Residential site planning is the process of evaluating which factors should influence the design and orientation of your new home given the attributes of the property on which you will be building. Site planning is not to be confused with a site plan, which is a formal landscaping document outlining how land will be used and organized. Typically, site planning will follow site selection. However, sometimes exceptions occur when you have specific plans for your home’s design, and you must select a site which can accommodate them. During site planning, three primary components dictate the ideal configuration of a home: elevation, placement, and form.
To help visualize how these variables guide site planning, think of a home mounted on an upright post like those on a carousel ride. The vertical position, or depth of the home in the ground, may be adjusted relative to the surrounding grades (elevation). The second variable relates to the home’s rotation around its axis, or orientation best suited for the environmental factors present at the site (placement). The last component, which accounts for a significant portion of site planning, involves the design of the 3-dimensional space the home occupies (form). Each of these three variables are to be considered simultaneously with the others as they collectively help inform the site planning process.
Elevation is always a factor in site planning—even for those rare occasions where the building lot is perfectly flat. Some sites have gentle slopes, others have very steep grades. Downward sloping lots relative to the street frontage have different characteristics than upward sloping lots. View lots on a hillside may either have steep driveways or daylight basements to follow the contour of the land and mitigate the cost of retaining walls, excavation, or earth movement.
Topography contributes to how high a house appears to ascend from the ground. Some homes tower over others not because they contain more square footage, but due to where the ground level begins. When climbing a flight of stairs to arrive at the front door, the house will appear taller than a comparable home whose entry is on grade. Many people don’t want to climb stairs every time they enter their house, or give up precious space in the garage for a long set of stairs. How accessible is the home to those who may be elderly, injured, or otherwise less capable of climbing stairs?
Water and soil conditions dynamically impact topography, which also affects site planning. These factors are best evaluated by qualified professionals like engineers. Sites with high water tables or sites with flood plain designations may need to sit higher above grade. Drainage requirements may dictate the contouring and elevation shifts of the finished grade to protect the home from standing water and flooding. For the same reasons, some locations are not able to have basements.
Placement refers to both the orientation of the home relative to a landmark (like a street) and where within the property’s boundaries the home will be constructed. Will the home be parallel with the street or be situated on an angle? Will the driveway be accessed from the front, side, or back? Some of these decisions are further governed by local jurisdictional authorities through required setbacks or recorded easements. Optimal home placement attempts to maximize all the desirable characteristics of a site, while minimizing the less desirable traits.
Sun exposure is one of the most prevalent design considerations, and significantly impacts placement. The sun provides natural light and heat for the home, but many homes are oriented without regard to these benefits. In the northern hemisphere, the path of the sun during the winter follows a southern trajectory, while in the summer, the sunshine beats down more intensely from the north (this sun path is reversed in the southern hemisphere).
By orienting a home with an east-west ridgeline, a home is able to maximize energy efficiency as well as comfort. For example, if a home is designed to concentrate frequently used rooms on the southern side of a house, the home and its occupants will benefit by receiving more warmth from sun’s rays in the winter and more protection from heat gain in the summer. This is due to the changing angles of the sun’s path during different times of the year. By situating less frequently used rooms like laundry rooms, closets, guest rooms, and bathrooms on the northern exterior, a buffer is created from the seasonal extremes. Similarly, the quantity and size of windows on northern versus southern walls should follow the same proportion—fewer and smaller windows on the north walls, with larger and more numerous windows on the southern walls.
Understanding how the prevailing winds affect the property is another informative characteristic of placement. Some home configurations amplify sound and even mild winds sound like a hurricane from the inside. Planning for wind can help provide relief in the hot summers, while also protecting from bitter cold chills in the winters.
Another environmental consideration impacting placement is precipitation. Be aware of the influence rain, snow, or freezing conditions can have in site planning. Where will the snow pile up and drift in the winter? How will the precipitation from heavy storms or rapidly melting ice and snow drain from the site? The final placement of the home considers all four seasons, and a variety of environmental factors. It also addresses any green energy considerations such as the best placement to maximize energy capture through solar panels.
Form refers to determining the overall shape and design of the building. This is the component of placement designed to maximize majestic views from the site and curb appeal from the street. The other components of site planning—the rise of the home based on elevation, and the placement of the home on the site—come into play in determining the final form of the design. For example, to keep a sun-friendly, east-west ridgeline, will the home be wide and skinny (south or north facing), narrow and deep (east or west facing), or have a meandering footprint? How many levels will the home have? Will it need to be taller to capitalize on certain views?
The form of a well-designed home will employ a thoughtful window strategy. Where will the reflection of the window face? The sun’s solar energy has been known to reflect off windows intensely enough to start melting a vinyl fence. Will the glass in the windows be installed completely vertical, or be angled slightly to minimize reflections? Windows can be used to maximize panoramic views or establish focus on beautiful areas of interest.
Inside the home, windows provide abundant natural and can be optimized for energy efficiency and aesthetics. Well lit homes, with smart window strategies, complement and enhance the work done by professional interior designers. Pay attention to where the street lamps are in comparison to the bedroom windows. Nothing inhibits a good night’s sleep quite like a bright light shining in your face. For windows in primary living spaces on northern walls, consider having overhangs or covered patios on the exterior.
Additional buffers will also be designed in the house to protect from heat gain based on materials used. For example, a brick exterior will heat up immensely in the summer sun. Placing a kitchen pantry on an exterior wall lined with brick will make it difficult to regulate temperature and keep food from spoiling. Heat can be high enough that wax from candles in wall sconces has been known to melt enough to drip on the walls and floor. Paving materials also make a difference.
Driveways absorb and reflect a lot of heat and differ greatly in size based on the type of parking being planned. Will there be a garage, and will it be attached to the home, or detached? Will the garage face the front or side, or have rear access through an alley? Heat gain on paving can be planned for by adjusting orientation based on whether you live in a warm or cold weather client. For example, south and west facing driveways will tend to melt snow faster in the winter, but may have more heat buildup in the summer.
Natural features on the lot also affect the final form of the home. Sometimes mature trees are preserved for their beauty or shade. Shade is an important element to consider in the short and long term. Shade can come from trees, mountains, or even other buildings. Keep in mind what building materials will blend in with the natural environment and maximize cost and energy efficiency. What differences need to be accounted for based on mountains or hills, valleys or flatlands, rivers or ponds, or any other feature of the world’s infinite beauty?
All three elements of site planning (elevation, placement, and form) work together to balance a host of competing factors in order to determine an optimal configuration. By planning a home to maximize the characteristics of your specific site; beauty, cost efficiency, and functionality are achieved.