Topographical Surveys – A short guide on getting your head around procuring a topographical survey

In the recent months to this post I have been working at Icelabz, a surveying company, providing commercial assistance in all areas of the business. Throughout conversation with clients I’ve noticed a few things that needs to be addressed when procuring a topographical survey for a project. The different terminology, understanding and standard between the client, architect and us can cause different expectations. This needs to be addressed and I believe this is a common in the industry, the terminology used and the expectation of the “standard” differs.

For example there have been occasions where clients expected to have a floor plan included in a topographical survey. This is slightly different and we’ll explain this later in this article. Another terminology difference we have is ‘elevation’ we as surveyors consider an elevation plan as the facade of a property however some architect and clients have in their mind a topographical survey with heights annotated on it. That confuses both the client and surveyor, and the surveyor ends up pricing elevation drawings

It is best to be thorough when procuring rather than arguing at the back end of the project. In this entry I will aim to clarify what a topographical survey is and what to look out for when tendering. As a Quantity surveyor I believe you don’t need to know this in detail for your APC, however… I think it would be valuable for you when you ever need to procure a topographical survey for your project.

This guide will also be written for domestic and private clients.

I’ll give you as much information as I can regarding from a domestic person’s and tie this back to the RIBA plan of work.

  1. client don’t know what they are looking for
  2. they use different terms
  3. expectations are different

A topographical survey (also called land surveys, or topological surveys) is a detailed and accurate terrain plan drawing produced by land surveyors. These plans capture both natural and man-made features within the extent of a property. The plans (or drawings) usually include the property’s visible boundary, service covers, neighbouring building heights, building outline, ridge height and levels of the ground.

The plans are presented in scaled digital Acrobat PDF and CAD format for planning and development purposes. Most planning permit will only require digital format submission, but the printed copies can be requested in A3, A1, or A0.

The topographical survey is requested by architects, town planners, and engineers for design and planning stages of a construction project. You can learn more about the stages on the RIBA work stages website. These plans are usually required to be very accurate as they will be used for the design and construction phase of the project. Most one man companies will not have the adequate insurance to cover these works s

It is quite common to request land surveyors to establish control stations on site to give your project team a benchmark to start works on site. This will save you time and cost when hiring a setting out engineer to help you in the construction phase. (You can learn more about setting out engineers with this guide).

What do I need to request topographical survey quote?
To request a topographical survey quote you will need the following information:
1. Site address – the full site address of the property.
2. Site location plan – these are required where the boundary of the land is not clearly defined. Using Google Maps does not help. Most established surveying companies can get the site location plans free of charge, but they may not be able to issue it to you due to licensing restrictions.
3. When do you need the survey undertaken and when do you need the plans back – this is important to let the surveyor know if they can deliver within your requirements.
4. Do you need underground utilities identified? – Not all companies can undertake comprehensive underground utility survey. These will require specialist equipment. However, simple manhole surveys to establish direction flow can be done when requested. These may contain additional charges as lifting equipment may be used.

What to look for in a Topographical Survey Quote
From our vast experience in the industry, we’ve gathered a list of requirements to look out for. You can use them to check for your requirements:

1. Is the surveyor insured for land surveying? – Some surveyors may say they are insured, but it is worth checking if the insurance does cover the job. Land surveying professional indemnity is not cheap and sometimes is difficult to get so be aware of this as not all companies may afford it. If the price provided is too low, then they may not have insurance cover.
2. Which standard are they following? – Most surveyors should follow the RICS measured building and land surveying standard. This includes all the features that should be measured and drawn by default. Ensure that the quotes you have receive is comprehensive enough for your needs and is comparable. This means does everyone cover the same specification?
3. Check payment methods and when you need to pay – depending on the surveying company you choose they may ask for part payment or full payment upfront. This is common for domestic transaction as credit is not often given to customers.
4. Are they qualified? – there is a growing trend of specialists who have no qualifications in land surveying who are undertaking surveying works. These can lead to problems as they do not understand the full requirements and the works may not be accurate. These individuals and companies are technicians in using the equipment and may not necessarily provide you with the right information. Check if they are truly land surveyors by simply asking for qualifications when requesting a quote.
5. Ask for examples – sometimes you may not purchase what you were looking for. There are companies that undertake topographical reports which are different to topographical surveys. The plans they produce are not accurate as the primary purpose of a topographical report is identifying the state of the land and not the dimension.
6. Ask your architect for help – if you are unsure who to go for asking your Architect who may be able to advise you. Again, going for the cheapest may not always be the greatest choice as they may not cover you.

How long does it take?
A topographical survey takes roughly 1-3 hours on a domestic property and may take 5 hours to produce the plan and annotate them with levels. For larger and more complex terrains may take a couple of days and 1-3 days to produce the plans.

What software do I need to view the topographical plans?
You can view the final output in PDF but if you are keen to zoom and measure the plan you can download free DWG viewer from AutoDesk.

How accurate is a land survey?
Accuracy can range between 2-3mm to 25mm depending on the feature measured. For example levels of loose slopes varies a lot whereas more permanent features such as buildings and walls will be accurate.

How much does it cost?
A cost for a topographical survey can vary from £200-700 for domestic/residential properties. Whereas industrial, commercial or large sites can be in the £1000s.

Who do you need to contact to get a quote?

You can easily google ‘topographical surveyors’ to give you a list of companies who can undertake these services. Just make sure they are land surveyors.
We are one of these companies, so if you are looking for a quote you can fill a quote request form, email us or call us on 0203 744 30 20. We usually have a quick turnaround on providing you with a quote and delivering the drawings.

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