Architecture Site Analysis: An introduction

Site analysis provides a vital foundation and crucial starting point for any new project...
site analysis architecture an introduction

Architecture site analysis meticulously evaluates a location’s physical, cultural, and environmental characteristics to guide architectural designs that seamlessly integrate with their surroundings.

This crucial step determines design elements such as placement, form, and materials, considering factors like topography, climate, and social context, laying the groundwork for informed, sustainable architectural decisions

Understanding Architecture Site Analysis

Every site is unique and will consist of many complex elements such as: varying topography, watercourses, trees, plants, habitats, and weather patterns to name a few. All of which will and should influence an architect’s design process and decision-making.

The appropriate analysis of these elements will initially help determine the buildings placement, orientation, form and materiality, but then later go on to influence its structure, sustainability and procurement route.

…providing a very vital foundation and crucial starting point for not just architectural projects, but also landscape architecture.

Key aspects of this include:

  • Location and Context: Geographical location, urban or rural setting, neighborhood context.
  • Topography: Landform, slopes, elevation, and contours of the site.
  • Climate: Local weather patterns, sun path, wind direction, precipitation levels.
  • Vegetation: Types of plants, trees, and natural features present on the site.
  • Soil Type: Composition, stability, and bearing capacity of the soil.
  • Hydrology: Presence of water bodies, drainage patterns, flood risk areas.
  • Access and Circulation: Availability of roads, pedestrian paths, and public transport.
  • Existing Structures: Buildings or other structures already on the site.
  • Utilities and Services: Availability of electricity, water, sewage, internet, and other services.
  • Regulatory Factors: Zoning laws, building codes, environmental regulations.
  • Cultural and Historical Factors: Historical significance, cultural landmarks, or heritage sites.
  • Views and Vistas: Scenic views or important sightlines from and to the site.
  • Noise and Air Quality: Levels of ambient noise, air pollution, and other environmental factors.
  • Sunlight and Shade: Patterns of sunlight and shade throughout the day and year.
  • Wind Patterns: Prevailing wind directions and strength, impact on the site.

The outcome of site analysis is typically a comprehensive report that guides the design process, ensuring that the proposed structure harmoniously integrates with its surroundings, adheres to regulatory requirements, and meets the needs of its intended use.

The process of researching, observing, and analyzing the physical, cultural, social, historical, environmental, and infrastructural characteristics of a site inform the design of a building or space.

The information gathered during both a virtual and physical analysis process, is used to develop a comprehensive understanding of the site, including its opportunities, constraints, and potential, and to guide decision-making throughout the design process.

Site analysis is an essential step in the pre-design phase of any architectural project, and is used to develop a strong conceptual basis for the design proposal.

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Who’s involved in the site analysis process?

Collaboration is essential for site analysis, but the approach may vary depending on factors such as the type of project and whether it is a group or singular exercise, as well as site proximity.

For live projects, given that site analysis encompasses various data types beyond design, technical research is often outsourced. This typically involves engaging land surveying services and engineers (both geotechnical and civil) to address questions related to topography, soils, hydrology, utilities, zoning, and land use.

(Obviously at a student level this isn’t required, and will often be provided with the project brief if relevant.)

…Successful site analysis is often greatly benefited by also considering and incorporating input from the community members who will be most impacted by the project.

Why do we carry out an architectural site analysis?

As already touched on, a projects success is built on its relationship to its site and surroundings, and therefore by default should always be bespoke to and based on its location and local characteristics.

Every site has very specific solar orientations, views (good and bad) and often a very explicit character and atmosphere. Each one of these areas is an opportunity to generate a meaningful conceptual approach and a way to devise a buildings shape, layout, form and materiality.

Once established, further analyse of access, wind direction, site levels, vegetation, local context, privacy, services (electrical lines, drainage, telephone lines) will help cement any early conclusions made.

…This is the purpose of site analysis, and why it more than simply ticking boxes to meet a criteria, everything needs to relate back to the foundations established early on during the investigatory period. So that when required it can help provide the answers to future questions.

“Good design is generated from strong, simple and well-established concepts.”

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How is site analysis used to plan and develop projects?

When considering local weather patterns, the aim should be to always provide a building with the best possible access to solar gains, daylight and shelter. This can be achieved through calculated control of the effects of the sun path, wind and rainfall, through good positioning of openings and rooflines to provide natural light, warmth and shelter throughout the year.

To cool a building, its orientation can pull and circulate cool summer air though its plan by aligning its long axis with the prevailing wind direction and by providing deep over hangs for shade. During the winter months, its built volumes can provide shelter and create protected external spaces via courtyards.

When using the context to influence materiality, look towards the local vernacular of the surrounding buildings. For example, dry stonewalls and corten steel can be used as a modern interpretation of agricultural buildings without mimicking.

Rammed earth walls for example can be used to represent an extension of the site and if the local soil type is right could even be built from the land.

Weathering timber creates a nice narrative of changing and growing old with a site.

When the site has prominent views, buildings can address the landscape with large framed apertures and pick key views and features to specifically draw attention to. Moving between rooms can generate different views and therefore experiences at different times of day, depending on how and when the spaces are used.

These ideas are site specific and only have meaning through being relevant, and this relevancy is generated through knowing your site.

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Architecture Site Analysis Symbols

Document your site analysis recordings!

This site analysis symbols kit includes the key and most used attributes required to successfully document and present Architectural site analysis.

Architecture Site Analysis Diagrams and ProcessExamples of the information to look for

Architectural site analysis diagrams are visual representations that synthesize a site’s physical, environmental, and socio-cultural data, providing architects with essential insights for informed design decisions. These diagrams highlight key elements such as topography, climate, vegetation, and usage patterns, facilitating a comprehensive understanding of the site’s characteristics and constraints

Referred and referenced to throughout the design and construction process, the below list highlights some of the key areas that should be investigated, along with diagram examples of how site analysis recordings can be presented.

These examples were created using our site analysis drawing symbols kit in Adobe Photoshop.

01 – General

  • Geographic location
  • Site boundary
  • Entrance locations and types
  • Site security
  • Existing buildings
Site Analysis Architecture overview

02 – Buildings analysis

  • Distances
  • Heights
  • Uses
  • Vernacular
  • Site lines
  • Rights to light
  • Legal restrictions
  • Noise levels
Site Analysis Architecture sample Neighboring buildings

03 – Legal Restrictions

  • Conservation areas
  • Covenants and easements
  • Rights of way
  • SSSI ( Site of Special Scientific Interest)
  • Listings (Grade II, II*, I)
  • TPO’s (Tree preservation orders)
  • Previous planning permissions and applications
Site Analysis Architecture example Legal Restrictions

04 – Access and circulation

  • Public routes
  • Private routes
  • Vehicle access
  • Pedestrian access
  • Existing site circulation routes within
Site Analysis Architecture diagram for access

05 – Topography

  • Levels
  • Gradients
  • Key features/restrictions
  • Exposure
Site Analysis Architecture typography sample

06 – Views

  • Private views out
  • Public views in
Site Analysis Architecture diagram example for views

07 – Sun paths

  • Sun paths
  • Solar gains
  • Shading
Site Analysis Architecture sun path diagram

08 – Site wind analysis architecture

  • Prevailing direction
  • Shelter
  • Exposure
Site Analysis Architecture wind diagram

09 – Public Transport Links

  • Bus’s
  • Train’s
  • Taxi’s
Site Analysis Architecture public transport example diagram

010 – Trees and vegetation

  • TPO’s and protected species
  • Root protection areas
  • Items for removal
  • Items to maintain
  • Ownerships
Site Analysis Architecture diagram for trees

011 – Ecology

  • Protected species
  • Protected zones
  • Impacts
Site Analysis Architecture example for site ecology

012 – Site restrictions

  • Visibility
  • Light
  • Views
  • Neighbors / adjacent conditions
  • Pollution
  • Flooding
  • Land slides
Site Analysis Architecture restrictions sample

013 – Features

  • Areas to expose/use
  • Areas to improve
  • Areas to hide
Site Analysis Architecture features example

014 – Hazards

  • (Electricity lines, Drainage, Telephone lines, Sub-stations)
  • Derelict Buildings
  • Unfinished building works
Site Analysis Architecture landscape hazards

Breaking down your site analysis data

When conducting site analysis, it’s important to take a strategic approach by considering both objective and subjective data at three different scales: Global, Macro, and Micro.

  • Global refers to the very large context of the site, including its relationship to the suburb, city, and even larger geographical area.
  • Macro encompasses the full site and its immediate surroundings on all sides
  • Micro focuses on the individual elements and characteristics within the site itself.

It’s important to remember that the site and project do not exist in isolation but are part of a larger and constantly changing context.

They have connections and relationships with the immediate surroundings, the wider site, the suburb and city, as well as the local community and the people living within it.

Objective – Objective or hard data pertains to the conditions that exist on a site, irrespective of human interaction. These factors are objective because they exist regardless of our observation or experience, and they are what they are.

For example, the above:

  • Hazards
  • Ecology
  • and typography

…are all objective elements.

Subjective – Subjective or soft data encompasses the conditions or situations on a site that arise due to human interaction. These factors are subjective as they are subject to change over time and exist only because humans create, interact with, or experience them.

They are primarily sensory in nature and relate to what humans can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, and how they experience the site.

For example, the above:

  • Access
  • Views

but also:

  • Sound
  • Smell

…are all subjective elements.

site analysis diagram example

How To Carry Out Your First Site Analysis

The analysis of a site goes beyond its property lines, and includes an assessment and feasibility of its physical state and surroundings, along with relevant historical information. Conducting a desk based study prior to visiting the site can provide valuable information and help identify specific areas to focus on during your visit.

01 – Site research

To prepare for a site visit, it may be helpful to obtain an OS map or location plan of the area and review client information to determine the location of site boundaries. This information can inform the site analysis and facilitate a more informed assessment of the site.

To fully understand a site, it’s important to assess any significant changes to the physical and architectural landscape, as well as the site’s neighboring context, adjacent sites, and its significance to the community.

Fortunately, there are several sources of information available to aid in site analysis. Google Street View and aerial photographs offer a recent history of a site, and can be used for site plans and mapping information. Tools such as CadMapper and CadEarth provide 3D maps for volumetric references.

Local government websites often have property records and maps that provide information on zoning, land ownership, school districts, transportation, and utilities.

Additionally, community centers, neighborhood associations, local historical societies, and newspapers can be resources for accessing archives or documented histories of a site and its greater context.

By utilizing these resources, a more comprehensive understanding of the site can be gained. We have a full article on how to conduct a successful desktop study here.

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02 – Visiting the site

Upon arriving at the site, it’s good practice to verify any information, documents, and research obtained during the above desktop analysis, and identify any incorrect or conflicting information or conditions. Additionally, record all other existing conditions present on the site.

This will ensure accurate and up-to-date information is used in the design process, and any issues or discrepancies can be addressed promptly.

First impressions of the site are crucial, so pay attention to initial responses and collect sensory data, including points of entry. Asking questions about accessibility, parking, nearby traffic or transit, and noise levels can provide valuable information.

Observing existing spatial relationships can also be really helpful. Take note of how people move about the space and what they naturally gravitate towards. Consider any relationship between movement and sunlight or shade. Measurements may need to be taken, if not already provided via a site plan.

Visual documentation such as photographs, sketches, and videos can also be useful. Take photos of the site itself as well as views from the site, which can be used for annotations or context in later perspectives and renderings. By bringing these items and conducting a thorough analysis, a more informed and comprehensive design approach can be taken.

The below site analysis checklist can greatly aid with this, and we have a full article on what to do and take when visiting your site for first time here.

03 – Evaluation

After visiting the site and collecting information, the next step is to examine the findings. This involves reviewing the gathered data, putting the findings alongside one another, and exploring their relationships.

It’s important to remember that the design process is not linear. By this stage, a good understanding of the brief, users, activities, and program for the project should be developed.

It’s also a good time to start developing preliminary concept ideas in parallel with finalizing your analysis. By considering these factors, a more informed and comprehensive design approach can be taken.

We again have a dedicated article breaking down this process here

site analysis example

04 – Presentation

While not always required, presenting site analysis information can be helpful in many cases.

The presentation of collected information and conclusions drawn from the site analysis stages provides context for each project. While data collection is crucial, it’s pointless without transcribing the information into relevant and easily understandable content.

During analysis, certain site conditions may have a greater influence on design parameters and decision-making.

By combining research, observations, and newfound limitations, we can apply our findings to the schematic design and programming phase. This is where the information collected during site analysis is used to create a design concept that meets the project’s goals and requirements.

The most important aspect of presenting site analysis is ensuring the information is clear and easily digestible.

Avoid spending excessive time on fancy graphics if the information is difficult to understand. By following these tips, site analysis can be effectively presented to communicate the necessary information.

We have a full article on site analysis presentation here, and another discussing site analysis symbols here.

site analysis example

05 – Tools and resources

Below is a selection of useful resources for finding examples of site analysis in architecture, showcasing how architects have used this process to inform their design decisions and create a successful project plan.

From urban public spaces to rural residential projects, these examples demonstrate how site analysis is an essential step in creating thoughtful and contextually responsive architecture:

Websites:

Books:

General:

Also check out our own Architecture site analysis diagram and presentation examples on Pinterest

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06 – Architecture site analysis checklist

Lastly, we get a lot of questions regarding site analysis checklists and where they can be found, and so we’ve created our own …two in-fact! Scroll down to download the free checklists in PDF format.

Trying to recall tasks that need to be completed not only wastes time, but mostly results in them being lost or forgotten. A good checklist helps to stop this and frees up your mind to actually work on the items, instead of trying to remember them .

Architecture Site Analysis Checklist

Site analysis checklist free download (pdf)

Following on from the above, here we have provided two site analysis checklists that firstly cover all of the primary areas of the site analysis process and secondly, provide a checklist outlining what to assess during your first site visit.

To download our free checklists, simply sign up with your email below and follow the download link provided:

Free checklist

Sign up to our mailing list to receive our free Site Analysis and Site Visit Checklists

Image credits: Cover image – Beatriz Caon Amenta

Site Analysis Free Checklist

Free Site Analysis Checklist

Every design project begins with site analysis …start it with confidence for free!.

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