Ask the Architect

Exactly where should we build?

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Q. We’re looking at a property for a vacation home and the development is beautiful, but the only site we’re interested in is at the bottom of a steep hill. If we buy the property, how can we avoid the drainage problems that have scared others away? The land is on a lake and is picturesque. How would you go about figuring out where to put the home?

A. You need to look at the same factors that every built structure has to encounter, namely water and movement. Every building moves, and every building has to work with the conditions of water, whether it’s groundwater, moving surface water or rain. The property has to pass multiple tests to be a workable site, unless you make minimal contact with the land and just elevate, which isn’t such a strange notion, unless the local zoning requirements place restrictions on height. The site needs soil testing for water table location and type of materials you can encounter at different levels when excavating. It also helps to know so that compaction of driveway and patio surfaces can be planned.

The adjacent lake is a dynamic force when the weather causes it to overflow, so you need to get a history of the changes in water level from the local department of engineering. Look for the most extreme highs and lows of water level and when they occurred. A low water level can lead to collapse of adjacent soils, and high water can cause erosion or impact forces to ruin the structure. The worst-case scenario of weather and natural extremes must be carefully thought out. In the woods, spreading fire, even from an errant spark or lightning strike, means that materials need to be resistant. It may be romantic to have a house that looks like a fairy-tale cottage in the woods, but the dream can end abruptly if disaster causes damage, and it can happen very quickly.

The main reason the property hasn’t been developed must be the cost to build, since almost any factor can be dealt with, but at what expense? Sometimes the most difficult problem is finding a local qualified builder who is willing to take on an atypical engineered task. Many contractors don’t want to do something different, and often resist change. For example, builders occasionally deviate from the requirement to build a foundation that goes below the frost line, not just to the frost level, arguing that “nobody does it that way.” What they fail to understand is that building codes are the bare minimum and may cause damage, and the plans are what they were hired to build, not a suggestion that they can opt to deviate from based on unfamiliarity.

Have you thought about how to get to the house with a car or on foot, in all kinds of weather? You need a local professional who can interpret the site data and guide you. Good luck!

© 2019 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to yourhousedr@aol.com, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.