Historic Preservation  > Recording Resources > Comprehensive Survey
Guidelines for Comprehensive Surveys

This page is intended to provide guidance for preparers of comprehensive surveys.  Surveyors of large project areas for Environmental Review compliance should also refer to the guidelines provided by the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation (http://www.achp.gov/work106.html). 

All grant-funded surveys must use the Bureau for Historic Preservation ( BHP ) CRGIS database and comply with BHP survey standards.  All grant-funded survey material must be useful to the BHP in order to carry out its responsibilities under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 as amended.  All surveys supported by state or federal funding must be conducted by surveyors who meet the Secretary of the Interior’s Professional Qualifications Standards for Archaeology and Historic Preservation (http://www.nps.gov/history/local-law/arch_stnds_9.htm). 

BHP will not accept comprehensive survey information unless it conforms to BHP filing, database, and GIS conventions.  Use only BHP -approved survey forms.  Contact BHP for further details. 

When planning a survey, consult the National Register Bulletin Guidelines for Local Surveys: a Basis for Preservation Planning for detailed information (http://www.nps.gov/history/nr/publications/bulletins/nrb24/nrb24.pdf).  For other guidance on survey consult BHP as needed.

Work Products provided to BHP :

  • Original of all Survey Forms (unbound)
  • Original of all USGS maps and GIS coverage
  • Original of all photography
  • Survey Report (two copies)
  • Printed Inventory
  • CD/DVDs with all survey materials: reports, mapping, photography and other images, database


Survey Forms & Inventory

  • BHP will provide an electronic Survey database of existing records and a data entry form.  BHP will provide training and instructions for using the database.  Prepare an entry for each property surveyed and complete all the required fields.  The database permits mapping, text, and photography to be linked to the survey data electronically and printed on a single form.
  • For properties already recorded in the BHP files, include the BHP Key Number on the Survey Form and in the inventory. 
  • Provide the tax parcel and street address for each property. Always enter the full tax parcel numbers exactly as they appear in municipal records; do not abbreviate, truncate, or otherwise alter tax parcel numbers.
  • Cross index all Survey material.

Map all properties on USGS 7.5 minute series maps

  • Provide a master USGS map or maps with the survey area and all surveyed properties marked.
  • Use the Key Number, tax parcel, or Survey Code to identify properties ad cross reference them to Survey Forms and other materials.
  • To the printed Survey Form for each property attach a copy of the USGS map with the property location marked.

GIS mapping based on local tax coverage

  • BHP must approve the tax parcel coverage; contact BHP before beginning.
  • Provide a base map in paper form showing the location of all surveyed resources.
  • Key the individual properties to the GIS map using the Key Number, tax parcel number, or other identifier used for all parts of the record.
  • To each copy of the Survey Form attach a copy of the pertinent section of the GIS map with the property location marked.

All photos must meet National Park Service standards for conventionally processed or digital images.  Full National Park Service guidance regarding photography can be found at http://www.nps.gov/history/nr/policyexpansion.htm.

  • Provide clear and descriptive photographs .  Include views of the primary elevation, additional elevations, outbuildings, and landscape features are desirable.  At least one view of the primary elevation of a building is required.  For complexes, include at least one view of each feature and a view showing the complex if possible.
  • All photographs must be numbered and labeled with name and Key Number (or tax parcel number, or other identifier used in the survey project).
  • Photocopies of photos are not acceptable. 
  • For survey purposes, digital images may be submitted as jpg files.  If digital photos are used, an electronic set of images must also be submitted.  Label the CD with the name of the project, survey area, municipalities, and state.  For surveys related to Section 106 or History Code compliance, include the ER number.
  • Digital photos printed at a high resolution on regular printer paper are acceptable.  Print images no smaller than 4x6 and no more than two per page.  Captions can be printed on the page; include the photo number, name of the property, municipality, county, and description of the view.  Digital images printed individually on photo paper should also be labeled, either on the back of the image or in the margin as a caption.
  • Processed photos must be printed to 3 ½ by 5 inches (minimum) to 5x7 (maximum) on double or medium-weight photo paper.  Each photo must be labeled on the back in pencil or permanent photo-marking pen with the photo number, name of the property, municipality, county, and description of the view.
  • Do not glue photos to the forms or any other papers or cards.  If the images are not printed on the form, either staple the photos to the form or place them in an envelope stapled to the form. 

Survey Report
See the BHP Standards for Survey Reports for directions on the organization and formatting of the report.

  • Explain the Methodology for the project.  Explain how the survey was conducted.  Outline the research used.  Identify the nature of the background research, the number of properties, the acreage of the area surveyed, and level of information collected on properties.
  • Prepare a Historic Context outlining the history of the area being surveyed.  Identify the themes, development patterns, and events that characterized and shaped the built environment and landscape.  See the BHP Historic Context Guidelines for further information.
  • Outline the results of the project.   Summarize the findings of the survey, identifying the types of properties found, and explaining how they reflect the history of the area.  Summarize the trends or patterns in the architecture and built environment, including an assessment of the integrity and condition of extant resources.  Identify potential districts ad properties that could be further documented for potential National Register eligibility.  Explain how the National Register Criteria were applied to make the recommendations.  Outline further research needed if appropriate. 

Types of Survey

Survey is a process of identifying and gathering data on a community's historic resources. It includes field survey, which is the physical search for and recording of historic resources on the ground.  It also includes planning and background research before field survey begins, a report summarizing the methodology and results of survey, and the development of inventories.
Survey can be conducted at a variety of scales, producing different kinds of survey data applicable to different needs. The selection of field survey techniques and level of effort must be responsive to the management needs and preservation goals that direct the survey effort.

  1. Reconnaissance or Windshield Survey is the basic level of survey that results in the characterization of an area’s general development patterns and the nature of its built resources.  It collects enough physical information about the age, materials, style, condition, and location of a property that it can be easily identified.  Reconnaissance-level surveys do not generally collect information related to the specific history or importance of a property.  The background research relevant to a Reconnaissance-level survey addresses the development and history of the overall survey area.  Reconnaissance surveys may include a limited identification of sub-surface (archaeological) resources.
  2. Comprehensive Survey is a thorough level of documentation that includes the collection of historical information about individual properties and the identification of archaeological resources through the use of Phase 1 archaeological survey techniques.  The background research relevant to a Comprehensive-level survey includes the identification of themes and patterns important to the development of a region and the identification of property types that reflect those themes.  It will identify properties recommended for Intensive Survey level documentation.
  3. Intensive Survey is a level of documentation that produces sufficient information about a property for it to be evaluated for its significance according to pre-established criteria.  Municipalities may establish their own criteria or they may use the Criteria established by the National Register of Historic Places.   Intensive survey is usually used only for properties recommended by a Comprehensive Survey.  The background research relevant to Intensive-level documentation includes information that specifically explains the relationship of a property to the important themes and property types identified in the Comprehensive survey and explains how the property meets the established criteria.  Intensive-level survey will include both above and below ground resources. Phase 2 level survey  methodolgy will identify potential archaeological resources.

Survey Principles

A comprehensive survey is a tool for enabling communities, organizations, and agencies to inventory the historic resources of an area.  The survey area can be defined by municipal boundaries, topographic features, project area, or other useful boundary.  The fundamental purpose of a comprehensive survey is to assist in planning, so that historic resources important to an area can be provided for in future development.  (The Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code requires that communities develop comprehensive plans that include a historic preservation component for locally important historic resources.)  The purpose of survey is not solely to identify candidates for National Register eligibility.  It is critical to remember that for planning purposes, resources that are important to a community should be considered for preservation regardless of National Register eligibility.

Basic principles to keep in mind when considering a comprehensive survey are:

Understand your goal : Why are you conducting the survey?  Is it to facilitate a road improvement project?  To prepare tourist materials such as walking tour brochures?  To create a baseline record for planning decisions by the municipality? To identify potential resources for listing in the National Register eligibility?  Your reasons for conducting the survey will influence the type, amount, complexity of the information you collect beyond the minimum record.

Think long term: You are creating a record that can remain useful for decades.  Try to capture information about newer resources that may not seem important now but might be twenty or thirty years from now.

Think holistically and comprehensively:   Don't be arbitrary in what you select to survey.  You are not developing an inventory of what you know you like or what you think is the best; don’t limit the survey to resources like just brick or stone houses or just the earliest buildings.  Seek to capture information about all the resources that reflect the development of the survey area.

Prepare carefully: DON'T start before you have some understanding of your municipality's history.  What kind of places do you expect to have (such as agricultural, industrial, suburban)?  What periods of development are reflected in your area? 

DO preliminary research before you ever look around; find out what historic research materials may assist you, such as county atlases, municipal directories, deeds, census data, Sanborn insurance maps; learn where these materials are located.

  • Depth of research: you need to evaluate how much historical research is necessary to understand the history of the development of your community AND how much research is necessary for each property.
  • Identify benchmark references, such as the 1798 direct tax, county maps or atlases of a particular years or years, Sanborn Insurance Company maps at specific years.  If each property is researched using the same references, you will be able to relate them to each other and to the history of the community.
  • Identify what information can be gathered from historical documents and what information can be gathered only by going to the property.

DETERMINE what places have been surveyed previously.  What properties are already in the state or local inventories.  Who has the information and where is it located?

  • The Bureau for Historic Preservation Cultural Resources Inventory and online CRGIS have thousands of records for properties, as well as the reports and records of state-wide survey projects for bridges, state hospitals, iron furnaces, state parks, and other property types.
  • Local historical and preservation organizations have records for their own areas.
  • County governments have tax and other property records, planning and zoning documents, even local survey information.  Look for records in tax offices, housing agencies, redevelopment offices, and planning commissions.             
  • Municipal government records, including historical commission and Historic Architectural Review Board records can be helpful.

ESTABLISH a workplan

  • In what order will you do the field work?
  • Which municipalities or communicates will you survey first?  Why?
  • Who will do the work?  All surveys supported by state or federal funding must be conducted by surveyors who meet the Secretary of the Interior’s Professional Qualifications Standards for Archaeology and Historic Preservation (http://www.nps.gov/history/local-law/arch_stnds_9.htm).  A qualified surveyor can train volunteers, direct development of methodology, review products and evaluate information collected to ensure the NPS survey standards are met.

Document accurately

  • Make sure that all addresses, dates, physical data and locations are accurately recorded.
  • Map every place, ie, individual property or district that you survey.
  • Prepare sketch site plans that show the boundary of the property and the location/identity of important buildings and landscape features.
  • Collect correct geographic information.  Make sure you know the difference between the municipality in which the property is located and the mailing address.
  • Be consistent in your recordation. 
  • Photograph as thoroughly as possible, showing the primary elevation, distinctive detailing, all outbuildings in a complex, landscape and settings, associated farmlands, streetscapes.
  • Key photographs to all maps and plans.

In the end you should be able to answer these three simple questions.  When you use the file, can you:

Locate the property?
Understand what the property looks like?
Understand if the property is important for your goals?