Selecting a Home Site can be a challenging undertaking. In most cases owners ask their Realtor to screen a general area based on one to three primary criteria like school district, linkage to employment, family, church, temple, clubs or even the international airport but then need input from a building professional to narrow the search. We offer the following explanation of possible physical attributes of a potential building site to help in the next level of assessment:
Town, Neighborhood of Country?
- Many of the small towns in the region are attractive because of their broad walkable streets, mature vegetation, architectural character and convenient rail transportation. Even though the number of vacant lots is limited, opportunities abound in smaller cottages that can be expanded or in some cases demolished.
- Suburban neighborhoods with well-planned street patterns, public sidewalks, parks, shopping and recreation provide many owners the right mix of convenience, privacy and safety.
- Country lots have their own set of challenges. Often country lots are not serviced by public utilities and many municipalities zoning ordinances require large acreage.
Lot Size is a double-edged sword inasmuch as larger lots provide more privacy but increase the cost geometrically. A longer setback from the street insulates the home from vehicular noise but increases the length of the driveway and utility connections. Similarly, the more land we disturb, the greater the potential cost of permits, erosion control, clearing, grading and seeding.
Public Sewer or Septic?
Generally septic systems cost more than public sewer to install and maintain. Public sewerage systems are dependent on gravity so the point of connections generally needs to be down slope from the home. The availability of public sewerage is dependent on capacity within the plant and the line in which you intend to connect. Each municipal authority charges different rates to connect. Septic system approval on the other hand is primarily a County Health Department approval and requires on-site testing to ascertain whether and how the effluent can be disposed of on site.
Public Water or Well?
Similar to public sewerage, public water connection is generally less expensive initially to install than a well depending on the length of the connection and cost to repair the area through which the connection is made or the depth of the well. In some geographic areas well drilling is prohibited by statute, moratorium or rule of law.
Level or Sloping?
Some municipalities restrict building on steep slopes. On the other hand, building into a slope can have great advantages. The temperature underground is constant 56 degrees Fahrenheit so by building into the hillside on the northern exposure of the building site, a home can take advantage of the earth’s natural insulation while allowing the sun from the south to reach deep into the home during winter months.
Wooded or Clear?
Along with the visual benefit, clusters of deciduous trees keep a home site cooler in the summer and when strategically located, can shade the home directly. A well placed cluster of conifers on the northwest side of a property can reduce the cooling effect of winter winds while allowing the benefit of west to east cross ventilation year round.
Solar Orientation is always a consideration. Passive solar gain through windows and doors can have both a positive and negative impact on the energy consumption of a building. The solar gain during the winter is a benefit, during the summer a detriment. Fortunately, with a thoughtful design strategy that incorporates overhangs, porches and pergolas the benefits can be maximized.
The sun’s arc in the sky is longer and high (in Philadelphia) during the summer, shorter and lower during the winter. On the southern face of a building, a 2’0” horizontal overhang will shade a building approximately 8’0” vertically in summer but only 2’0” in winter. While glazing on the northern elevation receive very little solar radiation in any season openings to the east and west can receive significant amounts of solar radiation in the summer but limited amounts in the winter.
Glazing technology has changed dramatically in recent years. Low-E glazing can effectively reduce the amount of solar heat gain transmitted through the glass. Filling the space between window panes with Argon or Krypton gas can further reduce the transmission of heat gain through the window unit.
Active Solar Orientation
Orienting the roof toward the south is critical to maximize the potential benefit of both photoelectric and thermal solar collectors. The slope of the roof is considered less critical. Many experts conclude an angle within 15 degrees of the latitude of the building site (Philadelphia is approximately 40 degrees) is acceptable. Flat roofs are also a good choice because it allows the solar designer to select the exact best angle. Unrestricted day lighting is also a must. Shadows from other buildings or trees will dramatically reduce the home’s ability to function profitably.
Creating cross ventilation within a building can drastically reduce the need for mechanical cooling. In the northeastern U.S., influenced by the jet stream, wind patterns generally flow from west to east. During periods of high heat and humidity, the winds often shift more southerly. During periods of intense winter cold the winds often shifts more northerly. We believe it makes sense to consider how to maximize the buildings ability to capture breezes at lower levels from the south and west and release the pressure at the upper levels to the north and east.
Best Management Practices
BMP’s are local and regional requirements dealing with storm water runoff. In many locations, in a mild storm event, all of the storm water from the roof, patios and driveways of new buildings must be retained on the building site and re-percolated into the ground.