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What is a Topographical (Topo) Survey?

Posted 28/09/2021

Topo Survey

A topographical survey (commonly known in the property development world as a topo survey) is a comprehensive and accurate assessment of a site or section of land, which takes into account all potential considerations that relate to a specific planned future development.

Topography is the study of the natural and artificial features of a landscape. Natural topographical features include terrain – the inclines, mounds and hollows of the land – as well as natural growth such as isolated trees and areas of woodland or scrub. They will also include bodies of water, including rivers and streams, ponds and lakes.

Artificial topographical features are man-made: roads and paths, boundaries, buildings and other structures, street signs, lighting and furniture, and visible services (manhole covers, power lines, telephone cabinets).

A topographical survey is an accurate and comprehensive assessment of a tract of land, used to create a three-dimensional map that shows the contours of the land and the position and height of its natural and artificial features. This includes details such as the position of road markings, the types of path and road surfaces and the heights of tree canopies, eaves heights and overhead cables.

Considerations Assessed During A Topographical Land Survey Include:

  • Natural features and environmental considerations
  • Man-made features, both current and historic
  • Location of utilities, identified by drainage covers, electricity poles, gas meters, etc. In London in particular, there can be a huge amount going on under the ground, see this helpful article on Thames Water Build-Over Agreements
  • The surroundings, e.g. shade from neighbouring properties and the potential light blocking on neighbours, being overlooked or overlooking surrounding buildings, blocking views above certain heights, and surrounding environment considerations

Topographical surveys are 3-dimensional (height being an important measurement, not just gridline position), and will often be related to GPS positioning and/or Ordinance Survey references. CAD software is the widely accepted industry standard that allows accurate 3D mapping to be saved digitally, which can then be outputted in a variety of 3D and 2D views as required.

An extract from a topographical survey is shown on our topographic services page, showing the level of detail and accuracy of measurements.


What Is The Purpose Of A Topographical Survey?

When a topographical survey is requested, there is always a potential development being considered, e.g. a residential or commercial property development.

The purpose of the topo survey is to assess all limitations and considerations relating to the site in question, to allow the architect or property developer to assess the feasibility of the proposed development, as well as decide what can and can’t be done, bearing in mind the findings of the topo survey.

Do I Need A Topographical Survey?

If your project is relatively small – for example, a house extension – it’s unlikely a full topographical survey will be needed. Smaller projects that might require a topographical survey include moving or establishing boundaries.

For larger projects, however, planning authorities will require a topological survey as they will refer to it for considerations such as understanding the visual and environmental impact of the development and how it will connect with existing infrastructure and services.

Who Uses Topo Surveys?

Whilst topo surveys are often requested by architecture firms and property developers, the range of people and organisations that may want a topographical survey conducted is wide.

Homeowners and commercial property owners who want to assess the value of their property or section of land for future alternative development may well need a topo survey to help them evaluate this.

And construction companies who have an in-house design team are another common client of a topographical survey provider such as XP Surveys.

Important Considerations

  • Accuracy – if you’re planning to put down foundations within millimetres of a mains water feed or electric cable or sewer, you need to know your measurements are accurate! XP Surveys use technology which is accurate to within + or – 2mm.
  • Thoroughness – also known as attention to detail – there’s no point in researching 9 out of 10 important considerations and leaving 1 or 2 major issues out of the report, that would scupper the proposed development in the late stages of the planning application. Companies conducting a topographical survey service need to consider every possible aspect that could constrain or even prevent the proposed development, even if a skilled architect can then design a workaround, they still need to be identified in the first place. For this reason, hiring a specialist firm of topographical survey professionals like XP Surveys is crucial, their experience and level of detail will provide the correct level of service, in contrast with a more general surveying company. A good topo survey professional will be collaborative and consult with a variety of other specialists where required, such as tree preservation specialists, bat survey specialists, etc.
  • Service Levels – construction projects have deadlines and involve a complex network of different professions and organisations, including architects, council planning departments, construction companies, and clients. Good quality service aspects like turning up for the survey at the agreed date and time are an important consideration when selecting a firm to conduct a topo survey.

Measured Building Surveys vs Topo Surveys

In layman's terms, a topo survey is an accurate, detailed, and thorough site survey or land survey, more concerned with the potential of the site (i.e. a plot of land defined by a specific boundary), than it is concerned about any existing buildings on that site.

A measured survey, by contrast, is focused on the existing building(s), and so is more appropriate when renovating or extending an existing property, than the overall potential of the plot that the property is located on. Many construction works such as large extensions or new builds benefit from having both a topographic and a measured building survey done, so the architect and planners can determine how the alterations sit within the site. The planning department will likely require a topo survey for large developments, so factors such as the views and sight lines can be assessed.

Standard Pricing and Bespoke Packages

While our measured survey pricing guide gives helpful and transparent information on the typical costs of topo surveys, we do regard every survey request as a bespoke requirement. Use our Quote Request tool or contact us for a fast response.

If a site warrants a particularly detailed examination of various aspects, maybe due to its conservation area status or historic significance, or even due to the ambitious nature of the planned development, then a tailored survey package will be quoted on each occasion, suited to your requirements.


Areas We Cover

At the moment, we cover Greater London and the Home Counties.

London has many additional considerations not found in less densely populated areas of the UK, so hiring a local specialist if your project is within London is a smart choice.

Each borough of London has its own set of restrictions and local history, so again, a London-based topo surveys firm is a smart choice for any construction projects in the London area.


Using our specialist equipment, our CAD surveys can output in AutoCAD (.DWG), Revit (.RVT), ArchiCAD (.XYZ or .e57), or PDF formats.

This gives you contours, GPS positioning, levels and 2D sections in any direction required.


Request a Topographical Survey Today

For a professional level of service, and fast response, ring 0333 335 5085, or email info@XPsurveys.co.uk, or please fill out our online quote request form.

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