Your Building Site Is Speaking To You. What is It Saying?

When you see a house that looks particularly “at home” in its setting, do you ever wonder why? Chances are the house was designed specifically for that site by an architect or designer who was sensitive to designing from the “ground up.” Surely you want your house to have all the features on your wish list; but first, every great design starts with its setting.
How can you understand what your site is saying to you?

Walk It!

Walk it with an expert in interpreting the site’s message. No building site can be understood from the road (many realtors’ preferred vantage point), from a site map, or topographic study. Every site has natural features that are only apparent when you spend time there walking, feeling the terrain, observing nature, and poking around. Taking full advantage of a site is a thought process, taking as many options and possibilities into consideration. It may take several visits for you to get the full message.
Sound mystical? Not at all! Here are a few of the types of clues that skilled designers and architects study before putting a pencil to paper.

Topographic Clues:

The terrain of the site is a powerful determinant of the house design. The slope of a building site is often steeper than it looks. Take a tape measure and measure out 24 feet in length and with the help of a level determine how much the elevation changes over that distance. This will help you understand if your site will accommodate a house with a main level entry and a full walkout basement, for example, or if the site is so steep that special consideration such as a “bridge” or special fill might be required to access the front door. Sites slope from side to side as well as from front to rear. Imagine where you want to place your house and study the site to begin to determine the best way to marry the house to the site. Will the house “dip down” to meet the land in some places? Where will the land “rise up” to meet the house? A good design is sculpted to the natural terrain of the site, not the other way around, and understanding how to accomplish this is an important design element.
In addition to the slope of the land, an in-depth walk will give you other clues. The existence of ledge may help determine where your house can be easily located without the cost of extensive blasting. Look for large outcroppings of rock; areas where the vegetation is interrupted, or shallow rooted scrub pines that often grow in ledged areas. Is the soil moist clay, which might hint at special drainage needs; what might the terrain be telling you about access to your garage; if certain rooms require direct access to the outside, where might they be located in the house and on the site? Beware of low or wet areas that could result in drainage problems.
The terrain of your site will provide a wealth of information about how your house should be designed to fit naturally on that site. Good siting not only looks great, it costs much less to accomplish when the amount of earth moving has been reduced!

Vegetation Clues:

Obviously the preservation of mature trees should be a key element in any house design; so their location will tell you a great deal about your house location on the site.
Somewhat related to the sun’s path is the natural vegetation on the site. For example, major trees can provide welcome shade from the sun in the summer or buffer from prevailing wind in the winter. Deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves) are ideal to shade the south side from sun when in full leaf during the summer and let the sun in during the winter. Coniferous trees (those that have needles and do not loose their leaves) are ideal to provide shade through the year and to deflect prevailing winter winds. A good house design will not only avoid the removal of important trees of any kind, it will also respect the function of trees in creating your home’s microclimate. The location of trees relative to your house and their role in energy efficiency and sun control is the subject of entire textbooks and should be understood before you begin the design process. These factors are important to both the overall design of the house as well as the arrangement of spaces within the house.
Vegetation can also tell you a great deal about other aspects of your site. For example, the presence of ferns or certain marsh grasses, will likely indicate a wetland area which is probably restricted from building but which also might be damp during certain times of the year, even if the area looks dry now.

Solar Orientation:

One of the most important design elements in every house is the path of the sun. The sun will brighten the southern exposure of your house, and as the sun makes its arc from southeast to southwest, it will illuminate different elevations and rooms of the house. Take some time to understand the sun’s path with respect to your site and your intended house location. What rooms want early morning sun; midday sun; or late afternoon sun? Which rooms require no direct sunlight? The answers to these questions are not the same for everyone, and you need to think about them with respect to your own lifestyle. Some of us like bedrooms that are sunny in the morning; others of us prefer dark bedrooms to promote sleeping later. Many of us prefer brightly lit morning kitchens but a media room needs no natural light. The sun and its relationship to your house -and the specific living spaces therein- has a great deal to do with your personal lifestyle.

Other Natural Restrictions that Affect Location:

As we discussed in the last issue, the location of wetlands may also affect the potential location of your house. Being familiar with restrictions placed on the house location by setback requirements (front and rear), proximity to wetlands or coastal flood plains, or other local restrictions on site location are important for you to understand, as they may affect your house location, layout, or size.

Natural Clues that Affect Shape and Volume:

Why do classic Prairie Style houses have low roof pitches and sweeping overhangs? To reflect the flat and sweeping terrain of the prairie. Every house’s shape should draw cues from the terrain of the site or the region. Many houses that look particularly at home on their sites are designed with shapes, massing, or variation in the roof form that somehow relate to their surroundings.
Take a good look at your site and ask yourself, what is the terrain of the area actually telling me about my house? When you walk the site with an expert, he or she will be picking up cues from the topography that will affect the house design, its exterior finish materials and color as much as regional design preferences do.

Utility and Service Clues:

Just as natural features of your site affect your house placement and design, so do the connections to civilization. Your site will need to be serviced by electric power. It may be served by a municipal sewer system or septic system. It may draw water from your community’s water supply or from a private well. All of these utility related considerations may affect the position of your house on its site. It is important that you gather up all of this information and obtain copies of any perc test or septic engineering that has been done and locate the path or location of all utilities on your site plan prior to thinking about siting your house.
Once you locate your well and the large area reserved for your septic system, you need to start thinking about how they relate to your house. Many people, for example, use the septic field area as the rear yard of the house since it needs to remain clear and is a natural location for a lawn. Others, because of topography or location of good percable soil, need to place the septic field in front of the house and consider the relative location of driveway, parking, and garage.

Septic Elevation:

Placing your septic system at a higher elevation than your basement will require added costs and reliability issues associated with pumps.


Picture yourself inside your new home. What rooms should have major views? What should have views onto smaller on-site features? What rooms should have views to the street or the rear yards. Which rooms should enjoy direct access to the outside. How you picture yourself living inside your new home with respect to the natural features of your site is very important and a key way of personalizing your new home so that it will feel just right on the inside, as well as looking right from the outside.

How we can help you…

Our job is to help you recognize the potential of your site, to cope with the restrictions on its use and to design a house that looks natural in its surrounding and is laid out in such a way as to maximize your appreciation for the outdoors beyond. This is no simple matter, but one we have accomplished successfully over years.
The first step in the design process is for us to walk your site with you and discuss all of the ideas described above and to get a sense of how you see yourself living on this site. You can prepare for the site visit by taking all of the regulatory restrictions, natural restrictions, and utility restrictions and locating them on a site plan (doing it crudely is fine). We need to get all of the information together.
During our site visit, we’ll determine the slope, perhaps stake out the optimal building location on the site, and discuss with you what that means in terms of clearing, site improvements and their costs, and the actual layout of the house. It is all information that will factor heavily into the individualized architectural design of your Stillwater home; information that will help us create a house that is like no other…an appropriate response to your lifestyle and your site. And one important reason why your Stillwater home will look as terrific from the outside as it does on the inside.

For more information…

For more information on this topic or any other aspect of our custom design and building programs, please contact our corporate offices with your questions. Click on the link below to email us.