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Last edited 16 Mar 2019
The term ‘desk study’ or ‘desktop study’ refers to a study that is carried out purely through research, rather than physical investigations, that is, it can be done sitting at a desk. This may be a preliminary study carried out before more detailed physical investigations are carried out, or it may be a standalone study carried out instead of a physical investigation. In very general terms, a desktop study is likely to be less time consuming and less expensive than a physical investigation. Desktop studies can provide an initial understanding of a subject or situation, identify potential risks and inform the detail, scope and methodology of subsequent investigations.
In the construction industry, desktop studies can be carried out for a number of different types of investigation, including:
- Feasibility studies.
- Preliminary site investigations, to gather background information about site-specific historical, geological and environmental characteristics that will need to be considered during planning, design and construction, or to assess issues that may merit more detailed physical investigations, such as site surveys.
- Utility detection.
- Assessing site lines, local context (such as architectural character, landscape, and so on), archaeology (such as the risk of uncovering archaeological remains, unexploded bombs, and so on), rights of way and other easements, the likely presence of solid and liquid contaminants and so on.
- Environmental scanning for formulating or altering a strategic plan.
- Preliminary ecological appraisals.
- Technical due diligence for development sites.
- Product safety assessments.
Desktop studies were heavily criticised following the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 when it was revealed that they were frequently used to assess the fire safety of cladding systems rather than full-scale physical testing. Up until that point, they were considered a ‘well-established part of the system’ for classifying the fire performance of construction products and systems.
However, the independent review into Building Regulations and Fire Safety, led by Dame Judith Hackitt and published in May 2018, raised concerns about the lack of supporting test data and the competence of some assessment authors. The review recommended significantly reducing the use of desktop studies rather than physical testing, but stopped short of banning them altogether, stating; 'The proposed change does not ban assessments in lieu of tests, as there are some products and systems for which a full-scale physical test is not possible, but it will significantly reduce their use and ensure that those which are carried out are conducted rigorously and properly recorded for further scrutiny.'
Despite this, in April 2018, the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government published a consultation paper proposing to limit or stop the use of desktop studies for assessing the fire performance of external cladding systems.
 Find out more
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- Testing construction materials.
- Archaeology and construction.
- Building survey.
- Contaminated land.
- Development appraisal.
- Feasibility studies.
- Ground conditions.
- Insitu testing of soils.
- Pre construction information.
- Site appraisal.
- Site investigation.
- Site surveys.
- Soil report.
- Soil survey.
- Solid and liquid contaminants site risk assessments.
- Types of soil.
- Walkover survey.
- Preliminary ecological appraisal.
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