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Architecture and Design: Site Planning 101


For our second installment on understanding the role of an architect, we investigate site planning and design. You can read the first installment that explains programming, the basis for designing architecture. As we break down the design process into smaller steps, you’ll have a better idea of what an architect can do for you and how they add value to projects large and small.

Site Planning and Design – The Basics

For any new project, a site must be selected before any real design work can get under way. Architecture is a unique blend of art and science, and each building is designed to respond to its immediate environment. A building in the mountains that receives lots of snow will look much different than a building designed for island living. Selecting an appropriate site for your program is very important to ensuring your goals are met. While an architect can work with almost any property presented to them, it is recommended to engage an architect prior to purchasing land on which to build. An architect will research the zoning (if applicable) and give you an idea of whether the property is sized appropriately to meet your programmatic needs. An architect will show you where required set back lines exist, which may influence what you are able to build on the property. It is especially important to consult with an architect if the project is within city limits, as additional restrictions may apply to the property. Tighter regulation may exist for aesthetics, parking, setbacks, or land use. Urban infill properties also pose design challenges, as they are usually much smaller and require expert design to make everything fit efficiently on the land. An architect is also helpful in identifying properties as contenders for rehabilitation and re-use for those wanting to give new life to an old structure.

After purchasing the property, architects review the survey in detail and begin to prepare site-specific bubble diagrams that respond to the program. During this phase of the design process, the architect or designer will consider many influences that may have an impact on the design. The slope of the land can greatly affect the cost of construction, and as a general rule, the steeper the slope, the more challenging the design and budget will be. Next, one must consider neighboring structures. The new design must be sensitive to surrounding neighbors and respond to their height, style and proximity. A skilled architect or designer will take into account the views one will have inside and out. Another aspect of site design is evaluating the vegetation, and deciding the most strategic placement of the building on the site to save existing plant life. Strategy may involve avoiding steep slopes, saving mature trees, or maximizing the enjoyment of a natural feature such as a stream or lake.

Site Planning and Design – Digging Deeper

While it may seem easy to select a piece of property and position a new building on it, there are details that impact the design further. For example, one may purchase property that has little to no slope, with the idea that it will be ‘easy to build on’. However, soil analysis must be done to ensure a proper foundation is designed. Dirt may rest at the surface, but under it may be rock, clay or a high water table. Each of these presents issues when it comes time to drill piers, set foundations or dig out a basement. In addition to soil type, architects must consider flood plains and potential drainage issues. Consideration must be given for how water moves across the property, and care must be taken to avoid sending additional run off to neighboring properties. For urban sites in low-lying areas, it is important to anticipate future development which may cause additional runoff to collect on the site.

In additional to immediate natural features or hazards, an architect must consider the type of structure in relation to common natural disasters. Buildings in seismic zones must have proper structural bracing to withstand earthquakes which may add to the cost of the project. Buildings in hurricane-prone areas must be built to withstand the forces of wind and driving rain. The climate also plays a role in deciding on material choices, which in turn impact the aesthetic of the building. Hot and humid climates will receive different material treatments than climates which are very cold or very dry. The architect or designer will evaluate the path of the sun across the site, as well as any prevailing winds or consistent breezes. For those interested in creating a sustainable design, taking advantage of a site’s natural features is the best way to achieve sustainability.

An aspect many new property owners neglect is access to utilities. While this is rarely a problem in urban settings, it can add cost to rural project that require extensive new infrastructure. Urban projects have their own difficulties, in that utilities can become obstacles that buildings must go around. Each utility has set back requirements that prevent structures from getting too close. Providing proper room around existing utilities is vital for future maintenance and construction safety.

Finally, architects will guide owners through the permitting and review processes. Too often, people try to save money by creating drawings too quickly and without proper review, only to be denied building permits later on. An experienced architect will know when to bring consultants on board and will have drawings reviewed by appropriate departments so that the final drawings will go through the permitting process efficiently. For challenging sites that have many restrictions or potential problems, it is always good to consult the local planning department early in the process.

Next month we will take a look at Schematic Design and how it relates to the design process. Always remember to ask lots of questions when working with a design professional. No question is out of bounds when your goal is success.

Brinn Miracle is an architectural intern, journalist and residential designer. She writes about architecture and design topics at her blog,www.architangent.com/blog

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