Why You Need an Architect: Site Planning
Updated: Nov 7, 2019
Site planning is so often overlooked as a "thing" by clients. I think good site planning is one of those qualities most people don't realize that actual thought goes into it. It seems like many people think building siting is just some roll of the dice. You don't really notice it. You might walk into a house or building and love the views and the quiet courtyard but you probably don't think to yourself, "Hmmm, that's some good site planning." Even when it's bad and the patio gets blasted by the sun all day long and there is always an enormous puddle when it rains, you probably don't associate that with poor site planning.
*Good site planning also helps your construction project stay on budget. For a handy checklist to keep your project on budget, click here. Keep reading for why site planning is important...
exterior space, shading devices at certain windows, larger windows: all responses to building siting
A well-sited house or building exudes a wonderful sense of place. However, building sites exhibit a huge variety of characteristics. Water, vegetation, slope, local weather, soil type, surrounding building types, views and zoning regulations vary in every location. They can even vary across the same site. Architects are adept at successfully dealing with this variety and using these characteristics to enhance the design and provide the very important sense of place.
Why Does Sense of Place Even Matter?
Sense of place is a purely human perception or feeling held by people, it is not inherent in the place itself. It is those characteristics that make a place special or unique, as well as to those that foster a sense of authentic human attachment and belonging. Places with a "sense of place" have a strong identity that is deeply felt by inhabitants and visitors. I mean, even if you haven't been to a place, certain buildings & structures have a powerful sense of place. You know what & where and have a sense about the place, even having never been there.
even if you've never been, you probably have a sense of place regarding the Colosseum in Rome
Placeless landscapes are those that have no special relationship to the places in which they are located—they could be anywhere (and are everywhere); roadside strip shopping malls, gas stations, fast food chains, and housing subdivisions where all the houses look virtually the same have been cited as examples of placeless architecture. Historic sites or districts that have been heavily commercialized for tourism and new housing developments are often criticized as having lost their sense of place.
There is no formula for site planning, but there are a few considerations that every architect should keep in mind. One thing to keep in mind: do not have a building or house designed without a site. Sometimes people have “ideal” floor plans that they've found online. Then, they buy some land and try to marry the floor plans with the site. It's a very backwards way of planning.
Ideal floor plans are very helpful for determining the program (the owner’s goals and requirements) for a future home, but there are an infinite number of ways to realize that program. Only a careful designer will find the best one.
lifted floor plan in response to site condition and program
Key issues to consider in site planning are:
zoning and other regulations
Zoning and other regulatory codes are always the first issues to be considered.
A proposed design often needs approval by a number of public bodies. Regulations can be complex and are different in every town and state. The most important thing:
Learn all you can ahead of time about the likely outcome of your building proposals and what uses are permitted on your site.
most bodies of water have strict zoning regulations
Depending on the project, this can be a time consuming process that is started months to years in advance of construction. Some level of schematic design is required in a complex project to determine if it is feasible on the proposed site. It's always better to find out in advance of wasting thousands of dollars on design and engineering fees for a project that can't happen.
site planning diagram to study site conditions
On-site utilities or municipal services must be considered. If the property has municipal services, there is still the question of routing the trenches to the building. Sometimes the best route will disrupt the existing vegetation and suggest an alternative access route or building orientation. Or if there are not utilities yet available to the site, getting access to them may be cost prohibitive.
urban and rural sites need to consider access to utilities
On-site disposal of waste is a highly regulated matter. The perc and groundwater-level tests frequently determine whether a site is usable and, if so, where and what one can build on that site. Local engineers and surveyors usually know what can or cannot be done, but you do need to get the perc tests done to know for sure.
Many towns use septic-system regulations to control development. Expect a fight if you try to resurrect a site considered unbuildable, even if you are legally in the right.
Other utilities—water, gas, electricity, telephone and cable—are not as important site-planning issues, except for the effects of the trenching, mentioned above. Or sometimes if you have a site with a building and services already on it, it can be very costly to relocate these utilities, if that's the plan.
Access is the next thing to consider in site planning. We tend to forget how the size of cars, roads, driveways and garages relate to a house. Even the most compact car needs adequate turning and parking space. Or if it's a city site, parking may only be allowed from the alley or there may already be a pre-ordained curb cut location to work around.
besides vehicular access, pedestrian access must also be considered
Access roads leading up or down hills need careful consideration. There needs to be a level place to stop where the road meets the street. Grades should be below 10 percent unless there is no other choice and the owner accepts the problems associated with steep roads. In addition, water must be drained off or led through culverts to avoid washouts and erosion. The route should also be attractive and protect the house from headlights.
Avoid blocking access to the back or side yards—particularly if you plan to landscape or there is room to build an addition in the future.
All of these access considerations can greatly affect the siting of the house or building.
maintaining access while capturing the best views and minimal disturbance to existing ground conditions
A site’s topography is often its most important feature to a designer. As much as I hate to reiterate Frank Lloyd Wright, he taught that slopes and land shapes can determine not only the house location, but the building form itself. And he's Wright (so awful, I had to do it).
terraced room arrangement
Subtle topography can require subtle craft in the design. Houses that cling to or fit into a site are much more satisfying than those that merely sit on a big terrace specifically created by levelling the site. Subtle topography is great to incorporate into the design. Even a 2-foot change in grade can be enhanced by making the change abruptly with a retaining wall or rock-covered bank and maybe that retaining wall transitions into one of the foundation walls of the house to seamlessly integrate site features with building details.
spreading upwards and outwards from a pinch point of access
Typically, the correct solution to the siting issues determine much of the house form and plan.
So important. Rooms with natural lighting are ever sought after and are also a key factor in sense of place. Bringing sunlight into every room for part of the day without causing overheating, glare or other visual discomfort is key. You will most likely save energy in the process of being conscious of the amount of natural light for different rooms and different times of day.
carving out a courtyard to facilitate natural light into interior of a large volume
Design with the sun in mind. A well-sited house makes the best use of natural light, bringing sunlight into every room for at least part of the day. Good siting enables the building to make the best use of natural lighting and to enhance the overall design.
stepped space arrangement to allow each unit access to natural light
The surrounding vegetation or buildings can also affect natural light. A heavily wooded site or a dense urban site is going to require much more thought to as to how and where natural light are obtained.
Many sites have a view of something worthwhile. When there is only a bit of a view or the view is partially obscured, every effort should be made to give key rooms access to it. Where wide areas of glass are called for to take advantage of a panoramic view, it is important to take into account of the effects of the sun.
plinth base to raise main structure to capture views above lower vegetation
While it is enticing to capture a good view with entire walls of glass, it may not be at practical. In a west facing situation, especially on a body of water. There is a ton of heat gain and glare. The heat gain can make the room(s) expensive to cool and the glare will cause you to close the shades, eliminating the view you were trying to capture.
strategic window placement to capture views
The flip side to having a view, is not having a view at all. This can dictate a floor plan that looks in on itself for the views. A courtyard floor plan with an inner garden or patio can provide the views lacking in the site itself.
inward views to a courtyard that is essential to program
Wind is a very important factor in site planning. It is important to know the typical wind patterns of the local climate in order to place outdoor elements in locations that take advantage of desirable summer breezes while permitting extended outdoor activities in cool weather. For example, in the midwest you can count on
• From the west: the coldest and strongest winds which freeze everything on clear winter days or cool things off in hot weather • From the east and southeast: warmer winds that bring in rain and unsettled weather
In the midwest, it’s desirable to create outdoor living spaces facing southeast, because they are protected from harsh winds and allow you to extend outdoor living into the cool swing seasons. But covered porches or outdoor areas cut out the sun from the rooms behind (if they are attached to the building), you may want to add skylights in the porch roof or roof the porch with a translucent material or add skylights to the room(s) behind.
wind facing facade with limited windows and durable cladding
To protect from undesirable winds, one technique (if possible taking account of other site planning factors) is to place low priority building areas on the windy side. Parking, garages, storage, etc. can all be used as wind blocks. Solid fences are poor windbreaks, because strong eddies form directly behind them, but perforated screens or dense, tall vegetation work well to block harsh winds.
vegetation as windblock rule of thumb
dense vegetation windblock
The other thing to consider with winds is the exterior cladding of a building as well as how, and which direction windows open. Windows should open in a manner that best catches the prevailing winds to encourage natural ventilation and cooling. Cladding should be taken into consideration if the winds and climate are harsh enough to have degrading effects on certain materials.
cold, windy climate impact on form
natural windblock of surrounding trees
It can be tough sorting out the value of existing plants and trees. Early in the project, get a professional opinion — or two — from someone familiar with local flora, climate and plant diseases. Find out which plants are valuable and worth keeping and which can be dispensed with.
preservation of old growth provides shading and natural cooling
It’s astonishing how much destruction must take place to build a house—and also how the trees we preserve so carefully near a new house are often killed by the inevitable changes in water level, cut roots, or compressed soil. It can be painful to cut down a mature, attractive tree, but a professional can provide some perspective and help you make the right decision.
avoidance of unnecessary tree removal
Soils and Drainage
As part of the research involved in designing a septic system or foundation system, a civil engineer can usually define the soil and drainage on a particular site. In most cases, a building is sited based on other considerations; then the foundation and drains are designed to cope with the local soil and water conditions.
maintaining site's natural drainage
Don’t attempt the impossible—such as trying to keep the water out of a basement located below the water table. While waterproofing is commonly is used in underground commercial structures, such techniques are costly and difficult to do right.
The other part of drainage is making sure surface runoff goes away from the building. Siting the building within the natural grade to accomplish this drainage is the most efficient method. It saves much earth moving, which is cost effective as well as helping to keep existing desired vegetation.
Rain gardens are another effective method of dealing with site drainage.
rain garden in action