The Beginner’s Guide to Site Analysis

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 some sort of base to go off on. There are several steps to take to thoroughly complete a site analysis. In some projects, the site itself can become a huge driver and there really isn’t another way to carry on by ignoring the surroundings.

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 deep end and sometimes you might not get the help you really need. Your tutors could simply say ‘do a site analysis’ and leave it at that. So, we’ve broken it down in 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 mean finding your site on Google Maps. A desktop study will also involve researching the 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 also involve establishing the surroundings of your site and looking at what kinds of places 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 can physically find an empty site or choose a space to hypothetically build over and replace. It is good to have a street address which you should note down in your sketchbook to refer back to later on.

Then, open up Google Maps, find your site and use the walk-around feature to get an idea of the surroundings. Look at it from all angles and the satellite maps. You could even make a rough sketch if you wanted and write down some of the things that stick out to you. Now, we’re going to use 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 pretty much the whole world. Don’t worry though, you only need it for your site. There are several things you can do with Digimap such as downloading scaled plans and building heights. This allows your final drawings to be as accurate as possible. Most universities (at least in the U.K.) will give students access to such 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 lot more information about an area than Google Maps. You can check historical maps of your site or get accurate data on building heights.

The way this fits into site research is that you will need to create some kind of output that combines the research you have done and explains how you want to take the project further. Via Digimap, you can print unlimited scaled maps, annotate them and use them to make models for example so the 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, drawing statement and other documents that architects have to submit to the council in order to get approved and then proceed to continuing with the project. If your site has some kind of history, if there have been any changes, it will be on there.

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

Not only does this save you from figuring out how the neighbouring building works but it also gives small details that you might not have 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 a sun path diagram. If you don’t know what this is, it’s basically a map of your site that shows the orientation of the sun, the building and other opportunities and constraints that are involved in your site. This allows you to get a better idea of how you want to design your building, how it will link back to the programme or even some of the constraints you need to look out for.

We will create an in-depth tutorial on how to create a simple sun-path diagram in the coming weeks so look out for that. It will show you how to find your site and the exact sun-path over your site plus a group of other additions 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 about or look for when doing a site research. This does depend on the brief you have been given and the direction you are taking it in yourself. For example, if you are focused on the heritage of the local community or their trades etc. you might want to research a bit more into the history of the area and your selected site. Look at what was there 50 years ago and ask yourself, is there a way I can bring this back in a new way that adds to the present community? Or perhaps find a problem in the current area such as a lack of communal spaces for the youth 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 can be done by a desktop or physical study. Figuring this out will add to your knowledge of your site which in turn, will make your building an actual possibility which is good practice.

  • Site area in square feet or some kind of dimension that works for you
  • Building heights of surrounding buildings
  • Neighbourhood i.e. businesses, residential, nature
  • Site access
  • Windows / Doors that cannot be built in front of
  • Any future plans for the site (use the planning portal)
  • Transport; roads, alleyways, bus, train etc.
  • Nature around the site, such as trees, slopes, anything that wouldn’t show up on Digimap or Google Maps
  • How busy the site is; footfall, how the site is used or changed over time, vehicular movements
  • The weather/climateSite of the site
  • Community profile 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 and perspectives. It doesn’t hurt to take as many as possible, and you will most likely get home and sort through them all anyway. These pictures will be useful to capture the essence of the area as well as your site. If you can, come back after a couple of hours or at a completely contrasting time of day to understand how the site works overtime.

For example, a site near a farmer’s market will most likely be 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 might not know it at such an early stage.

Ideally, you don’t want to be spending weeks on your site analysis, so once you have decided or been given your site, mark a day you will go 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 in your project, you can then go back for a second visit and look out for the things you’re interested in. Change your approach and perhaps sketch out something you didn’t see last time. Having more than one visit means you can see things you missed last time or even compare how the site may have changed since your last visit.

A physical study will allow you to create collages or have photographic evidence that supports your statements about the community or the cultural aspects. Speak to the local business owners or active residents to learn more about the area. This first-hand approach will show that you have an interest in the community and let you figure out what it may need architecturally.

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 be discussed later on in another post. For now, we’re going to show you how the site analysis should fit within your portfolio and how your site analysis needs to 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 your site
  • An annotated map of your site visit including photographs and other information
  • Photographs or study related to your interests in the site
  • Sun path diagram
  • Opportunities and constraints
  • Key drivers
Project 1

Sana Tabassum          pages 16-24

In this project, Vietnamese Modular Community, the site analysis comes after a short animation project. There are 3 maps that get more 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 area or street in Shoreditch that extrapolate the interesting features. In this case, the abundance of ventilation hardware combined with the local Vietnamese community raised an area for improvement.

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

Next, an opportunities and constraints diagram can show the various transport links around the chosen site as well as the kind of community that live there – specifically, immigrants who might be adjusting their domestic space to be comfortable for them. This was purposely similar to how people live in Vietnam.

Finally, a sun-path diagram shows exactly what is says. The sun path over the proposed site as well as neighbouring building heights. The next 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 is Nathalie’s project Inhabited Infrastructures in the Anthropocene. If we focus on the site analysis pages, linked above, then you can see the journey taken 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 from a 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 dimensions and surrounding images. Modelling the site in not much detail and then annotating it according to surrounding buildings or sun-path can also be great. Tracking where photographs are taken, or the historic journey of the site can further add 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 you up for success. In the coming weeks we will also touch on portfolio layout and organisation and why it’s best to have a theme or style from the beginning as well as creating your pages as you work on things throughout the year rather than trying to compile it at the end.

Having other forms of work such as models or even other outputs like animations, paintings and 3D modelling can also be great to feature in your site analysis. If you know you’re going to be working predominantly with 3D modelling software towards the end of your project, it could be a good idea to start modelling your site from the beginning. Digimap offers a rough 3D model of the majority of London so try check that out and make sure it’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.

2 Responses

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.