Site Selection

Site selection is undoubtedly the least well-considered and potentially problematic aspect of new residential construction. Put simply, site selection is the most important factor in determining how well your home fits your land. Site selection ultimately influences how you will access your home, how your privacy, landscaping and recreational space will evolve, what your structural retention needs are, your weather exposure and drainage profile. Site selection even has considerable influence upon your future energy costs . It also seriously affects your home’s durability and resale value. In many cases site selection has direct impacts on adjacent watersheds and habitats especially local songbird populations and endangered native flora. The location of your new home is not just a detail to be left to your builder or architect it is a serious process worthy of your time and investment.

Site selection is a process of refinement. This holds true whether you own a one-acre lot or a hundred-acre farm. First determine that a possible site is indeed suitable, then refine your analysis and planning until you achieve a complete and fully integrated site rendering. Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.” If his advice were consistently heeded homeowners would save thousands, live happier lives and avoid the structural and access issues that consistently plague residents of the Southern Appalachians. This is to say nothing of major improvements to habitats and watersheds that are adversely affected by poor site selection practices.

What is an appropriate site?

An appropriate site is one that can be accessed and developed in a reasonable manner. Sadly, it is commonplace for developers to subdivide land in a fashion that maximizes the number of “view” or “water” lots but doesn’t actually allow for reasonable access to those sites. We call these “mirage sites”. On numerous occasions we’ve had clients who were forced to buy neighboring lots solely for access to their own; or forced to pave steep driveways they were told would only require graveling. Some clients have even abandoned fully prepared sites once they realized the cost of driveway maintenance or long utility installations. The length, grade (steepness) and layout of your driveway are of paramount importance to site selection. Before you choose a site make certain you have a complete driveway layout that provides verifiably good access. Make sure you have clear estimates for utilities installations in addition to road construction and maintenance costs.

This same degree of thoroughness should be applied to understanding your soil and drainage. There are numerous soil profiles that are poor choices for site disturbances such as colluvial, micaceous and hydric soils. These soil profiles are indicative of underlying rock, water or structural instability and should be immediate red flags. As with driveway access you should know for certain that the soils on a given site are suitable for excavation and development and will remain stable over time. A starting point is the NRCS, which provides site-specific soils maps and analysis online for the entire U.S. at no charge. The Army Corps of Engineers may also be a good resource as they provide free consulting for stream classification and wetland delineation. To learn more about your soils you may need to enlist the services of a geotechnical engineer (Geotech) or soils scientist. On properties perked for septic approval soils information as well as the name of a licensed soils scientist are often part of real estate closing documents. If not, they can be easily accessed through County permitting agencies. It has been my experience that most soil scientists are happy to receive a call regarding site suitability from a perfect stranger. Many are passionate professionals with decades of valuable field experience they will happily share at little or no charge.

Many people have problems even initiating their site selection process due to dense undergrowth or deadfall obscuring the lay of the land. Traditional methods of removing underbrush and trees, such as bulldozing and track hoe grubbing, create unnecessary soil and land disturbance in areas not ultimately to be included in the site preparation. Future septic areas, in particular, cannot be disturbed prior to approval. A better solution is forestry mulching, a method of reducing small trees and brush to a layer of mulch, which ultimately decomposes and improves soil structure. Forestry mulching does not initiate permitting requirements and is a gentle, non-invasive way to allow access and clearer visualization of potential home sites. In addition, desirable trees and vegetation can be spared. Where forestry mulching is unavailable it may be worthwhile to pay a skilled hand crew to underbrush possible sites. It is worth mentioning that many areas in the southeast have become home to naturalized invasive vegetation. Invasive vegetation such as kudzu, oriental bittersweet, privet, miscanthus etc. may require a dedicated effort to remove as well as a significant outlay of cash. Do not overlook the negative impacts associated with invasive species on a potential site. This also holds true for trees damaged by invasive parasites such as the Balsam Wooly Adelgid and Emerald Ash Borer. A single large tree removal over a finished home can cost thousands and may leave your site seriously altered.

Assuming basic issues of access and development have been resolved it is time to move your site selection process towards greater visualization and refinement. If your property allows for several possible sites, or if you are trying to choose from among available subdivision lots this is the point where you will decide which best serves you. You are going to refine your site selection process based on your lifestyle as well as the limits and attributes of your land. For those who desire lots of outdoor space for gardening and landscaping you will probably seek a site lower down towards a valley or on a wide knoll. For those planning solar installations a South-facing aspect will be necessary as well as provisions for the removal of vegetation that will shade solar panels. If your only goal is to retire to a secluded mountain bungalow among the trees the health and age of your forest companions, as well as your level of fire risk, may be principle considerations. The goal is to address as many questions related to your chosen lifestyles and interests as possible. Think about how you will use your home and property and how this may change over time, as you have children or grandchildren, and as you age. Include the prospect of subdividing your property if it allows for it. Many purchase property with no plans of ever subdividing only to realize, having changed their minds, their initial site selection and development decisions eliminated the option.

Assuming you now have a site that has passed all initial criteria for development and also provides for your families’ long term needs and interests, next comes your architect, builder or planner. Some professionals have an excellent eye for site selection; many do not and may be of little help, despite their confidence. A common failing is to stop here with the assertive opinion of a single person. Seek multiple opinions regardless of your planner’s initial ideas. The goal is to synthesize the expertise of as many relevant professionals as possible into a solid final product. Meet with reputable grading companies, civil engineers, landscape designers, feng shui practitioners, GIS specialists, ecologists etc. Many local professionals, including our company, relish the opportunity to provide necessary resources and assist in improving regional development standards. Often they will meet with you for free initially. Don’t be shy. Clients who achieve the best result are hands-on types who become passionately involved in all aspects of their new home.

Speak with County officials, as well as relevant Homeowner Associations, regarding permitting, building and subdivision requirements. We have found that these important considerations are often neglected during the site selection process and yield nasty surprises later. Understanding these requisites before selecting a site protects you from construction delays, costly mistakes and legal entanglements and speeds the flow once site preparation and building have begun.

Visit your land often and at different times of the year. Picnic, camp and socialize. Often the perfect site simply draws you in as you enjoy and explore your land. To the degree that you are able, it can be both fun and enlightening to lay out possible house footprints on the ground with stakes and string or marking paint, even down to room arrangement, and don’t forget to include your parking areas which are often problematic in the mountains. Walk around and see how they feel. Moving a layout one way or another, just a few feet, may ultimately have major construction cost and livability impacts, likewise visiting the same site during different seasons. What feels like a cool temperate site in November may feel like a swamp in June. There is no substitute for time spent on the ground, yet many folks never spend more than an hour or two on their property before finalizing a site. These people are the ones most likely to call us regarding mitigation issues.

Learn as much as you can about your land’s history. Often locals can provide valuable information about previous land use such as the location of old homesteads, springs and stonewalls. They may enlighten you regarding important factors that are often given short shrift such as weather patterns or nuisance animals. They may also alert you to the possibility of difficult neighbor relations or dissuade you from hiring a disreputable service provider. In general, we have found local knowledge to be both underutilized and extremely useful for good site selection.

Your diligent efforts will pay you back in real time, money and product success. You are, after all, working towards a complete visualization and representation of your future home and impact area. Spend the time it takes to create quality site documents including: finish-grading elevations for site preparation and driveways as well as exact septic and well layouts. All States necessitate mandatory minimum distances between them. Develop structural retention plans, finished landscape designs, including all necessary engineering. Map viewscapes, drainage and even solar and wind exposure. It is especially important to select a site that provides or can provide positive drainage. Often a simple contour map yields invaluable information.

Developing multiple site documents will undoubtedly expose contradictions and oversights. This is the nitty-gritty of proper site selection. These documents and their evolution contribute mightily to the refinement of the site selection process and allow for its counterpart site preparation to flow smoothly once boots and tracks hit the ground. Most importantly you will end up with a house that costs less, is more livable, has a higher resale value and fewer negative environmental impacts. You will truly have a home.

Summary

Site selection is a process of refinement:

Initial suitability
Driveway – Does your property allow for drivable grade to probable house site? How long will the driveway be? What is a cost estimate for the driveway?
Soils – Are your soils suitable for development. Obtain a soil map for your property and/ or consult with soil professionals.
Drainage – Does your site drain well? Are there signs of drainage issues such as aquatic plants or erosion?
Utilities – Will you bring county water and power to your property? If so, how far will you have to run lines, and at what cost? If not, can you drill a well? Do you have good solar presentation, appropriate head and flow for micro-hydro?
Invasive vegetation – What is the invasive load and what kind of effort and expenditure will be required to deal with it?
Habitats – consider potential development consequences for habitats, i.e. native flora, song birds, protected headwaters, wetlands, migration paths

Lifestyle choices
Interests and skills – do you have space for gardening, homesteading, workshops, livestock, etc?
Family structure and age – how will this change over time and what needs may arise?
Subdivision – is there any possibility that you will consider subdividing your land at any point, whether for financial gain or for family members?

Site selection specifics
Permitting – contact your County development department, as well as relevant HOAs, to request a list of agencies and requirements you will have to satisfy.
Visualization i.e. forestry mulching. Open up some of the potential house site area without disturbing the soil to assist your decision-making.
Professional assessments – gather the input of as many relevant professionals as you can. Synthesize the merits and perspectives of each.
Visit your land often and during different seasons.
Stake and string possible layouts to get a feel.
Land use history- learn from those who know the area well.
Development of working documents i.e. elevations, site maps (especially hydrology maps), finished renderings, etc.

Resources:
National Resources Conservation Service www.nrcs.usda.gov
Blue Ridge Forestry (map packages) www.blueridgeforestry.com
Site Rhythms www.siterhythms.com
Army Corps of Engineers www.usace.army.mil/
Firewise www.firewise.org/