The Beginner’s Guide to Site Analysis

The Beginner’s Guide to Site Analysis

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A site analysis is needed to understand the environment around your building. The site is quite important in regard to the physical constraints of the project and can also inspire the programme of the building. Apart from this, it helps you actually draw up plans, sections and create views of your building as it would be once completed.

Before diving into the design of the project, you need somesort of base to go off on. There are several steps to take to thoroughlycomplete a site analysis. In some projects, the site itself can become a hugedriver and there really isn’t another way to carry on by ignoring thesurroundings.

This guide will explore the variety of things you can do to research a site ranging from its history, current condition and other things you might not find just by looking at it on Google Maps or even by visiting the area once.

In your first year of university, you’re thrown into the deepend and sometimes you might not get the help you really need. Your tutors couldsimply say ‘do a site analysis’ and leave it at that. So, we’ve broken it downin simple steps and even given some examples of presenting your work.

  1. Desktop Study
  2. Digimap
  3. Planning Documents
  4. Sun Path
  5. What to look for
  6. Physical Visit
  7. Presentation and Examples
  8. Final Tips

For those more familiar with a site analysis, this article might just show you some ways of enhancing your site analysis or introduce you to some better tools and tips that can make your work better. We’ve also included some links to other works and online tools so make sure you read till the end.

Desktop Study

A desktop study is pretty obvious. This doesn’t just meanfinding your site on Google Maps. A desktop study will also involve researchingthe site deeply. If the history of that place has meaning to your project,chances are you can find out what once used to be at that site. It could alsoinvolve establishing the surroundings of your site and looking at what kinds ofplaces are in the neighbourhood.

To start, if you haven’t already chosen a site, choose one.Most briefs might give you a generic location or neighbourhood and then you canphysically find an empty site or choose a space to hypothetically build overand replace. It is good to have a street address which you should note down inyour sketchbook to refer back to later on.

Then, open up Google Maps, find your site and use thewalk-around feature to get an idea of the surroundings. Look at it from allangles and the satellite maps. You could even make a rough sketch if you wantedand write down some of the things that stick out to you. Now, we’re going touse a bunch of different tools online to keep going with a desktop study.


digimap is your best friend

Digimap is an Ordnance Survey map that has data on prettymuch the whole world. Don’t worry though, you only need it for your site. Thereare several things you can do with Digimap such as downloading scaled plans andbuilding heights. This allows your final drawings to be as accurate aspossible. Most universities (at least in the U.K.) will give students access tosuch OS maps so make sure you take full advantage.

If you’re not too familiar with Digimap, check out our ‘How To Make Maps in Adobe Illustrator’ article which breaks it down further.

Digimap is great for site research because it provides a lotmore information about an area than Google Maps. You can check historical mapsof your site or get accurate data on building heights.

The way this fits into site research is that you will need tocreate some kind of output that combines the research you have done andexplains how you want to take the project further. Via Digimap, you can printunlimited scaled maps, annotate them and use them to make models for example sothe possibilities are endless. Overall, it is a great and easy-to-learn tool.

Planning Documents

Planning documents are the unheard gem we found whilst in architecture school. Not many people knew about it and the ones who did kept it a secret. This is a big advantage especially if you’re in the U.K because most countries will have something similar so try and find out by doing a simple Google search.

Planning documents in simple terms are the copies of plans, drawingstatement and other documents that architects have to submit to the council inorder to get approved and then proceed to continuing with the project. If your sitehas some kind of history, if there have been any changes, it will be on there.

The main difference between planning documents and Digimapfor example, is that sometimes some sites will have gone through a lot ofchanges and architects that were hired should ideally have submitted plans,sections and elevations which you can use to gain information mostly about thesurrounding buildings.

Not only does this save you from figuring out how theneighbouring building works but it also gives small details that you might nothave known by just a visit.

The way to find your site on a planning portal is simple. Figure out which borough the address lands in and Google that specific planning portal. Some addresses may count as boroughs that you didn’t think of, so if you don’t find the exact area, try another one. Ideally, having an address or postcode for your chosen site is key. By constantly figuring out the pieces of the puzzle that is your site, you get more familiar with it and somehow end up more motivated to design a building that excites you.

Here we’ve listed an example to show you there are several links that get you closer to the files you need. Remember, there are different portals for each borough but they all work relatively the same.

click on view or comment on a planning application
make sure you search via address, the minimum you need is the street name
click on the application number link
scroll all the way down to find related documents
click on the date links to open the drawings
the drawings open in PDF

That is the gist of finding drawings through a planning portal. Sometimes there may be nothing for your chosen site, in which case you can try the neighbouring buildings. So that you don't have to keep finding the same drawings over and over, save these in a folder offline (on your computer) so that you can look back on them for reference or printing.

Sun Path

A good form of output that involves the site is to create asun path diagram. If you don’t know what this is, it’s basically a map of yoursite that shows the orientation of the sun, the building and other opportunitiesand constraints that are involved in your site. This allows you to get a betteridea of how you want to design your building, how it will link back to theprogramme or even some of the constraints you need to look out for.

We will create an in-depth tutorial on how to create a simplesun-path diagram in the coming weeks so look out for that. It will show you howto find your site and the exact sun-path over your site plus a group of otheradditions to enhance the diagram.

This page in your portfolio should be seen almost as a basic minimum. You can find plenty of inspiration on other architecture blogs or Pinterest. Check out our Pinterest board for Sun Path Diagrams HERE.

What to Look For

Ideally, there are certain things you need to research aboutor look for when doing a site research. This does depend on the brief you havebeen given and the direction you are taking it in yourself. For example, if youare focused on the heritage of the local community or their trades etc. you mightwant to research a bit more into the history of the area and your selectedsite. Look at what was there 50 years ago and ask yourself, is there a way Ican bring this back in a new way that adds to the present community? Or perhapsfind a problem in the current area such as a lack of communal spaces for theyouth and try and solve this in a way that can relate to your brief.

We’ve made a generic list of things to look out for which canbe done by a desktop or physical study. Figuring this out will add to your knowledgeof your site which in turn, will make your building an actual possibility whichis good practice.

  • Site areain square feet or some kind of dimension that works for you
  • Building heightsof surrounding buildings
  • Neighbourhoodi.e. businesses, residential, nature
  • Site access
  • Windows /Doors that cannot be built in front of
  • Any futureplans for the site (use the planning portal)
  • Transport;roads, alleyways, bus, train etc.
  • Naturearound the site, such as trees, slopes, anything that wouldn’t show up onDigimap or Google Maps
  • How busythe site is; footfall, how the site is used or changed over time, vehicularmovements
  • The weather/climateSiteof the site
  • Communityprofile such as popular ethnicity, social backgrounds, trades, ages etc.

Of course, this isn’t a compulsory list, but the more information you have, the better. Also remember that you shouldn’t try and cram all this into one page. We recommend dedicating an entire section of your portfolio to site analysis which happens over a few pages.

Look out for our free checklist at the end of this article to help you organise your site analysis.

Physical Visit


If you’re lucky enough to have adequate access to your site then it makes it easier for you to re-visit the site as needed (which you will do). If not, then you will have to try and visit your site and make it worthwhile. Firstly, make sure you take your camera, a small sketchbook and pen and your phone. These are the basics.

Take pictures of your site in all kinds of angles andperspectives. It doesn’t hurt to take as many as possible, and you will mostlikely get home and sort through them all anyway. These pictures will be usefulto capture the essence of the area as well as your site. If you can, come backafter a couple of hours or at a completely contrasting time of day tounderstand how the site works overtime.

For example, a site near a farmer’s market will most likelybe busier than at night when shops and business are closed around it. Light,climate or even people can make a huge difference to your project and you mightnot know it at such an early stage.

Ideally, you don’t want to be spending weeks on your siteanalysis, so once you have decided or been given your site, mark a day you willgo and explore. Take your friends with you or plan something else on that day.

Once you have found that something you want to focus on inyour project, you can then go back for a second visit and look out for thethings you’re interested in. Change your approach and perhaps sketch outsomething you didn’t see last time. Having more than one visit means you can seethings you missed last time or even compare how the site may have changed sinceyour last visit.

A physical study will allow you to create collages or havephotographic evidence that supports your statements about the community or thecultural aspects. Speak to the local business owners or active residents tolearn more about the area. This first-hand approach will show that you have aninterest in the community and let you figure out what it may needarchitecturally.

Presentation and Examples

As we said before, you need to create a form of output for your research. A section of your portfolio that sets up the site as well as your project is great to begin with if your unit doesn’t do a short, initial project. Depending on what you want to show, it can vary for each project.

The smaller details such as styles, fonts and layout will bediscussed later on in another post. For now, we’re going to show you how thesite analysis should fit within your portfolio and how your site analysis needsto relate back to the brief.

Usually, 5-10 well curated pages of site analysis is enough.We’ve listed below some of the kinds of pages you might want to create:

  • An overall map of the area marked with landmarks and yoursite
  • An annotated map of your site visit includingphotographs and other information
  • Photographs or study related to your interests in thesite
  • Sun path diagram
  • Opportunities and constraints
  • Key drivers
Project 1

Sana Tabassum          pages16-24

In this project, Vietnamese Modular Community, thesite analysis comes after a short animation project. There are 3 maps that getmore detailed one after the other. The first map simple shows the overall site,it’s general facts and figures. Then the next two maps focus on a certain areaor street in Shoreditch that extrapolate the interesting features. In thiscase, the abundance of ventilation hardware combined with the local Vietnamesecommunity raised an area for improvement.

Then, the site is modelled to show this exact situation andthe building is further analysed through a section drawing. This means it ispossible to show how the site is being used currently at the various problemsit proposes to the community around it.

Next, an opportunities and constraints diagram can show thevarious transport links around the chosen site as well as the kind of communitythat live there – specifically, immigrants who might be adjusting theirdomestic space to be comfortable for them. This was purposely similar to howpeople live in Vietnam.

Finally, a sun-path diagram shows exactly what is says. Thesun path over the proposed site as well as neighbouring building heights. Thenext project is also similar in many ways.

Project 2

Nathalie Harris         pages 8-22

Instagram: @natzarina

Another great example of an in-depth site analysis isNathalie’s project Inhabited Infrastructures in the Anthropocene. If wefocus on the site analysis pages, linked above, then you can see the journeytaken in these pages. Her site analysis starts off with a map/collage of Shoreditch.Then, she goes deeper in a specific area and compares the site with scenes froma movie which relates back to the initial task.

After desktop studies and further research, we can see the project starts leaning towards recycling and specifically the routes of recycling trucks in Shoreditch. She creates a map of the routes, links to articles and analyses certain elements that seem interesting via 3D modelling.

Initial site map

Then, the project explains the chosen site, its dimensionsand surrounding images. Modelling the site in not much detail and then annotatingit according to surrounding buildings or sun-path can also be great. Trackingwhere photographs are taken, or the historic journey of the site can furtheradd to the reasoning behind the programme of the project.

Lastly, the section ends with key drivers that have been identified along with images to not just inform the reader or examiner but actually be able to refer back to later on in the project.

These projects are for example purposes but can provide some inspiration to your work. You can even ask other students in the year’s above to see their old portfolios to learn from them and understand why they did what they did.

Final Tips

While working on your site analysis, make sure to keep other ideas regarding your project in the back of your mind such as the programme, why you want to design this building and how all these things relate back to your site or are inspired by it. We hope the various approaches help you learn something new or find a new way to work on your site analysis.

We think this is a crucial part of your project and sets youup for success. In the coming weeks we will also touch on portfolio layout andorganisation and why it’s best to have a theme or style from the beginning aswell as creating your pages as you work on things throughout the year ratherthan trying to compile it at the end.

Having other forms of work such as models or even otheroutputs like animations, paintings and 3D modelling can also be great tofeature in your site analysis. If you know you’re going to be workingpredominantly with 3D modelling software towards the end of your project, itcould be a good idea to start modelling your site from the beginning. Digimap offersa rough 3D model of the majority of London so try check that out and make sureit’s accurate.

Again, you don’t need all of the things mentioned, so make sure you curate it to your interests with the project and not try and put everything you’ve ever learnt about the site in your portfolio because after all, it needs to be edited well. And don't limit yourself to the things we've suggested either.

We've included a short checklist you can download whilst working on your site analysis. Just save the image or click the link below.


Lastly, we hope this article helped you in some way. If you have any questions or additions then make sure to leave a comment below or tell us directly on Facebook or Instagram @to.scale.

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