Tech Update: Site Investigation Phase 1 Geoenvironmental Assessment (Desk Study)
The aim of the Geoenvironmental Assessment is to identify and assess the potential geotechnical and geoenvironmental (contamination) hazards on the site. Since all sites are fundamentally different, it’s imperative to identify the scope and purpose of your desk study. This will include who commissioned the work, the development proposals, relevant procedures followed and the objectives. Issues specifically excluded should be noted if these would normally be expected as part of the desk study
Your site description should define the exact extent of your site. This should include your site address, grid reference, the elevation of the site and the boundaries/ topography of the site. It’s important to remember when inspecting your site, that you should be inspecting the immediate surrounding areas as well.
This needs to include information which is not apparent on the map and describe what currently occupies the site e.g.
- Hard standing
- Trees and any particular features.
The types of vegetation on your site can indicate soil and ground water conditions and note should be made of any invasive plants e.g. Japanese Knotweed and Giant Hogweed. Features and uses of land adjacent to your site should also be reported if there is likely to be an impact on your development. It’s fairly common for features such as tanks to be known about but unrecorded.
You should take note of any potential sources of contamination and geotechnical hazards e.g.
- Land slipping
- Ground subsidence
- Soft ground
- Desiccated/shrinkable soils.
You should ensure that all structures on your site are inspected both internally and externally for any evidence of structural damage such as tilting, cracking or chemical attack. Any evidence of underground features should be noted.
Local residents can often be a valuable source for information, where practical, remember to use caution in respect to their ‘memories’. Local place names often give useful indications of former uses e.g. Gas Works Lane, Water Lane, Tannery Road etc. Aerial photos and their interpretation can also be very useful.
A photographic record of the site as well as any specific site features should be included with your report.
When assessing the potential for contamination or geotechnical hazards on your site the history of both the site and the surrounding areas is extremely important. Historical Ordnance Survey maps date back to the mid-19th century and often specify the actual industrial use of particular sites or buildings. They can show areas of quarrying and of infilling, often indicating where buried obstructions such as tanks or old foundations can be expected.
Whether off-site past industrial use will have any influence or impact on your site will depend on the type of industry that it was as well as the underlying geography/topography of the area. However, consideration should generally be given to any such features within a 250m radius of the site (or further where appropriate) with the potential to affect it.
Historical maps are available from libraries as well as commercial providers such as Ground Sure or Envirocheck. Issues regarding possible breaches of copyright are also avoided by using licenced products
Please remember that historical maps only provide a snapshot in time. Care must be taken when interpreting what may have occurred in the intervening years. For example, a quarry may be shown on one map and infilled on the next. However in the intervening period, it could have expanded prior to infilling; similarly, industrial uses may not always be recorded while many military or sensitive uses may have been omitted.
Other sources of information may include an internet search and any historical aerial photos. Additionally it may be necessary to search Local Authority Libraries and Local History departments.
Geology / Mining
The geology of your site should be recorded by reference to published geographical maps which most commonly exist at 1:50,000 and 1:10,000. The British Geological Survey Geo-Index also provides existing ground investigation records including logs and reports. It’s important to note that these logs and reports don’t just relate to the surrounding area but could also include any previous investigations of the site itself. The information on the geological maps can also be supplemented with British Geological Survey tech reports, flood risk appraisals and memoirs.
Bedrock geology and any overlying superficial deposits as well as the effects of weathering should all be described along with any geological faults that may affect the site. You should also give an explanation of the likely ground conditions together with references to any other mapped geological features, particularly if there are likely to be any natural cavities or solution features.
If you’re site is located in an area formally coalfields or another area of mineral extraction, maps may not always record the presence of old or active workings. The chance of shallow coal workings affecting surface stability should be established in conjunction with the Coal Authority Report. Reports like this also record areas that have been affected by the extraction of brine, which is particularly prevalent in the Cheshire area. Other forms of mineral extraction will require site-specific research.
Any potential of mine working or mine entries within an influencing distance of your proposed site should be addressed by an engineer with suitable experience and qualifications prior to the commencement of works and in accordance with CIRIA SP 32: Construction Over Abandoned Mine Workings, 2002. Reference should be made to reports on geological hazards such as Ground Sure or Envirocheck reports, both on site and locally.
Solution Features in Chalk
Solution features like pipes, swallow holes and solution cavities (sometimes loosely infilled with drift deposits) are commonly found in chalk. These are caused by water dripping through the chalk and dissolving it. The risks caused by solution features should be addressed in your Site Investigation Report generally from a Ground Sure or Envirocheck report on geological hazards.
Hazard maps, with different coloured areas representing different levels of risk are available for such areas. Where risk is moderate or high, special precautions should always be taken. For strip foundations these special precautions would include careful inspection of the excavation, probing and use of reinforcement to span potential voids.
If you’re using piled foundations in your build, CIRIA PR 86 recommends that ‘a CPT (cone penetration test) is undertaken at each pile location at sites identified during desk studies to be prone to dissolution’.
Alternatively, in some instances it can be appropriate to design the pile for shaft friction alone, assuming the pile has no end bearing due to a solution feature below it.
In extreme circumstances, where a site investigation borehole has encountered an extensive solution feature, the shaft friction may also be reduced to take account of this.
Potential effects of soakaways, leaking drains, run off etc. on the chalk on your site will need to be considered and addressed in your design.
CIRIA C574: Engineering in Chalk, 2002 gives the following recommendations:
‘Concentrated ingress of water into the chalk can initiate new dissolution features, particularly in low-density chalk, and destabilise the loose backfill of existing ones. For this reason, any soakaways should be sited well away from foundations for structures or roads, as indicated below:
- In areas where dissolution features are known to be prevalent, soakaways should be avoided if at all possible but, if unavoidable, should be sited at least 20m away from any foundations.
- Where the chalk is of low density, or its density is not known, soakaways should be sited at least 10m away from any foundations.
- For drainage systems, flexible jointed pipes should be used wherever possible; particular care should be taken for the avoidance of leaks in both water supply and drainage pipe work.
- As the chalk is a vitally important aquifer, the Environment Agency and Local Authority must be consulted when planning soakaway installations where chalk lies below the site, even where it is mantled with superficial deposits.’
Hydrogeology and Flooding
It’s important that your assessment includes the flood risk and hydrogeology of your site, particularly focussing on whether your site lies on the Principle Aquifer and/or Source Protection Zone, which are both susceptible to pollution of groundwater.
The presence of surface water features and drainage should be described and the overall risks of flooding to the site should be determined primarily with reference to the Environment Agency flood map data and Local Authority-commissioned Strategic Floor Risk Assessments. Flood risk data is constantly being updated by the Environment Agency as well as the Local Authority.
Any ground / surface water abstraction points downstream of the site (particularly any drinking water abstraction points) should be recorded as these may have liability implications should the development cause any pollution.
The Environmental Setting of your site will determine whether it poses an actual or a potential environmental risk or is at some external risk from pollution. This will all depend on the topography, geology, hydrogeology and hydrology of the site amongst other site-specific considerations.
Remember to consider other potential sources of contamination too:
- Pollution Control Licenses
- Discharge consents
- Hazardous Sites (COMAH, NIHHIS)
- Pollution incidents
- Waste treatment sites
- Past/current industrial sites
Modern day industrial operations rarely provide a risk of pollution to a site. Pollution is more likely to have been caused by historical activities and processes that were often deemed normal practise at the time but which are considered unacceptable today. In this regard the past history is invariable highly significant in respect to the possibility for ground pollution on your site.
Your site should also be considered in relation to any designated environmentally sensitive sites, such as Special Areas of Conservations, Special Protection Areas, Nature Reserves and Sites for Special Scientific Interest. In particular, could contamination on the site be affecting such sensitive areas whether these are on or adjacent to the study site?
Use of these supplies, as with historical maps, is generally considered the most cost-effective method of data gathering. The issue with historical maps and datasets is that they generally exist with little or no interpretation of the mass of information that they provide. It is therefore essential that the data is interpreted by an experience and qualified individual. Automated Risk Assessments do not include appraisal by qualified staff, and should therefore be viewed with caution and not usually acceptable to Regulators.
Whether or not you need to incorporate radon protection measures should be determined by reference to risk maps produced by the Health Protection Agency. Such information is also usually included within commercially available datasets.
Geoenvironmental Risk Assessment and Conceptual Site Model
As part of your assessment you should carry out a quantitative health and environmental risk assessment. The process to take for a risk assessment is set out in Part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, and amended in subsequent legislation. This act introduces the concept of pollution linkage, which consists of a pollution (contaminative) source or hazard and receptor together with an established pathway between the two. For land to be contaminated a pollution linkage (hazard-pathway-receptor) must exist. This forms the ‘conceptual model’ for your site.
Pathways of potential contaminants
Examples of pathways and the effects of land contamination (after PPS 23) are shown in Figure 2: Pathways and potential contaminants.
For further information on Contamination or site investigations you can download Chapter 4 of our Technical Manual:
The information used in this article is taken from Version 8 of the LABC Warranty technical Manual and is provided as guidance in meeting our technical standards. If working on an LABC Warranty site please check which standards apply.
Please Note: Every care was taken to ensure the information in this article was correct at the time of publication. Any written guidance provided does not replace the reader’s professional judgement and any construction project should comply with the relevant Building Regulations or applicable technical standards. However, for the most up to date LABC Warranty technical guidance please refer to your Risk Management Surveyor and the latest version of the LABC Warranty technical manual.