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Site Selection

Will the house of your dreams suit the lot you want to buy? Sometimes blending the two can be like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. How do you ensure a good match?

Before buying anything — certainly before finalizing any house plans — familiarize yourself with all aspects of your prospective property. Remember that physical, environmental, and aesthetic factors, as well as local codes, can have a profound effect on the design of a house in relation to its site.

Study the Site

Spend time at the location. With a compass, camera, notepad, graph paper, and tape measure, record precise data as well as personal impressions to help shape what you build.

Examine physical characteristics. Note the overall dimensions of the site and its topographical features. For example, is it near a lake, a river, or the ocean? Is any portion unsuitable for building, such as a pond? Check the grade, or slope, as well as the compass orientation. Study the soil composition: Does it consist of sand? Clay? Rocks? All of these factors will affect the excavation, bearing capacity, and the type of foundation. Also find out if any of the property is on landfill.

Take note of environmental factors. Consider the climate in terms of typical temperature, temperature extremes, cloudiness, humidity, and breezes. Can the structure be oriented on a south-facing slope to optimize ventilation and solar benefits? Is the property in a flood plain? Building codes may require the floor to be as much as 10 to 12 feet above the mean high-water level.

Research legal requirements. With the help of your architect, check zoning laws concerning building height, size, materials, and distance from property lines. If you're building in a historic area, regulations regarding the exterior of the house might be quite extensive.

Analyze your aesthetic desires. Select the views you want to see out of your windows — and those you don't. Then think about what view of your house you want the neighbors, your guests, and passersby to see.

Blend Site and House After making sure the site is large enough for your needs and can accommodate future expansion should you want it, review all of the characteristics of your lot — including local regulations — with your architect. Keeping these considerations in mind, use the following tips to analyze how the house you wish to build can be designed to blend naturally with the site.

Work with the existing contours. Take advantage of any natural slope or obstruction rather than trying to fight it. It can be less expensive and easier to incorporate a huge boulder into the foundation, for example, than to blast it out of the way. A rocky hillside can be overcome with a creative design, and may even be better than flat land for maximizing or minimizing views.

Incorporate existing vegetation. Trees and plantings can have a big impact on how you situate your house and on how it will look once it's built. The challenge of building a house in the woods, for example, can be met without completely clearing the trees, the very element that endows the landscape with character and beauty. Pastureland, however, is like a blank slate that gives you much freedom in choosing a design for your home.

Choose styles and materials suited to the region. Various architectural styles function differently. In exposed, windy areas like the Great Plains for instance, houses tend to be low to the ground, set on basements, and protected by cultivated tree breaks. Also try to use indigenous building materials — tile roofing in the Southwest, for example. Of course, technology has made it possible to build any house style, with any number of materials, in any part of the country. But for economic as well as functional and aesthetic reasons, it's wiser to take a cue from your surroundings.

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