How Do I Read a Site Plan for My Property?

How Do I Read a Site Plan for My Property?

Being a project engineer means doing a lot of planning. When working in construction or architecture, one small planning error could lead to catastrophe. Because of this, it’s vital to craft a site plan that is thorough, accurate, and ideal for your specific project.

But what exactly is a site plan, and what does it entail? How does one read a site plan? Let’s cover all the basics so you can be prepared for your upcoming project.

Related: 10 Best Floor Plan Software of 2019

What is a Site Plan?

A site plan refers to a building or architectural plan in the form of a document or drawing. Site plans usually portray building footprints, foundation, sewer and water lines, lighting, landscaping, and other proposed elements.

It is essentially a set of construction drawings that a contractor can use to build a property or make improvements to an existing property. Site plans are also used by cities or counties to properly verify that the building development is up to code, and also as future historical references.

Most of the time, a site plan maps out the area of a future building site as close to scale as possible. For any one project, two site plans are usually used. These include existing site plans (which show the site in its present pre-building state) and proposed site plans (which show what will be changed and what the end result will look like.)

Site plans are usually prepared and designed by design consultants, project managers, architects, land surveyors, engineers, and contractors.

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What Can a Site Plan Contain?

In some cities, a site plan requires nothing more than property lines and the building. However, site plans vary and can also contain a detailed list of elements for the benefit of the contractor or planner. These elements include:

  • The overall shape of the site or future structure.
  • The overall size of the site or future structure, shown using a scale.
  • The orientation of the site or structure. (Which way is east or west, etc.)
  • Any and all variations in structure height, which are usually shown as contour lines.
  • The space that is going to be covered by the structure, and any other structures the designer is planning on building on the site.
  • The precise location and footprint of any existing structures on the site pre-structural building.
  • Any additional relevant features of the space surrounding the building site. This usually includes things that might cause issues for site access or construction.
  • The geographical location of the site or future structure.
  • The exact positions of things like trees, poles, signage, rocks, etc.
  • Any parking lots, sitting areas, easements, rights of carriage, tunnels, driveways, existing and future water drainage, etc.

The site plan will include all of these elements in drawn form for visualization, along with text to accompany different areas of the site plan. 

Related: Site Plan Everything You Need To Know In 2019

Tips on How to Read a Site Plan

So you know the basic elements within each site plan. But once you have it, how do you go about reading it? There are lots of features to a site plan, and all of them mean something important to your planned renovation, building, landscape, event, or property line dispute.

First, let’s define the differences in types of site plans you may be using. There are two different types: existing site plans and proposed site plans.

Both types show a particular site from a top-down view, with all important features, including the size and shape of the site, its geographical location, contour and property lines, easements, rights of carriage, features that have to be preserved, and all physical elements of the site – natural and unnatural.

If your plan reflects the property as it currently is, then what you’ve got is an existing site plan. A proposed site plan is one that shows a future addition that is being planned for the property. If you have an idea for building something new, then you’ll have to become familiar with both types.

Read on to find some tips on how to understand the elements that make up your site plan.

Find The Title Block

In the bottom right corner of most plans, you’ll find what’s called a title block. It contains important administrative information about the site plan and the people involved in making it.

Learn the Plan’s Scale

The scale at which the site map is drawn relative to the actual physical site is represented on the plan in both ratio form (i.e., 1:300) and in a block scale. The block scale is a visual description that tells you how distances and heights are depicted in the site plan.

Determine the Orientation of the Plan

The site plan should feature a “north point,” a symbol indicating how the site that’s depicted is oriented to true north in the site plan. The symbol will often come in the form of the letter “N” capitalized with an arrow attached, indicating which direction north is in the site plan.

Know the Datum Point

The datum is a reference point on the site map that shows a known or assumed height that is used as a reference for all other heights and elevations shown by details of the site plan.

Note the Site’s Contours

Lines drawn on the plan that show the fall of the land are called contour lines, and they are usually referenced to the datum point so that you can get a sense of how the land’s elevation may impact what you want to do.

Locate Existing Structures

The plan will show the structures that currently exist at the site, such as buildings and landscape elements that must be preserved. Buildings are easy to recognize, but other elements may have particular symbols assigned to them to differentiate between types of structures.

Don’t worry if a lot of these site plan details are starting to sound a little daunting. As long you study the symbols and terms and familiarize yourself with their meanings, we’ll handle the rest and make sure you have a plan that passes city regulations.

So now that you know which parts of the site plan to pay attention to — and why — it’s time to take a closer look at some of these elements and how to better understand them.

What is a Title Block and Why Is It Important?

A title block is a block of information that almost always appears on any given site plan, usually at a corner of the page. The purpose of the site block is to provide important details about the project for administrative purposes. These details usually include the name and contact information of the builder or designer, the name of the drawing itself, the drawing number or revision number, signatures and initials for all relevant parties involved in the project, and relevant dates.

It would be wise to include a title block in your site plan for filing purposes, but also so relevant parties (such as clients, county representatives, co-builders, etc.) can contact the designer and builder in charge of the project when needed.

Orientation, Scale, Callouts, and Cross References

Orientation is important for site plans because they help the viewer understand what position the proposed building will be facing. This is important because it provides a broader picture of where the site will be and how to get there. Orientation is usually in the form of a little compass somewhere on the page.

Scale is also very important for the purpose of understanding just how large or small the building will end up being with all structures, lots, and landscaping. Graduated or granulated scales are usually included near the orientation compass to provide a visual representation of the size and distance of the site.

Callouts and cross references will tell the viewer where they can find more in-depth information about a specific area of the site plan. Ideally, the drawing itself should have a minimal amount of text on it to make it easier to view the physical representation of the proposed site. A callout or cross reference can be placed in areas that need more thorough explanations. Typically, the top half of the symbol will note the sequence number of the diagram or drawing, and the bottom half of the symbol will note the page number where the viewer can read more about that specific area.

Related: How Do I Draw A Site Plan?

Additional Example Abbreviations for Site Plans

Because site plans are so visual, it’s difficult to manage accompanying text with the drawings without crowding the image and making it difficult to understand. Because of this, many designers and architects use a series of abbreviations and symbols for different elements of the site plan they are drawing up.

The following are a few basic abbreviations you can use in your site plan, though designers will often use their own symbols and abbreviations for their specific project.

  • AB - Air brick
  • ASPH - Asphalt
  • AT - Acoustic tile
  • B - Basin
  • BHD - Bulkhead over
  • B/I - Built-in
  • BK - Brick
  • CAB - Cabinet
  • CF - Concrete floor
  • COL - Column
  • CW - Cavity wall
  • D - Door
  • DP - Downpipe
  • FA - Floor area
  • FFL - Finished floor level
  • FL - Floor level
  • GM - Gas meter
  • GPO - General purpose outlet or power point
  • HTR - Heater
  • HW - Hot water unit
  • INSUL - Insulation
  • KIT - Kitchen
  • M - Meter
  • MSB - Master switch board
  • PBD - Plasterboard
  • RL - Reduced level
  • RWH - Rainwater head
  • RWP - Rainwater pipe
  • RWT - Rainwater tank
  • SD - Sewer drain
  • SS - Stainless steel
  • U/G - Underground
  • U/S - Underside
  • VENT - Ventilator
  • VP - Vent pipe
  • W(#) - Window + window number
  • WB - Weatherboard
  • WC - Water closet


Additional Ideal Details of a Site Plan


It’s fairly obvious that a site plan should include outer walls, landscaping, parking, and outside structures. But it is also extremely useful to go into more detail for a site plan’s interiors and additional outdoor details. In addition to the basic features we’ve covered thus far, it’s also vital to include the following elements for a site plan in order to make it extremely readable, detailed and useful:

Inner Walls

Inner walls provide a more solid primary layout for each level of the proposed structure, designating what is considered a “room” in the structure. If the site plan is being drawn for a renovation project for a room or hall, then a “before and after” type of drawing is highly suggested. It’s recommended to include dotted or dashed lines for what is already in place, and solid lines for the proposed changes. Usually, closets and hallways are also included in inner walls.

Stairways and Staircases

Stairwells and staircases are a very important inclusion to a site plan that is often overlooked or not made extremely clear visually. Staircases can take up a significant amount of overall space in a residential or commercial space, so it is highly recommended to include a drawn representation of where stairs will be in your site plan. 

Be sure to use arrows to depict if a specific stairwell goes up or down, or consider adding a specific label.

Patios, Balconies, and Garages

An exterior or outer site plan may include these structures, but an internal floor plan might also include these if they are adjacent to the level of the building being presented in the site plan.

Interior Structures and Structural Features

Fireplaces, whirlpools, saunas, storage areas, and cabinetry aren’t technically rooms, but they are spaces that should be clarified as part of the interior layout of the site plan. Use abbreviations or simple symbols to note these features.

Entrances, Doors, and Doorways

Entryways to all rooms in the site plan need to be included, as they provide a visual representation of the flow of the building and various access points. It’s also extremely important to show doorways and exits in your site plan for safety purposes. 

If a specific door is on a hinge, then depict it as open with an arched line to show which way the door opens.

Major Appliances

Refrigerators, stoves, laundry machines, dishwashers, water tanks, and generators should be included in a site plan. For bathrooms and washrooms, make sure you include depictions of all bathtubs, showers, toilets, and sinks.

Even if these appliances are removable, and even if they may not necessarily be included in the construction of the building (example: laundry machines may be moved in later in the project but are not built into the foundation of the building), including their imagery in the drawing can help the viewer put together a more realistic image of the end result of the project.

To clarify, a site plan can be quite extensive, but this is more of a guide of what CAN be included in a site plan but not was needs to be in a site plan. Some cities require nothing more than property lines and the building.



Question Answer
How do zoning laws impact the creation and approval of site plans? Zoning laws are crucial in site plan creation and approval, dictating building types, heights, setbacks, and area ratios. Compliance with local zoning regulations is essential to avoid legal issues and ensure project approval.
What are the common mistakes to avoid when creating a site plan? Common mistakes include ignoring natural elements (like slopes and drainage), overlooking zoning and building codes, underestimating the importance of scale, and failing to communicate changes clearly to stakeholders. Accuracy and future area development considerations are key.
How can technology enhance the site planning process? Technology enhances site planning through 3D modeling and simulations of environmental impacts, optimizing design pre-construction. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) manage geographical data, crucial for large-scale planning.
How often should a site plan be updated during the construction phase? Site plans should be updated regularly during construction to reflect changes and maintain compliance with regulations. This ensures all stakeholders are aware of the project's current status and layout adjustments.
What is the role of a project engineer in the site planning process? Project engineers coordinate with various professionals to ensure the site plan is comprehensive, feasible, and compliant with safety standards. They oversee plan implementation during construction, adjusting to real-world conditions as necessary.

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  • Ryan Crownholm