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Plan B Design Tips - The Site Survey



Welcome to my second blog in the series on 'Design Tips'. Ideas and inspiration you can use in your own gardens. Last month, we looked at design theories. This month is the ever important site survey. Now many of you may be wanting me to jump straight to actual designs for particular shapes of gardens, but this is where many of us go wrong. My view is, it's crucial to understand your site before committing to actual design ideas. Yes, work up some concepts you would like in your garden but don't finalise these to design, until you have a good understanding of the site conditions you are working with. These site conditions should be utilised to influence and maybe even inspire your design.


If conducting a site survey feels too much for you, Plan B provides this service. Either as a stand alone process, as part of our consultancy package, and as part of our full design package.


So, what should you consider during a site survey. Here's my top 14 - not in order as all equally important.

  1. Aspect

  2. Soil

  3. Noise

  4. Circulation

  5. Wind

  6. Garden Shape

  7. Existing Trees, Shrubs and Landscaping

  8. Viewpoints

  9. Height Variations

  10. Practicalities

  11. Intrusion from Neighbours

  12. Existing and to be Retained Functions

  13. Services

  14. Access


It is the combination of these that ensures a well designed garden, works in reality. Below is an example of a Site Survey from my previous work. As you can see, it is fairly detailed and my advice is to get it all down on a piece of paper.


So, now let's look at the 14 areas.


1. Aspect Having a South facing garden is good and a North facing one bad! This is the view of many, but not me and Plan B. True, a South facing garden is great if you want a large patio basking in the sun by the house, but other options are always possible through good design. I currently have a North facing garden - the main patio provides a place of shade in Summer and 2 other smaller seating areas follow the sun through the day. My tip is to draw the basic shape of your garden on a piece of A4 paper and plot onto this where North, East, South and West are. There are many phone Apps for compasses available. Then map out the areas that are in sunlight and shade in the morning, midday and late afternoon. Don't forget to consider this across the seasons too - the sun is not as high in the sky outside of summer! This information then gives you an idea of areas that are in the sun most of the time versus areas that are mostly in the shade. You have now identified Hot Zones and Frost Pockets! Armed with this information you can start to consider placement of hard landscaping such as patios as well as planting. Do you want your patio in shade or sun and at what time of the day - breakfast, lunch or dinner! Using the principle of 'right plant right place' you can start to consider plants that like to bathe in the sun (such as Lavender), to those that love a shady spot (Hellebores).


2. Soil

Regardless if it is sandy, clay, loam, silt, peat or chalk, and whether it is high or low pH - the important thing is to identify your soil type. My experience has shown me to then work with these conditions, as opposed to trying to change them. Large scale changes to soil can be difficult and expensive. Most people also make the mistake of just shipping in lots of top soil to spread over the surface, forgetting that soil structure has layers! Simply piling up top soil, does not change your soil type! It is important to understand the 3 main layers of soil - the top soil, the sub soil, and the parent material. The top soil is generally a few inches deep, the sub soil maybe a spade or two in depth and then you will come to the parent material. In Essex where I live, the parent material is most usually clay, and quite a lot of it! A poorly maintained garden, will often have a poor top and sub soil, highlighting how minimal organic material has been worked in over the years.


Your soil type may effect how you construct your hard landscaping and will guide your plant choices but ultimately a beautiful garden can be created in whatever soil type you have.


3. Noise

Consider where noise intrusion comes from into your garden. Is it a nearby road, a local school, neighbours over the fence, or maybe from the sky if you are near a flightpath! Again, identifying these early, can help with your design process. Simple design tricks can then be utilised to minimise this intrusion.Running water between a noisy road and your patio can drown out road noise, a hedge can deflect the sound away from you and objects such as wind chimes can be used to drown out less favourable sounds...


4. Circulation Your routes around the garden are vital. So, before you design in a path that never gets used, look at the way you currently navigate your way around and think through how you are likey to do so when the new design is built. You need to consider regular routes to outbuildings, to bins and for side access to the house - all of these will require some form of path or access in your new design. In addition, consider current problems with existing paths (i.e. flooding) and be sure not to reinvent these in the new design.


5. Wind

We mainly have South Westerly winds but also experience North East winds on a regular basis. Be conscious of this in how they impact on the current garden, so that you can then factor any issues into your design. Does an alley create a wind tunnel, does the house shield the garden from winds, is the main part of the garden exposed, does wind get trapped in the garden and circulate round and round? All these wind issues will help you think through design ideas that work with this wind, or perhaps defect the prevailing winds.


6. Garden Shape

I will explore this in more depth in a future blog, but it is crucial to consider the current shape of the garden before designing away. What has the shape done for the current garden - has it created dead spots, does it leave unsightly views, has it created access issues? There is to a 'bad' garden design shape, so at the site survey stage, look for opportunities for your design phase.


7. Existing Trees, Shrubs and Landscaping

You may have existing feature which you wish to retain, so ensure you inspect them. Are they healthy (trees and shrubs) and have they been well built/maintained (hard landscaping). Existing trees for example will need to be considered on the shade they create in the garden, the leaf fall in Autumn onto a lawn, and for their thirty roots! Designing a pristine lawn under a 100 year Oak tree, may not be the best plan! Don't forget to consider such features in neighbouring gardens at their impact will be the same. On your site survey, clearly mark existing features that will be staying.


8. Viewpoints

Look at the current garden from all angles. Look up the garden, down the garden, across the garden. Look at the garden from windows - downstairs and upstairs. Look at the garden from any side access. Look at the garden from aerial views - such as on Google Maps! As part of this, consider the main views you have of your garden - most often from the downstairs windows, from the patio doors, as this may be where you want the most impact of your newly designed garden


9. Height Variations

When conducting your site survey, consider the height variations your garden may have. Does the garden slope, maybe away from the house, or are there natural sunken/raised areas? I love it when a garden has natural height variations but these do need careful consideration in new designs. Slopes are a natural hazard for flooding, steps and retaining walls may be needed in the new design, significant slopes towards the house may need some significant drainage solutions.


10. Practicalities

Some gardens look great in pictures but are highly impracticable, so be aware of just designing from a photo. Show gardens are great but as probably the largest room in your home, you probably want the garden to also be practical. Places to sit, paths to get around, nice views from the house, somewhere for the bins... Look at the current garden and see what parts of it are practical for you and re design these into your new garden. Worn paths across a lovely lawn will show where old paths were not right as will the constant unsightly view of the bins from the patio.


11. Intrusion from Neighbours

In your survey, look at the views that others may have of your garden. Consider if these views need obscuring - maybe of you on your new patio or in your hot tub! In the design phase you can introduce objects that obscure these views - a trellis, a lovely tree, a piece of garden art. Intrusion may also be a noise factor so consider point 3 above.


12. Existing and to be Retained Functions

At this point, consider what you wish to keep and whether it is staying in the same place. You may want to keep the shed for practicality reasons, but could it be in a better place? What are these current functions (or structures) made from. Take a note of materials and colours as you will want to link these to new landscaping materials (remember unity from the last blog).


13. Services

Very important to mark these during the site survey. Where do the drains run and where are the inspection hatches. Where is the access to electricity? Are there any overhead cables to consider. All of these need to be noted on the site survey, so that during the design phase, you do not design components that interfere with these services. You don't wan to end up with steps right where there is a man hole cover, nor would you want to block off access to an electricity supply by placing a garden building in from of it!


14. Access

Planned your garden, then you realise you need a big digger for the build, but can't get it down the side of the house! So, as part of the site survey, it is important to consider access to your garden. Is there side access and how wide is it? If not, can you get access from a neighbour or from the bottom of the garden? If everything has to be taken through the house on your new build, this may effect your design and materials choices. In addition, think about access to the front of the property for deliveries, as well as safe storage of materials. If your access is generally poor, this will have a huge impact on the time element of your garden build, so make sure you factor this is.


As you can see, lots of things to consider in a site survey. My experience has shown me though that a comprehensive site survey is well worth the time, as it will minimise potential costly mistakes later on. So, if you are thinking of a re-design, remember your site survey first!


Need some help with your Site Survey, why not contact Plan B for a discussion regarding a stand alone Site Survey.


See you next month, Boyd