07 Apr 2011

Site Context — Man and Natural Influence

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Getting to know a person can be easy. You sit down, share a cup of your favorite brew and ask questions. Almost effortlessly, you discover similarities. It might be something physical you notice immediately like height, eye color or hair color (whether bottled or bald). But as you converse, you learn about unique hobbies, interests or values that define the person. The inquisitive dialog is how you become acquainted with each other. That’s how I spend the first part of home design — getting to know the family. But in getting to know the site, I engage in a very different type of dialog.

 

How do I learn about the site? I ask questions about topography, features, views and neighborhood or region and I look to the site for answers that lead to architectural solutions. It’s not as one-sided as you may think. A site has texture, rhythm, flow, and personality to define it.

Site Grade: When I study the grade, I look for site drainage, construction or siting challenges and I describe the topography. The site is on a plateau at the highest elevation in the subdivision. It is characterized by waving grade of large flat areas separated by short gentle declines. The total elevation drops 22 vertical feet in 566 linear feet (4% grade) from the highest point at the Southwest corner to the lowest at the Northeast corner. The corner lot is bounded on the North and East sides by neighboring lots and on the South and West by neighborhood streets.

The grade change is most noticeable when standing at the highest point and looking either North or East down each property line. At about the middle of the lot is a horseshoe-shaped swale. It is the most significant grade drop on the entire site. Grade on both sides of the swale seems flat in comparison. On the surface, the entire site is buildable. The home locations with the most potential are the natural center clearing (1), along either property line (2, 3), the corner (4) or the glade (5).

Location

  • Location 1 is the middle-ground spot. It’s located in the center of the lot in a natural clearing. The buildable area is limited by the band of oaks to the North and wide cedars to the South. This site shows potential for a long home and/or tall home with minimal site disturbance. If tree retention is the goal, the width is limited to 32 feet. If we retain the existing vegetation on the West and South the home would be nestled in a private location. The location screams “build here!” because it’s a large flat, private area with great views.
  • Location 2 is the showoff spot. It’s proudly perched snug against the property line and accessed via a wide natural curved path, the site is ideal for a short circular drive or side-entry garage. Located along the South property line, it has great North-South exposure. A house snug along the property line would provide street frontage and an expansive back yard. The grade differential to the East offers split-level design potential providing an opportunity to hide the garage under or behind the home. A compact home design minimizes tree removal. The location brags, “look at me” because it minimizes frontage and exposes the house to neighbors.
  • Location 3 is the strip center spot. It offers max street frontage and easy vehicle access. The location accommodates a front or rear entry garage and an expansive back yard. The spot accommodates a sprawling home, compact home or deep home, but building a home in this spot means removing a significant number of mature healthy trees and exposing the home to western sun. The location demands curb appeal because the house is prominently positioned along the street.
  • Location 4 is a corner stone spot. It takes advantage of a corner balancing access, views and sun exposure. The spot is ideal for a circular drive, accommodates a hidden garage and any shape home desired, but is best suited for a corner-centric house with public/private wings. The spot maximizes natural diagonal vistas. Shallow positioning displaces screening trees, but deeper positioning allows screening and a naturally framed backyard. The location optimizes multiple viewing angles, but may inadvertently focus views on the street corner.
  • Location 5 is the buried treasure site. It is nestled deep in the lot and provides the most privacy. The location is in a small flat glade. It’s the right size for a private campsite so we built a firepit with the native stone and use it for camp outs. Access is complicated because its the farthest from utility connections and relatively close to the nearest neighbor’s driveway. Water flows slowly across this location and deposits organic debris from the higher elevations in this area. It seems to have more rock than other areas of the site. Large cedars surrounding the natural clearing provide excellent view and sun screening. The location is ideal for a compact home to reduce tree removal. This site exudes privacy and is such a perfect secluded campsite, it would be a shame to lose this great outdoor space for the house.

Site Features: When I look for features I search for character defining elements, rock formations, tree groupings, water, swales, glens, glades and paths. I also study zoning to identify public vs. private parts of the site. I use the collection of features and zoning observations to study massing. I wandered the site in search of inspiration and observed…

  • fabulous tree groupings provide excellent shade and screen combinations – the home should emulate the natural shelter
  • winding natural paths indicate how the site has been used – the home should consider the intersection and importance of circulation
  • dormant fire pits from past owners and lease hunters indicate gathering places – the fire pits mark social spaces and the home can play off of that
  • craggy massive boulders and many flat limestone rocks against dense ground cover provide a hard and soft texture – rock is an important site element and should be used in the defining the home
  • gentle grade and site hugging contours create a protected site – work within the contours
  • great asymmetrical balance of clearings and dense foliage illustrate a natural void and solid pattern – consider an asymmetrical home organization and be sensitive to the void/solid pattern
  • west and south sections of the site are more public – locate public areas here
  • north and east sections of the site are more private – locate private areas here
  • wildlife includes deer, turkey, roadrunner and rabbits – maintain the natural habitat

Features

Site Views: When I study views, I observe views to, from and through the site. I look for the best views from the build site, views of the site from streets, neighboring lots and back. Views help me decide where to put windows. I place windows based on exposure, light and outdoor features, but views are about much more than window placement. Views decide the more important space placement. So, I meandered around the site, discovering what made it beautiful. These are my observations.

  • great views all around
  • views to the south are shallow and interrupted – south light is harsh but controllable – place spaces on the south side that need light, but limited views
  • views to north are rich and varied – north light is the best light – place spaces on the north that need light and views
  • north views cast oaks in the foreground and cedars in the background – accentuate the views
  • perimeter cedars provide privacy and screen views – big and many windows are possible without sacrificing privacy
  • peekaboo views to/from the South property line – take advantage of these vistas to provide glimpses to or from the house
  • obstructed views to/from the West property line – good privacy and sun screening
  • obstructed views to neighboring lots – good privacy screening

Views

Neighborhood/Regional Fabric: I look for character-defining features or elements consistent, important or distinquishable in the neighborhood. Sometimes, I look for things I like and don’t like. I always look for good ideas to differentiate my home and make it a good neighbor. This neighborhood and region offered great inspiration and several warnings.

  • the diamond door (entry gate) is a strong statement with a historical character to it
  • the subdivision contains several big homes of no particular style, flair or interest
  • I discovered several homes displaying the owner’s unique and often ostentacious taste such as the voyeur tuscan, tower hill country, the sunshine rotunda, the hidden hacienda, the proud tudor, the compound and the randolph mission
  • The Main street fabric is hill country flavor and is echoed in the subdivision. It includes rock, stucco, board and batten, siding, standing seam metal roof, architectural shingles, arches, big windows and earthy hues

I enjoyed my conversation with the site. I learned it was a pleasant, flexible site with rich history, great drainage, spectacular short and long-range views and immense potential for numerous design solutions. I present the site interview as separate steps, but I actually conduct it simultaneously over several visits and document observations with copious photos, notes and sketches. With so many options, the question is not where do we build, it’s where don’t we build to best preserve the site’s natural beauty. We avoid location 2 and 3 because both sacrifice privacy for economy. Likewise, we avoid location 5 for the opposite reasons — sacrificing economy for privacy. Location 4 does not take advantage of the best views and orientation. So we choose location 1 for our homesite not because it’s the only one left, but for its preservation of and alignment with natural glades, grade, paths and environmental patterns. Yes, it’s official new friend, location 1 is a natural welcome mat.

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About the Author


Your Architect is Eric Faulkner -- an architect licensed in Texas & Oklahoma with 29 years experience in design, construction observation and life.