Siting our house.

The great majority of my time in the past couple of years—and certainly the past six months—has been spent on the design and construction of our new house, which is slated for completion by the end of winter. The process has been enormously educational, and I’ve been intending to share some of what I’ve learned in this process.

Chief among the lessons from this process is the importance of properly siting a structure. Our house, as designed, would be an engineering failure if it were built 50 feet in any direction of where we’ve placed it, and an engineering disaster if built 500 feet away. That’s because it was designed for the very spot that we selected.

The bulk of our land is the side of a mountain. The logical place to have built our house would be towards the base. It’s flat, it’s relatively close to the main road, and there are neighboring houses (indicating that others believe it’s a good spot). But, being familiar with the area, we knew that it would be a poor location, for reasons that have apparently evaded some of our neighbors. Every decade or two, heavy rains wash down gullies along the mountainside, flooding the road and the land around it. That’s not just trouble for a house, but a minor ecological disaster for a septic system. There’s also the problem of sun. Being at the base of a narrow valley means limited access to the sun, what with the mountains. That means dark, depressing winters, significantly more need for auxiliary heat, and limited gardening possibilities.

Instead, we tromped around our land over the course of months, trying to find the best spot. There were a few criteria that we were using, which we ended up selecting a site on the basis of. We wanted a relatively flat spot. That would be easier to build on and it would give us the best access to the sun. We wanted to have deciduous trees on the south side of the house. That would provide us with shade in the summer, but open up to admit sun in the winter, saving us untold thousands in heating and air conditioning bills. We wanted to have trees between us and the road, because we figure that people shouldn’t have to look up and see our house. We needed a viable route to run a driveway. And we wanted to have enough relatively flat land nearby that we’d have space for pasture and gardens.

We eventually found the appropriate site, selecting a spot beneath the spreading bows of an enormous deciduous tree.

The next step was designing the house for that site. Working with an architect at Artisan Construction, we started by considering the natural grade of the land and the direction of the sun, and we aligned the house so that one of the long sides faced south. We covered the south-facing wall with windows, and clad the roof with unpainted aluminum, to reflect the sun’s rays. The overhangs were designed to be deep enough to shade much of the south face of the house from the high summer sun, but to also be shallow enough to allow the face to be bathed in the winter sun. Finally, we considered outdoor living space, making the south face of the house—the warmest, sunniest side—open up to a deck and patio, allowing us to expand significantly the functional size of our house for six months out of the year.

The resulting house is perfectly suited to its environs. If we moved it forward fifty feet, it would be exposed to full sun in the winter. If we moved it to one side fifty feet, it would be down in a gully, in the shade. And so on.

The three simplest steps that we took—steps that anybody ought to take when building a structure—were sizing our overhangs properly, maximizing window coverage on the south face, and having deciduous trees on the south face. Two of these things are free—there’s no reason not to do them. We’ll save a fortune in energy costs, and have a generally nicer home as a result.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

11 replies on “Siting our house.”

  1. Yay for big eaves! It’s rare to find those in newer houses.

    Also, have you considered having a greenhouse on that south face? I grew up in a house with a south-facing greenhouse, and it was amazing. It warmed and humidified the house in the winter, and provided a breeze in the summer (when the vents were open.) Also, there’s the whole fresh-veggies-in-winter thing. Maybe it’s too late to add to the design, or not what you want, but in general I can’t recommend it enough.

  2. The house is already engineered to maintain its temperature and humidity, and a greenhouse would just throw that entirely out of whack. We’d like very much to have a greenhouse, but not attached to the house.

    The other catch with a greenhouse is that it gets the direct sunlight, rather than the living portion of the house. So while it warms the house, it significantly inhibits the natural light coming into the living quarters. With a larger house, it would be possible accomplish both aims, but not with this little house. :)

  3. That’s a fair point. :) We only have a view about five months out of the year. When the leaves are on the trees, there’s no view to speak of. Though I guess we won’t know that for sure until the spring, when we can look out a second floor window and find out.

  4. That’s a fair point about natural light. I wonder what would happen if you didn’t have a wall between the greenhouse and the living space. You’d certainly get all the light you needed. I’m sure there’s some major downside, but I can’t think what.

  5. Hmmm… interesting.
    How about posting some floor plans, details about your security and, I don’t know, maybe your itinerary for the next month or so?

  6. The other good thing about being on a hill is that your septic system gets good fall. When we built our house about 25 years ago, we had an attached greenhouse. But it never worked real well as we had to make allowances for our fab view of Old Rag. We eventually turned it into living space. We also have our wood stove in the bottom floor which is built into the hillside providing much coolness in the summer…back to stove….its heat goes straight up to the other two floors.

    One problem with building on hills is the road. Difficult to get up in icy or snowy weather and can easily wash out unless special precautions are used to direct the water away.

  7. Well just reading and looking at the photo. I think it is precious. It takes me back to my childhood days and also further back looking at photos of when my dad was a child. I think it is a very special place that you and your wife will truly enjoy. It was something that you and her both took part in, with the planning and it is what you wanted.

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