Site Survey in Architecture (All factors covered!)

Architects conduct site surveys to learn about a site before designing for it. This involves collecting and mapping a comprehensive inventory of site features that can affect the design. This compilation is then analyzed to create a set of rules that guide the design process.

Different types of site surveys are done based on end usage. Building designers conduct observational surveys of the site and its context. Sometimes, professionals are called in to study features like geology, topography and hydrology. A base map is created with all compiled data in layers before design starts.

Observation > Analysis > Inference > Synthesis

Site survey is the first step of the design process which is essentially an observational report. Let’s see how this exercise is beneficial for an Architect and consecutively, a Home Owner.

Image 1 Inventory of site conditions for a residential site (Source: Gail Hansen, Landscape Design: Analyzing Site Conditions)

Site Survey: Physical Factors

A site is part and parcel of its surrounding landscape. As we know, ownership boundaries are only a human construct. The land is a seamless ecosystem of interconnected processes on the surface, below and even above it. An in-depth understanding of these processes goes a long way in creating functional, safe and comfortable environments.

Depending on the size and complexity of the landform, an Architect will perform an initial visual reconnaissance of the site. This is done with the aid of cameras, sketch pads and simple measuring tools. The usage of drone cameras have also become commonplace recently.

Image 2 Site inventory and analysis diagram showing physical characteristics of the site (Source: Rice Design)

They study the land and create a primary base map of on-site and off-site features like:

  • Boundaries
  • Access roads, internal circulation and their dimensions
  • Topographic features like slope, drainage and land form.
  • Natural vegetation, their location and identification
  • Flowing and stagnant water bodies, wells (size, shape and depth).
  • Sun path and wind direction, their quality, quantity and duration.
  • Temperature, precipitation, climate (usually procured from meteorological records)
  • Sensory factors like views (within, into and off the site), smell and sound
  • Soil type, content and health
  • Existing buildings, structures, hazards on site.
Image 3 Viewshed survey for a development site in Fenton, Missouri (Source: The HOK Group)

As stated above, based on the scale of the project, some of these studies are outsourced to technical professionals. An example of this is the contour survey which comes under the topographic study. A contour survey produces a map that accurately depicts the lay of the land. This is compared with factors from the list above to prepare zoning, circulation and building siting & orientation.

Image 4 Contour and physical features survey of a Rural residential plot (Source: Author)

Site Survey: Biological Factors

This is a more detailed survey of certain factors seen in the previous section. When designing for sites larger than half an acre or in complex settings, any intervention can affect the ecosystem of the site. Architects strive for projects that are sustainable and eco-friendly. It is imperative that houses and buildings they design must respond to the biological aspects of the site and its context.

To help them achieve this, a detailed study of the following features is layered on to the base map:

  • Vegetation: trees, shrubs, ground covers; their characteristics, native, exotic, invasive, endemic species.
  • Wetlands, marshes, lakes, ponds, moving water (rivers, streams), aquifers, springs.
  • Insects, worms, pollinators
  • Wildlife, birds: native, invasive, endemic, migratory

All these together form an ecosystem which lives in harmony. Interference like built form and human activity can tip this delicate balance. A detailed survey can help architects cut down damage to these systems or help restore them after construction.

Image 5 Migratory bird protection zones in an area of Kuwait (Source: The HOK Planning)

Site Survey: Cultural Factors

Cultural factors in this article refer to socio-economic, legal, aesthetic and historic attributes. A site plan and/or building design must conform to a number of (sometimes unwritten) rules and guidelines. They make the design relevant and functional in the societal context of the site.

Past and Present Land Use Survey

Collection of this information can both be done on site as well as from public records. This is important in scenarios like building of houses on land that was previously used for chemical waste dumping. This is clearly a hazard that can affect the lives of potential residents.

Land Use Regulation Survey

Land use regulations are the first constraints applied in the site planning and building design exercise. Regulatory bodies that control habitat development are:

  1. Federal and State governments
  2. Local government (zoning codes)

They specify rules controlling setbacks, heights, coverage, usage, easements, right of way and the like. Coastal regulation, natural resources, forest and wildlife protection also come under the purview of these institutions. These rules are in place to ensure development of safe, sustainable and future ready built environments.

Image 6 Zoning map for the area surrounding a site planned for a new golf course community near Seattle, Washington (Source: R. W. Thorpe and Associates)

Neighborhood Survey

This is an observational and questionnaire based survey done to map contextual factors that can affect the design. This can include factors such as access to infrastructure like power, water and transportation. This survey also aims to map attributes like neighborhood density, recreational hotspots, availability of goods & services etc.

Neighborhood surveys may also factor in surrounding ethnic, religious and economic diversity. Crime stats and linked information is also an important layer of a base map. A designer can then take informed decisions on how to make the design more inclusive or restrictive.

Historic Factors Survey

This includes mapping historically significant events, land use, festivals, vernacular practices and aesthetics. A successful design, be it a house, a park or a school can integrate contextual heritage into its being. Regulatory bodies and home owner associations stipulate an almost rigid set of aesthetic guidelines to maintain an area’s historic significance. The same goes for the design of landscape as well.

Image 7 Historic timeline showing major historic and cultural events occurring within the region of a greenway planning project near St. Louis, Missouri (Source: The HOK Planning Group)


This article is only a brief overview of the site inventory gathering exercise known as Site Surveying. In a real world scenario, there may be a multitude of information that can be gathered from a site. There is vast amount material that can be procured from archives, public records and tools like GIS too. One set of data may be useful for zoning a particular activity while another set of data may be determinants for other decisions. The goals of the inventory process must be defined to focus in the right direction. This will prevent wastage of time, effort and money.

So now that we have compiled a base map of relevant data, what comes next?

Analysis of the information is the next step in the design process.


Brown, G. Z. (1985). Sun, Wind, and Light, architectural design strategies. John Wiley & Sons.

Gail Hansen, E. A. (2010). Landscape Design: Analyzing Site Conditions. Gainesville FL: Environmental Horticulture Department, UF/IFAS Extension.

Jr., J. A. (2001). Site Analysis: A Contextual Approach to Sustainable Land Planning and Site Design. John wiley & Sons Inc.