Do I Need a Topographical Survey?

A topographical survey is a type of measured survey, undertaken by specialist surveyors. These surveys are used as a starting point for proposed developments, as well as for recording boundaries. They have the potential to reduce costs and avoid delays by providing an in-depth understanding of a site and its distinctive features, in a way that no other type of survey could relay.

Leica Total Station being used to survey.

First things first: what is a topographical survey?

Before answering the question, ‘do I need a topographical survey?’ it is helpful to know precisely what topographical surveys are and how they are used.

A topographical survey is used to record the features and land-forms of a piece of land, whether that’s a ‘greenfield’ untouched woodland or a ‘brownfield’ tarmacked carpark. The objective is to record land levels, site gradients, boundaries and any onsite features. They may also record any services above the site (e.g. telecoms, power cables) and anything discernible below (e.g. drains, pipes, cables).

The survey picks up a range of detail, from trees and water channels to buildings and roads, from street furniture to fences and walls and much more besides. Visible detail of neighbouring property or land can also be captured for additional context. The survey data will often be geo-referenced to Ordnance Survey National grid and levels using GPS equipment. This provides true Northings, Eastings and levels position relative to any other geo-referenced survey undertaken in the UK.

A topographical survey is often undertaken using 3D laser scanners, where site features are clearly visible. Where direct visibility to survey features isn’t possible (e.g. where vegetation obstructs visibility to ground levels and any other ground features), the more traditional total-station surveys are undertaken. The two sets of data can be combined to achieve the best all-round survey achievable.

The instrument-captured data is transferred to CAD (computer aided design) software to enable production of drawings or models to show as much or as little site detail as required.

What is a topographical survey used for?

As well as civil engineers, architects and planners making use of topographical surveys to inform crucial decisions on design and project management, the surveys are also used to define the boundaries of a property.

Here are various ways in which a topographical survey can add value and reduce risk:

Development around existing housing stock

If your project is concerned with development around existing housing stock, then a topographical survey can be used for:

  • Engineering design for major infrastructure development, such as roads and carparks
  • Landscaping architecture and design
  • Creating Land Registry plans for title registration and conveyancing
  • Recording accurate tree locations for surveys in line with BS5837:2012 (the British Standard for trees in relation to construction)
  • Measured surveys of existing, as-built developments and historical and listed building records

Pre-planning phase

Topographic surveys are particularly valuable during the pre-planning phase of a project, where they are used for:

  • Assisting valuers in determining an accurate value for a proposed property or land purchase
  • Providing detailed level information to determine road, path, floor and ground levels
  • Assessing the height of proposed buildings and landscaping features
  • Recording the location of drainage connections and inspection chambers

Because a topographical survey offers total visibility over a plot of land that could not be achieved at such a level of detail and accuracy as recorded in other site documentation, it can help determine the most effective design and construction methods.

Many issues that this type of survey highlights won’t have been obvious to the naked eye. Land may appear featureless, but a topographical survey could uncover an array of potential problems, such as unseen slopes, ditches or underlying waterways, and any hidden services, all of which could have the potential to delay or even completely derail a project should they become apparent down the line.

Post-development phase

A topographical survey can be used post-development to:

  • Update the land survey plan with the new buildings, roads and drainage, and any new boundary features, so that the information can be submitted to the Land Registry and utility companies.

Boundary disputes

Boundary disputes are often a stressful and costly process, and the consequences of such a dispute can have serious implications when it comes to selling a property.

When considering, ‘do I need a topographical survey for a boundary dispute?’, it is important that you first consult with a chartered building surveyor. They will carry out a different type of survey in the first instance, with attention given to the legal boundaries, determined by examination of potentially ancient documents, which will allow them to ascertain whether an accurate, up-to-date specialist topographical survey is required. If it is, then you can make the necessary arrangements with a measured survey specialist, such as Callidus Surveys.

The main problem leading to residential boundary disputes is that the current land registration system is not comprehensive enough to determine ownership of relatively small bands of land. A measured survey can shed light on the matter, and assist in negotiations, all with the aim of avoiding costly legal proceedings.

Our approach begins with a desktop exercise ahead of the topographical survey. This allows us to ascertain whether adjacent property boundaries also need to be surveyed.

Because Callidus topographic surveys are undertaken using GPS and geo-referenced to the Ordnance Survey national grid, any available Ordnance Survey data (obtained straightforwardly online) can be directly overlaid. It must be noted, though, that the accuracy of specialist topographic survey information is orders of magnitude more accurate than the data held by Ordnance Survey.

In summary – do I need a topographical survey?

If you are looking to reduce risk; avoid costly, unforeseen issues and keep construction design and development budgets and timescales intact, then a topographical survey is highly recommended.

And when asking, do I need a topographical survey for a boundary dispute, then the answer will come from your chartered building surveyor, who will carry out their own investigations and advise you as to whether a topographic survey would be of benefit.

Topographic surveys from Callidus Building Surveys

Topographical surveys from Callidus Building Surveys Ltd are renowned for their accuracy. Using modern laser targeted, robotic instruments, and with each survey managed hands-on by a single, dedicated, skilled topographic surveyor, and also overseen by one of our experienced principal surveyors, we are able to offer the highest levels of quality.

With decades of experience, and a team made up of some of the best-trained measured surveyors in the UK, you’ll enjoy an efficient, hassle-free service.

How to book your topographical survey with Callidus

Firstly, please send us your plans (or an aerial photo mark-up) so we can fully understand your boundaries and objectives for the survey. This step enables us to adapt our process to fit your needs, and make recommendations regarding the specific survey boundaries (which may or may not accord with existing legal boundaries) and level of detail your topographical survey may need.

Once we’ve received your outline brief, we’ll get back to you with a tailored quote with detailed specification. You are also welcome to contact us to discuss your individual requirements.


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This post was written by

Andrew Wilson
Andrew is the Survey Manager and Director at Callidus Building Surveys Ltd.