Guide to conducting a heritage survey

by | Jul 20, 2019

A heritage survey allows you to systematically identify and record heritage resources in your community. For your survey you may wish to focus purely on the built environment although you can also opt to document sites associated with intangible heritage.  

What is a heritage survey?

A survey is the documentation and recording of places, buildings, structures, trees, avenues, landscapes etc. of cultural significance that comprise the ‘built environment’ and ‘cultural landscape’ of a demarcated geographical area and which are recognised to be heritage resources. A survey is conducted so as to identify all heritage resources and to quantify and describe their significance.

A survey can be used by all three spheres of government to make decisions about heritage resources. It can also empower a community to know and understand the nature and significance of the heritage resources in their area. The ultimate aim is to provide an impartial, transparent and fair procedure for identifying and caring for heritage resources.  

Preparing for a survey

A survey should ideally be conducted by a multi-disciplinary committee (involving, for example, historians, architects, town planners, heritage practitioners, community elders, GIS specialists and other knowledgeable individuals from the community). We also suggest that your local municipality serve on the committee as the local authority has to compile heritage inventories within their jurisdiction whenever they compile or revise their planning or zoning schemes. In this manner your inventory can officially be adopted by the local authority which will help guide future decision making.

Contact your provincial heritage resources authority before commencing

Before you start your survey, confirm with your provincial heritage resources authority whether there are provincial requirements that have to be met in order for a heritage survey to be approved or endorsed by them. Some provincial heritage resources authorities, such as Heritage Western Cape, publish guidelines for conducting surveys. They can also share best practices with you as they have experience of heritage surveys prepared for other communities.      

Research your community

It is recommended that you survey the available literature on your community as a start. The purpose is to identify important landmarks and major historical themes, periods, events and people. Also identify the heritage themes that are predominant in the area, for example, history of slavery, liberation history etc. You will need to draft a historical background to the area to contextualise the development of the built environment and cultural landscape. You also need to provide a brief overview of local architectural history, referring to:

  • earliest forms of habitation
  • vernacular architecture with reference to specific vernacular styles and building materials of the area
  • various architectural styles represented in the demarcated area
  • architectural context (this refers to the buildings and structures in the whole of the local area, farming district and wider region, and not to the historical or geographical context).

Refer to our article, Historical research: a guide for communities for tips on how to research a community.

Survey team

Identify members from the committee who will be responsible for conducting the actual fieldwork. Once the team has been constituted agree on the area to be surveyed. It should also be decided whether all structures in the demarcated area will be included in the survey, or only structures of a certain age, for instance all structures older than 60 years or all structures, irrespective of age. Agree on the categories or typologies to be documented. These can be, for example, buildings, bridges, railway lines, open areas etc. For buildings you can further refine the categories to distinguish between residential, commercial, industrial, religious, institutional or other uses.

Fieldwork and preparation of an inventory

Depending on the size of the area to be surveyed you may want to allocate sections to specific team members to survey. The fieldworkers will be tasked with walking and driving the designated area, systematically identifying heritage resources as they move through the area. We suggest that each team should have a digital camera and GPS device to capture GPS coordinates, although this is strictly speaking not required. It is also helpful for the team to have a printed map of the area showing both the street and erf numbers. This will assist in identifying boundaries.

The results of the fieldwork should then be captured in an inventory. Heritage Western Cape suggests that the following data be captured as minimum requirement:

  • block and building reference number
  • erf number
  • GPS coordinates
  • street address
  • type of building (e.g. religious, military, house, flats)
  • date built
  • style (refer to a specific style and not a period, e.g. Georgian style, although it may fall within the Victorian period)
  • architectural period (e.g. Victorian period)
  • alterations (restorations, renovations, extensions, additions and the dates of such alterations)
  • present NHRA protection (e.g. is the building older than 60 years, or has it been graded)

You may also want to capture:

  • name of the building
  • name of the architect
  • description (e.g. the physical characteristics)
  • history (e.g. first/ previous owners)
  • social history (e.g. prominent figures associated with the site)

Proposed grading

In addition, for each identified resource include the recommended grading (where a grading has not already been formally assigned) considering the significance of the site or object in terms of:

  • its importance in the community, or pattern of South Africa’s history
  • its possession of uncommon, rare or endangered aspects of South Africa’s natural or cultural heritage
  • its potential to yield information that will contribute to an understanding of South Africa’s natural or cultural heritage
  • its importance in demonstrating the principal characteristics of a particular class of South Africa’s natural or cultural places or objects
  • its importance in exhibiting particular aesthetic characteristics valued by a community or cultural group
  • its importance in demonstrating a high degree of creative or technical achievement at a particular period
  • its strong or special association with a particular community or cultural group for social, cultural or spiritual reasons
  • its strong or special association with the life or work of a person, group or organisation of importance in the history of South Africa, and
  • sites of significance relating to the history of slavery in South Africa.  

In the Western Cape the grading scheme shown below is used. We suggest you consult with your provincial heritage resources authority to confirm which system is used in that province:





Heritage resources with qualities so exceptional that they are of special national significance



Heritage resources with special qualities which make them significant in the context of a province or region, but do not fulfil the criteria for Grade I status.

Exceptionally high



Such a resource contributes to the environmental quality or cultural significance of a larger area and fulfils one of the criteria set out in section 3(3) of the Act but that does not fulfil the criteria for Grade II status. Grade III sites may be formally protected by placement on the Heritage Register.


Such a resource must be an excellent example of its kind or must be sufficiently rare. These are heritage resources which are significant in the context of an area.


High significance


Such a resource might have similar significances to those of a Grade III A resource, but to a lesser degree. These are heritage resources which are significant in the context of a townscape, neighbourhood, settlement or community.

Medium significance


Such a resource is of contributing significance to the environs These are heritage resources which are significant in the context of a streetscape or direct neighbourhood.

Low significance

Not Conservation Worthy

A resource that, after appropriate investigation, has been determined to not have enough heritage significance to be retained as part of the National Estate.

No research potential or other cultural significance



Review and consultation

Once all data has been captured it is important that the committee review the work of the survey teams in order to identify any gaps and to reach consensus on the recommended grading. We suggest that a community meeting be held for the committee to share the findings and recommendations with other residents. Through consultation there may be need for further research and the refinement of the site listings. It is important that you record and document these consultations as you will need to provide evidence of public consultation.   

Mapping the results

Once you have completed the research and confirmed the findings with the community, you need to prepare maps of the results. Heritage Western Cape suggests that three maps be prepared:

  • The first of these three maps shows the approximate age of all of the buildings in the area identified by colour (the periods indicated are inevitably determined by the historical records/maps available)
  • the second shows all of the buildings, sites and areas which are recommended to be graded and designated as heritage resources identified by colour, and
  • the third map should show areas proposed to be heritage areas.


Lastly, a motivation should be prepared to the local authority as well as the provincial heritage resources authority motivating for the endorsement and adoption of the survey results. You will need to provide evidence of public consultation. We also recommend that the survey be published on the website of the local conservation body. Lastly, make sure that the inventory and the maps are incorporated into your local authority’s GIS database. This will ensure that your local planning department has access to the data. Once the inventory has been approved and adopted you should also upload it to the South African Heritage Resource Information System database accessible on the website of the South African Heritage Resources Agency.

Post script: in the case of cultural resources in protected areas you need to consult the Cultural heritage survey guidelines and assessment tools for protected areas in South Africa issued by the Department of Environmental Affairs.