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Choosing a House Site: How to Pick the Best Possible Spot to Build

How to evaluate your land’s potential for building a log home.

Written by Jim Cooper



A great benefit of building your own log home is getting to put it where you want it. You can take full advantage of views, sun, breezes and shade. Choosing your own house site allows you to weigh various advantages and disadvantages, and make decisions based on your personal preference.

It’s never too early to start exploring your land’s potential for a spectacular house site. Even if building your log home still lies far in the future, the more time you spend getting to know your land, the better. Watching a building site though a year’s cycle of seasons is a great way to make the best choices and take advantage of opportunities you might not recognize from a single, cursory visit.
 
 
 

Tools You’ll Need

Several tools can improve your site analysis. Before heading out, gather up a 100-foot tape measure and a compass. Inexpensive marking flags and a spool of orange marking tape from a building supply store will allow you to mark off potential roadways and building sites or identify trees and other features you wish to protect. Binoculars and a camera are also useful. If someone is available to hold it, throw in a stepladder. Finally, if your building site is on sloping ground, include a string level and a spool of string to hang it from.

Somewhere in your real estate papers, you should have a property survey, or plat, showing what you have purchased. This legal document shows boundaries and corners, as well as pertinent legal information, such as the location of streams, rivers, ponds, floodplains, utility easements and roads. It may also show wells and existing or proposed septic systems. If you don’t have such a document, your county or township records department will have something on file.

Be careful interpreting old records. If your land has been in your family for years, old survey data could contain misinformation. If so, contact a surveyor and arrange for a boundary survey before proceeding.

If you’ve already started planning your home, you may have a preliminary site plan you can use to help record and evaluate site information. Instead of working with original documents, make a copy so you can make notes directly on the plan. If you have a house plan in mind, draw its outline on a sheet of paper to the same scale as the property survey or site plan and cut it out with scissors. Indicate on your cutout the front of the plan. Lay the cutout on the survey or site plan and slide it around to “test drive” various house orientations. Pay attention to directions so your house aligns well with views and terrain. Note where south is so you can use the sun to best advantage. When you find a promising position, tape the cutout to the site plan. Now you’re ready for some fieldwork.

 

Features to Note

When you arrive at your site, start making notes. Keep the survey oriented to match the landscape as you walk your property. Record special features, such as trees you would like to save, rock outcroppings, areas of heavy drainage and particularly good views. If you’ve laid out a potential house site on your survey, locate and mark it with flags or marking tape.

Some specific things to consider as you analyze your site:

Sun

The sun can be a great friend or an enemy, depending on how you use it. Sunlight streaming though a bank of windows brightens interiors, as well as providing free heat. But in warm climates, too much direct sun can drive up temperatures, requiring air conditioning or drawn curtains. Shade from existing trees, slopes and rock outcrops, as well as generous roof overhangs, can moderate indoor temperatures.

In colder climates, you’ll generally want to orient your house so the wall containing the most windows faces as close to south as possible. You may need to adjust the angle somewhat, depending on the view you want, but as you move the house away from due south, you lose the benefits of indoor daylight and solar heating. For best solar heating benefit, keep your house within 30 degrees of south.

Water

There’s no sound as soothing as gently flowing water, providing it’s not flowing gently through your basement or great room. Study drainage patterns around your proposed house site. Look for telltale signs, such as ribbon-like mounds of leaves and debris, gullies or bare places scoured by runoff from heavy rains. Don’t position your home in the path of springtime gulley-washers. If your property has water features such as lakes, ponds, rivers or streams, look for signs of flooding and stay well above high-water indications. Clumps of dead grass or leaves snared in plants several inches to several feet above ground are often remnants of previous floods.

When your house is built, land around the building site will be re-graded to gently slope away from your foundation. This works well where the final grading enhances natural drainage patterns. In some situations, you may want to add landscape features, such as a rain garden, for additional protection.

See also Building a Log Home on the Water

Wind

Soft breezes sifting though open windows help cool the interior and can reduce or eliminate the need for air conditioning. In snow country, strategically placed decks can be swept free of snow without needing to resort to shoveling. But constant strong winds can make an unprotected deck unpleasant and even unusable. Trees can provide welcome windbreaks, as can hillsides or rock outcrops. Wind conditions vary, so you may want to ask neighbors for a more thorough assessment.

The combined action of wind and sun attack even the best log-home finish. Providing some shade and a reasonable windbreak can reduce maintenance costs dramatically. It’s usually best to avoid building on exposed hilltops. Instead, shift your site slightly off of the peak and use the hillside as shelter. You needn’t abandon heights altogether since some elevation usually provides view, ventilation and drainage.

Views

Many people plan their site around a view. Whether it’s a lake or mountain meadow, a log home with a view ranks high. If you are fortunate to have several views available, study them carefully. Imagine them through all of the seasons. A great summer view may not look as good in winter or vice versa. If you have the luxury of time, plan several site visits at different times of year.

Views and window walls go together like cake and ice cream. But be careful about large expanses of glass aimed north or west, especially in cold, cloudy climates. If you are planning to take advantage of passive solar energy, concentrate windows on the side of your home that comes closest to south. If you are within 30 degrees of south, you’ll benefit from the sun.

If your view faces west or north, plan to install the most energy-efficient windows possible and scale back the window area. Experiment with your proposed house plan to place your windows where you’ll benefit from them.
 

Topography

The terrain of your site isn’t just about looks. It affects construction costs, energy use, maintenance and convenience. Land you can walk comfortably with little or no exposed ground rock often indicates favorable building potential.

Steep slopes and exposed rock present building challenges that usually require additional amounts of cash. Access roads are harder to build and basements harder to dig. Retaining walls may be necessary. In some cases, you might even need a sub-basement. Rocky ground may mean blasting for foundation or water and sewer lines. If you have to grab low-hanging branches to pull yourself uphill, consult an excavator or builder for advice.

Flat ground presents its own challenges. Flat sites often require additional costs to carry water away from your house. Even with grading and landscaping, flat ground may need French drains or rain gardens. Flat in this case means “pool-table” flat, which is rare. Most land has at least some slope.

A slight slope offers many benefits, including better drainage and greater hope of a dry basement. It also offers an opportunity for a lookout or walkout basement. Lookout basements have windows; walkouts also have doors. Both provide natural light and direct access to the basement from outdoors, resulting in better ventilation and comfort.

Taking advantage of a slope to create a lookout or walkout basement offers the opportunity to put finished living space there and for a substantially lower construction cost. Instead of building a foundation roof and walls for 2,000 square feet of finished space on a single level, a walkout allows you divide that square footage into two 1,000-square-foot levels. Construction costs for foundation, roof and walls will be half of what they would be to build 2,000 finished square feet on one level.
 
 
 
 

Slope Variables

Slope requirements for lookouts and walkouts vary. Generally, exposing at least the top four feet of foundation wall allows room for operable windows. Walkouts need the entire floor-to-ceiling distance exposed, at least in the door area. If you have a floor plan in mind, you can gauge the amount of exposed foundation by marking the basement wall or corner that will be buried deepest. Then, using a string level, measure horizontally the distance to the wall that will be most exposed. Next, measure from the ground to the horizontal line to see how much wall will be exposed; ideally, it will fall somewhere between four and eight feet.

Also, if you have a survey or site plan with topographic lines, use it to gauge walkout potential. Topographic lines show the elevation of the ground surface. Depending on the slope, lines usually indicate two, five or 10 feet of elevation difference. Noting the elevation or contour lines that cross your floor plan cutout will tell how much foundation wall will be exposed.

People unfamiliar with reading topographic maps sometimes have difficulty interpreting them. Here’s a trick to help. Think of the topography lines as bathtub rings. Imagine your land entirely under water with a drain at the lowest point. Pulling the plug, stopping briefly at regular intervals will leave a “bathtub ring” at that level. Lines close together indicate steep terrain, while lines farther apart indicate gentle slopes or flat ground.

If able, repeat your site analysis several times, in different seasons and at different times of day. When you think you’ve found a good building site, you can lay out your floor plan and even approximate the view from windows and decks. On sloping ground, you can even set up a stepladder to get an idea of the view from elevated windows. Such detailed analysis will not only improve your log home, but also contribute to the excitement and anticipation of when you can enjoy the view from your window or deck chair.


Jim Cooper (jimcooper@tallgrass-inc.com), is a former general contractor, the author of Log Homes Made Easy and a LEED Accredited Professional who consults in energy-efficient and sustainable building.