Why Building in the Mountains Requires Serious Land Planning

I recently read through the 2015 WNC Green Builders Council directory.  It’s a good way to see what our conscientious colleagues are up to out there in the world.  It’s also a great way to absorb some fresh enthusiasm and keep up with the latest trends in a movement that represents the leading edge of remarkable and necessary change.  V&V works in multiple states.  We can literally see the effects of WNC’s green building movement rippling outward.

Customers in remote parts of our service area now routinely ask us about solar power, VOC-free materials, conservation framing techniques and efficient mechanical design.  Nearly all of our clients are trying to build smaller, less energy-intensive homes.  Most are familiar with the progressive mentality of Western North Carolina’s construction industry and are seeking like-minded builders in their respective areas.  One thing continues to be sorely lacking in our entire service area,  a basic understanding of proper land planning.

What Does Geology Have to do with Green Building?

For this reason I was elated to find Geologist Jennifer Bauer’s article – Building Sustainably – It Starts with the Land on page 44 of the new directory.  Bauer, principal geologist at Appalachian Landslide Consultants succinctly discusses the conditions under which slopes and soils become volatile and slide.  Most notably, she points out that “we have seen a shift from the majority of landslides starting on natural, unmodified slopes, to the majority of landslides (67%) starting on modified, constructed slopes.”  Wow!  That’s a big deal, and also the reason we get more calls regarding slope failures and structural retention every year.  Slope failures usually involve expensive mitigation, and structural retention (i.e. walls).

boulder wall, marion nc
Boulder retaining wall

Walls, no matter how they are constructed, are not cheap.  They generally must be engineered and constructed to extremely specific standards.  Keeping in mind Bauer’s assertion that the “typical road embankment failure moves about 400 cubic yards of soil, or the equivalent of twenty dump truck loads”, it is easy to see why so many ‘residential’ slope failures necessitate ‘civil’ solutions (i.e. expensive walls).

Your Land is the Foundation for your Home

Concrete wall footer
Footer for New Wall

It is understandable that we want to spend most of our time and money on our home. That is, after all, where we live.  Sadly, this ‘house-centric’ approach often leads to tragic environmental and financial consequences.  It is commonplace to receive calls from clients with new homes who report major structural retention and slope stability issues, foundation leaks and cracks, invasive plant infestations, poor site drainage and on and on.  Many of these homes were built by reputable builders.

Soils, slopes and weather conditions in the mountains are highly variable.  Failure to consider these issues in a formal manner when you design, build or buy in the mountains will almost certainly cost you big!  Even if your site does not fail in some fashion the cost of fixing site-related issues after the home is constructed and/or inhabited will be much greater than if these issues had been dealt with during initial planning and construction.

The Message is Still Not Getting Through

rebuilding pond dam
Rebuilding a Failed Dam, Madison Co.

We have just wrapped up another year involving numerous projects that arose entirely from failures to properly consider the land – massive structural wall installations, a re-built dam, re-contoured driveways and home sites, stream sediment removal, foundation repairs, erosion control etc.  None of these fixes were inexpensive and nearly all involved a four-fold impact that was both financial and environmental: 1) the initial cost of doing it incorrectly, 2) the cost of cleanup/mitigation, 3) the cost of the solution and 4) the time, inconvenience and stress.

On the other hand,  we have worked diligently with several clients on new green home construction projects.  These clients all have sites that pose serious land planning challenges.  All have required the support and services of geologists, engineers, surveyors and architects, as well as our own grading team.  All of these projects are successfully moving forward in a value-oriented fashion.  These are homes literally being built “from the ground up.”

We learned long ago that money spent, up front, on professional guidance and planning is money well-spent!  It not only assists visualization and helps ensure that your site and home will be durable, attractive and well-integrated, it moves the process forward and saves time and money during earthwork and construction.  Delays are second only to actual failures when it comes to cost over-runs.  To ignore the challenges posed by our ancient shifting mountains potentially creates the common scenario highlighted in the conclusion of Bauer’s article.  “A home can have the highest LEED certified rating, and be as green as possible, but if the house or it’s driveway slides off the mountain, all the painstaking efforts to reduce it’s environmental impact will be negated’.  Put another way, we urge you to increase your land planning IQ so you can make thoughtful, value-oriented choices.  You almost always forfeit this opportunity if your site fails or an issue arises after your home is built.