Appendix D: Siting New Construction

When you draft a conservation plan or easement that allows for future building construction, consider the following questions in planning the location and appearance of new structures.

Does your proposed site conform to local and state zoning regulations? Learn about these ordinances early in your site selection process and inform your local code enforcement officer about your building plans. Ordinances can affect many aspects of site design (such as driveway configuration) as well as actual building construction.

Does your building site respect the constraints imposed by the land’s topography? Is the land in a wetland or on steep slopes prone to erosion? Will extensive cut-and-fill work be needed to make this location viable? As pressures on the land increase, people gravitate toward sites that were previously considered “unbuildable.” These settings can prove costly-both to the individual homeowner and to the local ecosystem.

Photo: Headwaters Writing and Design

Can you site your new building near existing residences or close to a public roadway? By locating new construction near existing infrastructure, you can reduce potential disruption to wildlife. Wildlife may suffer whenever development intrudes on significant habitat – such as riparian zones, wetlands, and edge communities (where two habitats meet). A growing number of builders and real estate developers are coming to recognize the economic, ecological and community value of clustered housing – which concentrates residences in one portion of the property to allow more open space for wildlife and recreational use. Building close to existing infrastructure also reduces construction costs and minimizes soil disturbance – so there is less chance for erosion and the spread of invasive species.

Will the construction work or finished building diminish water quality? The health of lakes, streams, rivers and coastal waters depends on having a vegetative buffer along the shoreline that holds soil in place and helps to trap sediment or pollutants. During construction, try to preserve vegetation along shorelines and around the building site. Make sure to use “best practices” for stormwater management (keeping stock piles of dirt covered, using silt fences to minimize runoff, spreading mulch on open ground, and reseeding bare ground promptly). You can improve water quality by keeping drives and parking areas narrow and using porous paving materials. Landscaping with native plants, rather than lawn, eliminates the need for irrigation and chemical treatments.

Photo: Chris Hamilton

How will this new building affect views from public vantage points such as roadways, hiking trails and water bodies? It’s tempting to focus solely on the views from inside your home, without considering how your building may appear to others. In designing new construction, site buildings in locations that will not be prominently visible. Consider incorporating measures to help your house or outbuilding blend into the site: choose natural wood siding and/or dark exterior colors; maintain well-vegetated areas between the building and public vantage points; select an architectural form that fits with the contours of the land and vernacular styles; and avoid expanses of glass or reflective material.

How much space do I really need? Through careful planning you can use space efficiently and keep down the overall building footprint and height – minimizing costs as well as visual and ecological impacts. Smaller homes consume less resources in construction and require less energy to maintain.

Further Reading

Architect Sarah Susanka has written a series of books–The Not So Big House (1998), Creating the Not So Big House (2000), and Not So Big Solutions for Your Home (2002, all from Taunton Press)–that provide valuable design guidance for minimizing the size of new construction and siting it in ways that fit the land. The Distinctive Home: A Vision of Timeless Design, by Jeremiah Eck (Taunton Press, 2003), also offers some guidance on site planning and design issues. The classic A Pattern Language (Oxford University Press, 1977), by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein, describes progressive ways of thinking about architecture, building and planning. Architects and developers may find useful guidance and case studies in the text Green Development: Integrating Ecology and Real Estate, by Alex Wilson et al. (John Wiley & Sons, 1998).

The website provides many resources on general design strategies, siting and land use issues in environmental construction. Many good pointers, for example, are included in the article “Building Green on a Budget,” from the May 1999 edition (vol. 8, no. 5) of their newsletter Environmental Building News.

Material in this appendix was adapted with permission from an article written by Noorjahan Parwana and published in the newsletter of the Montana Land Reliance.