What is a Topographical Survey? A Beginner’s Guide to What, Why & How

We help you understand what a topographical survey is and why you need one for your project.

Article By: Tom Ayre
Last Update: August 2019

In this article, we explain, in simple terms, what a topographical survey is, how it is undertaken and the key benefits in having one before starting a building project.

At the end of this article, you will have a better understanding of the purpose of a topographical survey. If you are unsure on whether to get one before your building project then this article will hopefully explain why it is so useful and how it can save problems further down the line.

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What is a Topographical Survey?

A topographical survey, also known as a land survey or topographical land survey, measures and identifies the exact location and details of natural and manmade features within an area of land.

A topographical survey picks up several different elements depending on the specification from the client. Typical features surveyed include:

Human-made features
Boundaries and fence lines
Buildings & structures
Surfaces such as paving, tarmac, concrete etc
Services such as power lines
Drainage features such as inspection chambers
Street furniture such as benches, lamp posts, bins etc
Natural features
Trees, bushes and vegetation
Ponds, lakes, watercourses
Ground heights/contours
Water levels

Following the survey, the information is then converted into an electronic CAD (Computer-Aided Design) file. This is then presented as plan drawing which can be sent electronically and physically printed. is then drawn up into a precise and detailed plan. Features include:

Land Surveys can encompass other types of surveys such as Measured Surveys, Monitoring Surveys, Setting Out Surveys and more.

Topographical surveys are usually required by architects and engineering companies when land is being developed or altered. This includes projects such as:

new buildings/structures
civil engineering projects
land repurposing

Land surveyors are, therefore, usually the first professionals on-site; whether a project is a new tunnel, a bridge or a house, contractors need surveyors to record and produce detailed drawings of the land and surrounding area.

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Example Topographical Drawings

Topographical survey drawings are typically produced in a CAD software package. Once the drawings have been produced they are usually exported to PDF electronic drawings as well as A0/A1/A2/A3 paper drawings.

topographical land survey drawing example THS Concepts
topographical survey drawing example THS Concepts

How Are Topographical Surveys Carried Out?

Topographical surveys are undertaken using a range of different survey equipment that can measure distances and angles extremely accurately (our surveyors prefer the latest Leica technology). Precise equipment helps to produce a CAD (computer-aided design) drawing that accurately positions surveyed points in both plan and height. We use sophisticated industry-specific CAD software which allows us to map site measurements and create high quality, fully scaled 3D drawings of the project.

Often precise GPS survey equipment is used to locate and position fixed points on an area of land. These points are used as reference markers, thus allowing the surveyed area to be aligned to an existing national coordinate system in both plan and height. In the UK the most common national coordinate system used in land surveying is OSGB36.

What Gets Surveyed?

A topographical survey is as extensive as required. Usually, a client will have a good idea of what information they require. This is usually specified when instructing a surveying company to undertake the survey work. For instance, if you are working on repositioning boundary fences, survey items such as tree locations or inspection chambers may not be required.

A typical topographical survey when developing an area of land for building work picks up items such as:

Boundary locations
Building positions
Change in surfaces
Drains & invert levels
Inspection chambers (water, gas, electricity etc)
Kerb positions
Overhead lines (power, telephone etc)
Ridge & eaves heights of buildings
Spot heights of the land
Street furniture (bins, post boxes etc)
Tree locations with spread & trunk diameter
Water features (ponds, waterways etc)

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Why Do You Need a Topographical Survey?

A topographical survey is essential when designing a land development project as it will help correctly plan out and coordinate the proposed layouts. Without accurate measurements, it’s difficult to plan a project accurately and safely. The complete plans allow you to see exactly how the existing site is arranged, including positions and associated heights of items. Useful applications for topographical surveys include:

Re-positioning boundaries: Knowing the exact location of boundaries is helpful as you may need to build a new building that is exactly x distance away from a boundary that may have been removed
Planning new buildings: Knowing where items on-site such as trees, buildings, power lines, etc. allows you to position your building correctly, thus avoiding future problems
Correctly designing drainage schemes: You will have the heights of the land and water features on-site that need to be tied into.

Topographical Survey On Water

A Total Station on a Topographic Survey

What Types of Data Can Be Produced?

Following the site survey, a range of information and drawings can be produced. This includes:

Drawings: Plans, elevations, sections, street scenes, lighting plans etc. Drawings are usually in CAD / PDF format
3D Point Clouds: Data useful to build a 3D model of the site in a program such as Autodesk Revit
Photographs: Useful for people looking for information about the site
Schedules: Information such as inspection chamber inverts, pipe diameter sizes, etc. can be produced

What Type of Information Can a Topographical Survey Produce?

Following the site survey, a range of information and drawings can be produced. This includes:

Drawings: Plans, elevations, sections, street scenes, lighting plans etc. Drawings are usually in CAD / PDF format
3D Point Clouds: Data useful to build a 3D model of the site in a program such as Autodesk Revit
Photographs: Useful for people looking for information about the site
Schedules: Information such as inspection chamber inverts, pipe diameter sizes, etc. can be produced

How are Topographical Surveys Undertaken on Site?

A topographical survey is usually carried out by a team of experienced surveyors, armed with equipment including total stations, GPS equipment, laser measurement devices and tape measures. A total station is a tripod-mounted device used by surveyors to accurately plot single points which can be joined into lines and arcs to form a drawing of a site.

The survey begins with the team placing their fixed setting out marker points using the GPS and total stations. The fixed markers usually come in the form of survey nails secured into the solid ground (concrete, brick, etc.) or reflective tape targets fixed to walls.

These reference points are used to recalculate the position of the survey equipment as it moves around the site. They are vital for allowing the survey to be “stitched” together correctly from one set-up position to the next.

Using a total station in combination with taking notes and hand measurements, the surveyor will begin to record data. The total station uses laser technology to accurately record positions points in plan and height. Using a combination of 2 points, a line can be drawn on the total station to begin building up a detailed picture. A good example is taking a point on either end of a wall and drawing a line between the two.

In some instances, it may be necessary to use a prism mounted on a pole to pick up features. Using a modern robotic total station as the base unit, a surveyor can move around the site with the total station turning to follow as they move. Additionally, the surveyor can use a wireless computer unit to take points without looking through the lens of the total station. This often makes the process a lot more efficient.

Monitoring Target Example

A reflective target (typically referred to as “retros”)

Survey Nail Photo

A survey nail that is hammered into the ground.

How are Topographical Surveys Produced in the Office?

Once the required information has been recorded on-site, the surveyor returns to their office to draw up the survey using industry-specific CAD software.

The recorded data is exported from the total station/GPS equipment and saved onto a computer. The surveyor uses CAD software to begin tidying up and producing a plan view drawing of the land. The process usually involves joining lines together such as the corners of buildings or adding symbols such as trees. Height markers will also be added showing the levels of important elements such as the ground, building ridge heights, watercourse levels etc.

Once the base plan drawing has been produced, the surveyor begins to produce other drawings such as elevations and sections of the site. When all drawings have been completed, the surveyor will ask for a final check by a colleague before sending the CAD drawing and associated PDFs to the client. The client may give feedback to where additional detail may be required or where details can be relaxed. Drawings may be revised before the final copy is agreed.

A topographical survey CAD drawing

What Should You Check When Hiring a Land Survey Company?

When appointing a land surveyor you must choose the right company to avoid future problems as a result of poor drawings and communication. Before the appointment, we recommend checking the following:

Experience: Land Surveying is a complicated task. Surveyors are required to operate complex survey devices and then produce clear, accurate drawings to be presented to the client. An experienced survey team knows to avoid problems and get the work completed efficiently and to a high standard.

Size of company: Sometimes a “one-man-band” company is perfect for your requirements. On balance, however, this can cause problems with getting answers quickly, revisiting the site etc. Furthermore, a company with only 1 or 2 employees may leave clients waiting as they are regularly out of the office, unavailable to talk or not around to check or reissue drawings.

Insurances: When things go wrong, there can be serious financial implications. Check your land surveying company has the correct professional indemnity insurance for their work and that the cover they provide is more than suitable for your requirements. A reputable company should also carry an employer’s liability and public liability insurance.

General feel: Do employees professionally present themselves? Usually, gut instinct is helpful to get a feel for how easy it will be to work with a company. Red flags that raise suspicions include:

No address on the website: Can surveyors be tracked down if things go wrong? A survey company should not be operating from a PO box, for instance
Much cheaper than others: Like most things in life, you pay for what you get. A very low quote in comparison to other companies may result in poor workmanship and customer service
Telephone/email manner: Are your phone and email messages answered promptly? If not then this may reveal an overworked/understaffed company
Poorly designed website: This is usually a sign of a company who aren’t very technology savvy or aren’t too interested in the user experience on-site

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We hope this was a valuable introduction to topographical land surveys and their uses. Have any questions? Leave a comment. We’re always happy to advise!

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