Building Fundamentals: Thoughts on Picking a Place to Build

This article by Clarke Snell was originally published in the New Life Journal.

Unless you live under a rock on another planet whose sentient inhabitants have developed advanced anti-BS technology and the ability to block HGTV, you’re just about sick of the word “green” right now. With green oil companies, green Wal-Mart, and even green warfare (I shitake you not!), it’s enough to drive a rational person to pledge allegiance to another color. Alright, before we start the chartreuse revolution, let’s take a deep cleansing breath and get back to basics. Why green instead of blue or pink?

The answer is plants. You bring sun, soil, water, and air together and you get plants. Green plants. Underneath the hype, spin, and snake oil lies the simple profound concept that we live on a little magic rock that maintains a self-sustaining balance between a complex matrix of variables that together produce the color green…and LOTS of it. Any process or product purporting to be “green” is claiming to be conscious of and in some way in synch with this natural perpetual motion factory, this Green Machine.

A green building, then, is a building designed to work in concert with its natural surroundings. Admittedly, this is a complex undertaking that requires a lot of give and take, especially in the context of a “modern building” that is called upon to support a complex and demanding indoor lifestyle. Still, the most fundamental component of a green design is how the building interacts with the Green Machine manifested on the piece of land on which it sits. In fact, choosing the land and siting the building are more fundamental than the building itself because the building can be designed to fit the land, not vice versa.

Given this reality, what should you look for when buying a piece of land or choosing a building site for a green building project? Here’s my list of the top five things to consider:

  1. Sun. The sun’s path through the sky changes in a regular progression through the course of a year. For our region, the summary is that it hovers low in the southern sky during the winter and spends a lot of time high overhead in the summer. In our climate, a well chosen building site can provide considerable direct solar heat in the winter, solar generated electricity and hot water for much of the year, and protection from the sun’s heat in the summer. A poorly chosen site can produce the exact opposite results, changing the sun from your best friend into your worst enemy. In the mountains, this effect can be exacerbated. A northern ridge can create a situation where a section of land is completely (and frigidly) shaded for three months during the winter while a contiguous section enjoys full solar exposure. Luckily, it isn’t difficult for someone with simple equipment and a little training to create an accurate analysis of how the sun will interact with a given piece of land.
  2. Water. Water evaporates off bodies of water, falls to the ground as snow or rain, and then flows over or under the ground coming to rest in a body of water for the process to start all over again. This Ferris wheel called the hydrologic cycle is the ultimate recycling program and is a poignant manifestation of the old saying “what goes around comes around”. In green building, our goal is to redirect and use water as needed without affecting it adversely. Our first consideration is planning for the water that will fall on the land. Rainfall in our region varies widely. For example, the annual average for precipitation in downtown Asheville is 37 inches. Fifty miles away at Lake Toxaway, the yearly average is 92 inches!  Atlanta weighs in at about 50 inches. The amount of rainfall your building encounters can have an effect on a number of decisions from building materials, to water collection strategies, to garden and planting designs. For this reason, it’s important to research the rainfall profile for your specific location. Next, we need to consider how water flows over the land which means analyzing the existing contours and how they relate to potential building sites. Another consideration is finding a clean source of water for domestic use. The options are raincatchment, a spring, a well, or a municipal source. Where I live, for example, we were able to access a spring high enough above the house site that gravity creates sufficient water pressure. The result is a free, clean source of water that requires no pumps or external power source. Finally, we need to consider how to responsibly return the water we use to the hydrologic cycle.
  3. Wind. Wind can be used to generate electricity, though in our region residential projects rarely muster the requisite conditions (including enough cash) to make this practical. For the most part our concerns about wind will be focused on protecting the building from cold winter winds, exposing it to cooling summer breezes, and utilizing design and construction methods that will allow it to withstand the worst storms expected on the site. Unfortunately, air movement is the most site specific and unpredictable of the natural forces. Especially in the mountains, the only really accurate way to assess wind patterns is to chronicle the wind over an extended period of time, ideally at least a year. This can be done either by living on site or by installing a device called an anemometer. However, knowledge of regional patterns combined with common sense and some experience can go a long way toward understanding how wind on a given piece of land might interact with a planned building.
  4. Earth. So far we’ve looked at forces that operate on the land. Now, we turn to the land itself. We need to look at the shape, contour, and constitution of the earth to consider how a building might best nestle in to and be supported by it. We need to look for materials on site that might be useful, such as stone, timber, and clay. Perhaps most importantly we need to analyze the state of the existing natural balance, the Green Machine, and determine how best to partner with it. In urban settings, this process can be a lot more fun because the land has often been devastated by human intervention. The building project in this situation can be an act of repair. In a more pristine setting, construction will almost certainly be destructive to the natural order, so careful thought needs to be put into creating a long term positive out of an initial negative.
  5. Access. Roads are disruptive and expensive. If you’re building in the mountains, quadruple that sentiment. In the context of a green building project, the rule is simple: the shorter the road, the better. This can be counterintuitive because the first impulse is often to head for the ridge and that panoramic view. In many situations, there are simply better places to build…and by better I mean more pleasant and beautiful in addition to more practical.

If this all sounds complicated, it is. In fact, these basic parameters, along with others, come together to create an intricate matrix. What’s more, decisions made at this point have long reaching effects. For example, in a matter of minutes, a bulldozer will expose soil layers built up over millions, perhaps billions of years. The decision to move that soil is a decision to make a, for all practical purposes, permanent change to the make-up of that piece of land.

Don’t let that daunt you, though. The good news is that at this point in your project no decisions and therefore no mistakes have been made. Relax and enjoy the possibilities. I’m writing about this topic this month because this is the best time of year to be analyzing land for a green building project. It’s easier to get a picture of year round solar exposure when the leaves are off the trees and it’s easier to walk through the woods before the understory sharpens its thorns for the spring. If you’ve got land or are looking for land, now’s the time to put on the hiking boots. One word of advice: get some professional help. Our company offers land analysis services as do a number of other qualified professionals in our area. The stakes are simply too high to go it alone. Remember, the Green Machine is watching.

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