendor recommends a rigid board 1  foot square. Birkeland uses a three-foot square target for greater accuracy. The closer the camera can get to the target and the objects being dimensioned, the more precise will be the measurements.

• Make a picture of whatever is to be dimensioned.

• Run the program and import the photograph.

• Print out the dimensions on the photograph.

The program is so easy to use that DigiContractor includes do-it-yourselfers in its marketing plan. About a quarter of its customers are homeowners, according to Paul Minor, chief executive officer of DigiContractor. A third are contractors and the rest are other professionals, such as architects, real estate agents and appraisers.

Minor said the program was especially useful for hard-to-measure areas like roofs. The target must go on the plane of the object being dimensioned. Pitch corrections are built into the software. For flat roofs, the program dimensions off satellite pictures from GoogleEarth, typically using as a target the air-conditioning unit.

Since most reconstruction projects begin with measuring dimensions, remodelers are among the program’s most enthusiastic customers.

The software is priced at $250 and can be downloaded directly from to a desktop computer. For a disc, add $15.

Birkeland used the Web-based option, in which the program resides on the uPhotoMeasure Web site and the user pays a usage fee of $20 a month or $100 a year.

Minor cautioned that the program is intended for use on conventional building types. Do not expect it to calculate the surface area of church steeples, for example.

Birkeland was concerned about whether code officials would accept the accuracy of the program.

“After asking a few questions,” he said, “my state compliance officer, who must approve all my ratings, accepted all the uPhotoMeasure dimensions that I included with my report. I am hoping that he will keep it a secret and I will be able to retain my competitive edge, but I suspect word will get around shortly.”

More information is available from the DigiContractor Web site,

One final word on this: Note that uPhotoMeasure is a new product and might seem a bit rough on the edges. But the concept is hot. At least one other vendor is working on a similar product.

Adobe Acrobat: This program knows a trick or two

Everyone who uses a computer for a significant part of the day has a set of favorite programs — applications that are used so often that doing without them is unthinkable. One program that should be on the list of everyone in business is Adobe’s Acrobat. It comes in multiple flavors, but you need the version called Pro Extended, Version 9.

The free version, Reader, is universal. In fact, it is the one program you can assume that everyone has. Thus when you send someone a file that you have converted to the Acrobat format – portable document file, or PDF – you can be sure it can be viewed as you created it. This is vital for anyone who deals in complex combinations of documents such as CAD, forms, RFPs, bids and presentations. You’ve probably noticed the Internal Revenue Service long ago converted all its online forms, instructions and publications to PDF.

Acrobat is a cross between a Swiss army knife and a universal can opener. It is so deep, with so many functions, that a list could get tedious  — until you need one of them.

How about a self-running presentation with embedded video and a summary quiz? Gotcha covered.

Collaboration tools? No sweat.

Need to compare long, similar documents to spot differences? That’s tedious work by hand, but a snap with Acrobat.

Maybe you have an old spec sheet on paper that you’d like to convert to digital form so it can be edited without having to rekeyboard it. Acrobat has the tools to drive a scanner and a built-in optical character reader to produce a text file.

Vision impaired? Acrobat will read PDF files to you in a voice that sounds amazingly life-like. It gets the cadences just right.

What else do you need? Acrobat to the rescue. Additions to Version 9 include the ability to:

• Assemble a variety of documents into a multimedia portfolio.

• Incorporate live video, animations or real-time services. Previous versions permitted only

• Real-time collaboration. Two people can communicate graphically over the Internet through a free service called, so that a mouse movement on one computer appears simultaneously on the other computer.

The price is steep at $700, but a free trial and more details are available at Adobe’s Web site: Upgrades cost $229.

Oliver Witte, a regular contributor to Rural Builder magazine, teaches journalism at Southern Illinois University. Contact him at

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