What Is A Site Analysis?

For every architecture project you undertake in your studies and practice, you are going to be asked to undertake a site analysis.

A site analysis is a research activity that looks at the existing conditions of a site as well as possible future conditions. It considers physical qualities and characteristics, patterns and activities, relationships, context, givens, assumptions, opportunities and constraints within the immediate site and broader context and surroundings.

It is undertaken by undertaking several steps including researching and gathering existing information and documents, visiting the site and observing existing conditions, analysing the data in terms of patterns, impacts and opportunities on the design and project, and presenting the data.

The outcome will include a series of documents, photographs, drawings, diagrams, sketches, texts and other interpretations of the conditions on the site.

The site analysis needs to consider the location, what is physically existing on and around the site now, what may exist in the future, how the site conditions and experience, changes over time, and identifiable patterns.

Why Undertake A Site Analysis?

Completion of a site analysis early in a project assists us with determining the feasibility and practicality of a project and lays the foundations for the design process.

A good site analysis will help determine if a project is feasible. Thorough research and analysis will identify any issues that may prohibit the project from proceeding or negatively impact the overall outcome. This could include such things as an easement that runs through the middle of a property that cannot be built over, a height restriction on the building or some kind of zoning that prevents a commercial shop from being built amongst residential houses. From a feasibility perspective, site analysis is very much about understanding the objective, physical conditions, opportunities and constraints.

Once the feasibility is determined the site analysis can assist greatly with developing the design. Understanding the site helps identify the opportunities, challenges and constraints that will impact, inhibit or enhance design decisions and the outcome. This could include such things as avoiding or blocking out the noise coming from a neighbour, taking advantage of a particular view from a point on a hill, designing around a beautiful tree the client wants to keep or ensuring a living area captures the only access to afternoon sun on the site and avoids shadows from a neighbouring high-rise. A site analysis is an essential part of the design process that helps a designer understand and respond to the external environment to create a well-considered outcome experience for the end-users of the project.

Types Of Data

It is important to research and complete as thorough a site analysis as possible. A poor site analysis can result in problems that are costly or difficult to resolve at later stages in the design pr construction process.

There are three types of data to collect and analyse during a site analysis that we will consider one at a time. The best analysis considers all three. These include:

  • Mega, Macro, Micro.
  • Objective or Hard Data.
  • Subjective or Soft Data.

We are going to go through everything you need to consider for a thorough site analysis. Note, however, that every project is different and there can always be something unique to your project. Also, at university, you may not be required to consider everything, especially legal or authorities, so check with your tutor or teacher as to how deep you need to research and consider different aspects.

Mega , Macro, Micro

The strategic approach a site analysis is to consider the objective and subjective data at three different scales:

  • Mega | The very large, or huge context of the site including the suburb and even the larger city conditions and relationships.
  • Macro | The large scale including the full site and immediate surround on all sides.
  • Micro | The very small within the site including the qualities and characteristics of individual objects and elements.

The site and project down not exist in isolation. It sits within an existing and changing context and has connections to and relationship with immediate surroundings, the wider site, suburb and city and the local community and people living within.

Objective Or Hard Data

Objective or hard data refers to the conditions that exist, regardless of human interaction with the site. These things are objective because they are what they are and they exist without us observing or experiencing them. Objective data includes:

01 | Location – The place or position that something is.

  • Geographic Location – Identify the site location, address, lot number or reference.
  • Site Survey – Obtain the site survey document and identify the significant information on this document.
  • Aerial photographs and maps – Obtain historical and current photographs and maps of the site, suburb and surrounds and identify the significant information on these documents.
  • Site Boundary – Identify the boundary locations and confirm it is clear and correct on the physical site.
  • Dimensions – Determine the size, dimensions, angles, shape and proportion or radii of the site.

02 | Legal – The legal status of the site including ownership, rights and access.

  • Site identification – Confirm the registered site address, lot number or legal reference.
  • Title and Ownership – Obtain the site title document, the legal owner or titleholder, and the status of mortgages or multiple mortgages on the site.
  • Caveats – Caveats or legal actions pending on the site that prevents access, development or construction.
  • Easements and rights of way – Identify any legal overlays that give another permission to use the site or prevent the owner from accessing or building on any part of the site.

03 | Authorities – The regulations, restrictions and allowances on the site as set out by federal, state and local authorities. (Check which level of government and which departments govern development in your areas).

  • Zoning – Obtain zoning plans or documents. Determine the zoning of the site under local authorities and the allowances and restrictions for development and building under this zoning.
  • Overlays (eg. heritage, environment, conservation, green belt etc.) – Obtain overlay plans or documents. Determine any heritage, environmental or other overlays of the site and the allowances and restrictions for development and building under these overlays.
  • Flood levels – Obtain flood records. Identify regular floods in the area (eg. 50-year/ 100-year floods) and any water levels that need to be built above.
  • Protected animal or plant species – Identify any protected plant or animal species or Tree Preservation Orders.
  • Other development controls – Obtain other development controls and local authorities documents and identify development restrictions or requirements. (A visit to your local, state or federal regulatory department/s will help answer this).
  • Development application requirements – The process of applying for development approval and the requirements of your local authorities in terms of site analysis, meetings, documentation, report, community consultation, timeframes, lodgement process etc.

04 | Utilities and infrastructure – The extent of above and below-ground infrastructure and utilities access adjacent, around, through and on the site. Identify the different suppliers and obtain their documents for the site and immediate surroundings.

  • Sewer –  Underground and above-ground pipes, access, substations and connection point location/s.
  • Water – Underground and above-ground pipes, access, substations and connection point location/s.
  • Gas – Underground and above-ground pipes, access, substations and connection point location/s.
  • Electricity – Underground and above-ground wires, cables, power poles, access, substations and connection point location/s.
  • Communications (telephone and internet) – Underground and above-ground telephone and internet wires, cables, power poles, access, substations and connection point location/s.
  • Fire – Underground and above-ground pipes, hydrants, access and connection point location/s.

05 | Adjacent structures and conditions – The physical conditions surrounding all boundaries of the site.

  • Land Uses – The different uses of adjacent sites, spaces and structures.
  • Adjacent natural conditions – Natural conditions on adjacent sides of the site. (See 07 for criteria).
  • Adjacent artificial conditions – Artificial or human-made conditions on adjacent sides of the site including private properties or public footpaths, entries or roadways. (See 08 for criteria).
  • Distance – The distances of the adjacent sites, spaces and structures from the site.
  • Heights – The different heights of adjacent sites, spaces and structures.
  • Vernacular – The different vernacular, styles or characteristics of adjacent sites, spaces and structures.

06 | Streetscapes, elevations and sections – A full representation of the existing vertical conditions.

  • Streetscape panoramas of the site – Panoramic photographs to show the extent of the site and adjacent conditions and communicate character, form and materials.
  • Street and site elevations – Elevation at the boundary and/ or centre of the street to show levels, boundaries, allowed building envelope (from authorities), vegetations, and existing structures as well as and adjacent conditions to include buildings and structure height and distances.
  • Site sections – Cut showing levels, boundaries, vegetations, and existing structures as well as and adjacent conditions to include buildings and structure height and distances.

07 | Natural physical conditions + features – The natural conditions, elements or features existing on the site?

  • Typography – Obtain any existing surveys and confirm the accuracy of contours, levels above sea level, gradients and slopes and existing terrain. Note that some of these may be natural or artificial.
  • Vegetation – Identify the vegetation and different species on the site including trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses and individual vegetation heights, canopy widths and root coverage. Identify the changes at different times of the year (eg. deciduous trees lose their leaves in Winter while coniferous trees keep their leaves all year) and how the vegetation affects the site microclimate (shade, temperature etc.) Obtain an Arborist Report as required.
  • Geology, soil type and state – Obtain any geotechnical or soil reports. Identify the soil and rock conditions on the site and how this may affect the type of structure or construction across different areas of the site.
  • Animal Species – Any animal, bird or insect species of significance and the requirements of and obligations to these species.
  • Natural Qualities and Characteristics – The natural materials, textures, colours and patterns of the natural environment in and around the site.
  • Natural features or highlights – Natural elements of specific interest, relevance or significance.
  • Items to retain, remove and improve – What needs to be retained, removed or improved (See also 10 for Hazards and risks.)

08 | Artificial physical conditions – The artificial or human-made conditions, elements or features existing on the site.

  • Buildings and structures – Existing buildings or structures on the site including the use, heights, distances, materials and conditions.
  • Roads and kerbs – Roads and/or kerbs on, entering, or adjacent to the site and the materials, levels, dimensions and conditions.
  • Footpaths – Footpaths on, entering, or adjacent to the site and the materials, levels, dimensions and conditions.
  • Ground surfaces and materials – Different ground materials on, entering, or adjacent to the site and the materials, steps, levels and changes, dimensions and conditions.
  • Street furniture – Street furniture on or adjacent to the site (ie. park benches, telephone poles, fire hydrants, rubbish bins etc.) and the sizes, materials and conditions.
  • Materials, textures, colours and patterns – The materials, textures, colours and patterns across the site and any themes or opportunities.
  • Artificial features or highlights – Human-made elements of specific interest, relevance or significance.
  • Items to retain, remove and improve – What needs to be retained, removed or improved (See also 10 for Hazards and risks.)

09 | Climate – Climate includes the weather. Climate should be considered across each of the 4 seasons, and at different times of the day.

  • Sun path, solar gain and shadows – A good sun study will show sun direction and resultant shadows for at least 3 different times of the day (eg. 9am, 12pm and 3pm) at different times of the year (eg. Summer solstice with the longest day and shortest night, Winter Solstice with the shortest day and longest night, and the Equinox with equal day and night).
  • Precipitation – The high, low, median and average rain, snow, and humidity for 4 seasons including rain, snow, hail and humidity.
  • Temperature – The seasonal changes in temperature including the high, low, median and average temperature for each of the 4 seasons.
  • Wind – The wind direction and intensity for each of the 4 seasons, areas of exposure that require shelter and elements that provide existing shelter from the wind. Use wind roses to help assist.

10 | Hazards and risks – A hazard is a substance or situation which has the potential to cause harm to health, life, the environment, property, or any other value. Risk is the possibility of something bad happening.

  • Exposed services (electricity, telephone, sewage, water, gas) – Are there any wires, pipes, open access panels or other services elements that could cause damage, trip or fall?
  • Machinery – Machinery in storage or operation on or nearby that someone could walk into, or access?
  • Drainage – Where is the drainage point/s on and from the site? What is the path of water across the site? Could this be dangerous in heavy rains or if there is a blockage of drainage?
  • Natural events – Flooding, landslides, volcanoes, cyclones – What is the frequency of natural events? What has the impact been on the site in the past?
  • Derelict buildings – Are there abandoned buildings or structures that have dangerous, loose materials or elements that could collapse, or cause someone to trip or fall?
  • Unfinished building works – Is there partly finished building works that could collapse, or cause someone to trip or fall?

11 | Site history and significance – A summary of the past uses, conditions and significance of the site.

  • Previous use/s – A brief (bullet point) history and previous uses of the site.
  • Contamination – A summary of manufacturing, industrial or other processes or operations that could have or are contaminating the site.
  • Archaeological significance – Anything previously built on the site that could still be present under the ground in some form. Known inhabitants on the site or local area that could have inhabited the site or left any objects or remnants of historical significance on it.
  • Historical significance – Anything about the site, the past uses, the structures or the people who used the site that is significant or needs to be preserved, recognised or considered in the design.
  • Cultural significance – Anything significant about the site in terms of the ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular people or local group of society.
  • Demographic significance – The science that deals with populations and their structures, statistically and theoretically to consider who are the people who live in the area, what are their needs and how might this affect the project.

12 | Neighbourhood context – Consider previous uses of the site and how that could impact the current condition.

  • Significant buildings, structures, spaces, landmarks – Significant buildings, structures, spaces and landmarks in the local area. Include an annotated visual or photographic representation to describe their significance.
  • Architectural style/s, character and qualities – Styles, character and qualities commonly used in the architecture, buildings and structures in the local area. Include an annotated visual or photographic representation.
  • Common materials – Materials, colors and textures commonly used in the architecture, buildings and structures in the local area. Include an annotated visual or photographic representation.

Subjective Or Soft Data

Subjective or soft data refers to the conditions or situations that exist because of human interaction with the site. These things are subjective because they change over time and only exist because humans are there to create, interact with or experience these things. Most of these are sensory and relate to what humans can see, hear, smell, taste and touch and how a human experiences the site. Subjective Data includes:

13 | Access and movement – The different entry, exit and movement paths across the site and their relationship or interaction with one another.

  • People – External or adjacent footpaths and informal circulation paths and the entry, exit and circulation paths for people or pedestrians in and around the site.
  • Vehicles – Hierarchy of external and adjacent roads and the entry, exit and circulation paths of vehicles including cars, trucks, bicycles, skateboards or others in and around the site.
  • Animals – Entry, exit and circulation paths and movement of animals.
  • Public transport links – Locations of bus, train, taxi, tram, cycle and other transport stops and routes.

14 | Views – The ability to see something or be seen from a particular place. This may require longer walks and analysis in the surrounding areas.

  • Views In – The views from adjacent buildings and spaces into the site as well as longer views from vistas, surrounding buildings, hills or high points. Consider different heights in the environment and where views might occur and test them.
  • Views Out – The existing or potential short views from the site to the adjacent environment as well as long views into the wider surrounds. Consider different heights.

15 | Privacy – The ability to seclude people, information or activities from the views or awareness of others.

  • Privacy In – Elements within the site that needs to be hidden or concealed from external views into the site, hearing, people or overlooking. Internal elements that provide privacy.
  • Privacy out – Elements outside the site that need to be hidden or concealed from views out of the site, hearing, people or overlooking. This could include unsightly structures on an adjacent site. External elements that provide privacy.

16 | Security, protection and safety – The degree of protection of individuals or property from harm, danger or risk. (See also 10 | Hazards and risks).

  • Security, protection and safety in – Internal conditions that pose a security risk. The people, property, activities and other elements of the site and project that need protection from external people, property or conditions.
  • Security, protection and safety out – External conditions that pose a security risk. The people, property, activities and other external elements of the site and project that need protection from the internal people, property or conditions.

17 | Sound and noise – The sounds and noises created by the adjacent conditions, the existing site and the proposed development.

  • Noise In – Where noise is produced from outside the site, how this changes with the wind and where internal protection needs to occur.
  • Noise Out – Where noise will be produced by the site, how this may change with the wind and where external protection needs to occur.

18 | Smells – The smells and odours created by the adjacent conditions, the existing site and the proposed development.

  • Smells In – Smells coming from outside the site, how this changes with the wind and where internal protection needs to occur.
  • Smells Out – Smells that will be produced by the site, how this changes with the wind and where external protection needs to occur.

Step 01 – Desktop Analysis

The first phase of site analysis is to undertake desktop research and obtain as much existing information and documents about the site and adjacent and immediate surroundings. By carrying out this research early

Before you go to the site, you can collect any existing drawings, reports, legal documents, historical, existing or satellite photographs for the following areas:

  • 01 | Location –  Site survey, aerial photographs, site maps and plans.
  • 02 | Legal – Title, easements, mortgages etc.
  • 03 | Authorities  – Zoning documents, overlays, development controls, development application requirements.
  • 04 | Utilities and infrastructure – Plans and drawings from service providers.
  • 06 | Adjacent structures and conditions – Titles, architectural and services drawings, surveys, consultant reports.
  • 07 | Natural physical features – Geology and soil report, arborist report, other reports.
  • 08 | Artificial physical features – Existing condition, building survey or dilapidation report.
  • 09 | Climate – Sun path studies, research precipitation, temperature and wind roses.
  • 11 | Site history and significance – Research, historical and current photographs, reports, other documents.
  • 12 | Neighbourhood context – Research, historical and current photographs, reports, other documents.

Step 02 – Site Visit

Once on the site, you will need to verify any of the information, documents and research you have obtained during the desktop research and identify any incorrect or conflicting information or conditions. You will also need to record all other existing conditions.

To prepare for a successful site visit, you will need:

  • Camera and/ or smartphone – Make sure you take pictures of everything, from different scale, perspectives, within the site and from a distance. A smartphone with apps to take panoramic views and streetscapes is also useful.
  • Clipboard – To hold your notebook and existing documents.
  • Existing documents – Print out key documents with post-it notes or a list of things to verify on the site from your preliminary desktop research. Bind or staple these together in some way to avoid them blowing away in the wind and clip them to your clipboard.
  • Notebook – To take notes, sketch and make any observations on site.
  • Pens and pencils – Take your favourite 2-3 pens and pencils.
  • Tape measure or laser measurer – You will need to verify or take unknown dimensions on site.
  • Backpack and pockets – Take a backpack so you can hold other objects and keep your hands free (with a  clipboard, camera, and pens and pencils!!) A jacket or pants with large pockets is also helpful so you can quickly store pencils or cameras or tape measures when not in use and easily access them.
  • Food, water, supplies – Make sure you take water and snacks, especially if you are going to be observing on the site for a significant amount of time.
  • Good weather – Try to go on a clear, sunny day with a blue sky and good sublight. This will look better for photos and give you a better indication of colours, textures and shadows.

You may like to stay on the site for a length of time to observe changes in climate or subjective data such as movement and pedestrian use of the site. Alternatively, you may like to come back at different times over several days. It is unlikely you will obtain all the information you need in one visit, so be prepared to return to the site at least during the pre-design phase, if not during the design to test ideas and potential experiences of your design.

Step 03 – Gathering And Recording The Data

You will gather a lot of desktop research in the form of existing documents, photographs and reports as well as on-site observations and experiences.

Ways of gathering and summarizing this data and key findings include:

  • Extract key information from documents and reports into a new word document and bullet point key findings.
  • Print out scale plans, maps and photographs and start to analyse and identify key elements as a butter paper or tracing paper overlay through diagrams and annotations.
  • Record on-site observations through sketches, photographs, and marked up and annotated existing drawings, plans and maps.
  • Start to develop findings into diagrams and annotated drawings, sketches, photographs, maps or plans.

Step 04 – Analysing The Data

Collecting information about the existing conditions of a site is great, but this is only the first step. The big question is:

So what? What does this existing site information mean for the design?

When collecting and collating the existing site data into an analysis summary you need to start to consider the implications of the existing site conditions on the design and the final experience of the users. Include existing conditions as well as analysis and conclusions about the following:

  • The site – Existing patterns, activities, relationships, typologies, practical function, temporality or  changes over time,
  • The proposed building or structure – Impact on massing, geometry and form, scale and proportion, access, entry and circulation, views, light, private and public spaces, hierarchy, level of enclosure, solid and void, internal and external space.

Remember, the design process is not linear. By this stage, you should also hopefully be developing a good understanding of the brief, users and activities and program for the project and start to develop preliminary concept ideas in parallel to finalising your site analysis.

Step 05 – Presenting The Analysis

You may not be required to present your site analysis, but you may be required to provide a summary or a report to a client, authority or university tutor. Your site analysis presentation could range from a single site plan to a whole report.

Here are some ideas about the structure or order of how you might present your findings. If you are developing longer reports, set up a mock storyboard of each page to sort out what information will be presented where. Leave out the things that are not relevant for your submission.

  • Introduction – An overview of the site and findings.
  • 01 | Location (Mega and macro) – Location plans at a range of scales to show existing site using aerial photographs
  • 02 + 03 | Legal and Authorities – Summary or reference to any relevant legal and authorities requirements.
  • 11 – Site history and significance – Summary of research and findings.
  • 12 – Neighbourhood context – Summary of research and findings, photographs, sketches etc.
  • Existing conditions photographs – Key photographs of the existing site and views with a reference plan to show the location of each photograph.
  • Streetscapes, elevations and sections (to scale) – Key drawings to show vertical information and context.
  • Site Analysis Plans – To show your observations and findings of the remaining objective and subjective data. Depending on the size, context and scale of the site, this could be included on one plan drawings or separated into a series of diagrams to show themes of patterns, activities, conditions, opportunities and constraints. Analysis plans could be developed based on the themes of the objective and subjective data with 1 or more themes per diagram.  Label each diagram and include a legend/ key and simple annotations if required.
  • Sun path and shadow diagrams – A simple, one page 3 x 3 diagrams of 3 times of day and 3 times of the year. Label each diagram and include a legend/ key.
  • Conclusions – Include a summary of key findings, opportunities, constraints and the main design considerations moving forward.

What Next?

The site analysis is just the beginning of the design process but like all aspects of design, is essential to the success of every project. The more thorough this is, the more you have to draw inspiration from and guide and inform your concept, design ideas and decisions.

Like every aspect of the design process, use the site analysis as an opportunity to explore and something to get interested in and excited about!

Constantly ask your self “So what? What does this mean for the design?

Don’t just complete your site analysis as something that needs to be done. Use the checklist to consider which aspects are important for each site and each project. Which aspects of the site do you need to focus on and delve deep into? Which aspects require not so much consideration? Focus your time, attention and energy on the aspects that will impact your design the most – for better or for worse.

[If you haven’t already, get a copy of the  “Architectural Site Analysis Guide” Checklist that I have prepared for you. The link is in the description.

Liz at ArchiMash

PS…If you have any questions or thoughts about Site Analysis, let me know in the comments or at archimash.com/askliz.


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