How does your building lot determine where to put your house?

Solar Home Chronicles 4

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

How to take advantage of the micro-environment of your lot and how it determines where to place your house?

I found it interesting that, in the Solar Shelter Manual, published by Solar Nova Scotia (the textbook for their Solar Shelters Workshops), it is advised to spend quite a bit of time on your building lot, prior to even designing the house, to learn more about the qualities of terrain and space that will contribute to or detract from passive solar gain. You can imagine that this could be a valuable process for a large, treed, sloped or unusual lot, that offers different possibilities for situating the house. This might seem like a limited or pointless exercise for a square, flat lot in the middle of a subdivision of homes.

However, if you are one of those people, like me, who have had (for example) water runoff problems living in a planned subdivision, you can see that even here you would want to put as much consideration as possible into ensuring that your home is designed to take best advantage of every possibility.

When people find a building lot that they like, there will often be some focus (like trees, a pond, a view) that makes it attractive. And so they will build their home exactly where that lovely spot is. Unfortunately, during the process of building, the nice trees will be cut down, the pond, or its view, will be obliterated during the excavation for the house foundation, and the balanced ecosystem that produced that beautiful place will be ruined. What will be left is a house that looks out over the worst aspects of the lot, rather than the best.

There is a book that was recommended to us, as we began to plan for our solar home: A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein. This book works with the natural needs of people and environment, and helps readers to recognize the patterns of life and lifestyle that will determine where and how to build their home. The authors recommend that when building a new home, you should use every act as an opportunity to improve health or environment, rather than disturb it.

As I mentioned before, our lot offers us the opportunity to build almost square to the road, hook into town water and sewer systems, and still have a large private south vista to work with. It is mostly field, being reclaimed by nearby woods. The most likely place to build is the lowest part of the lot, with numerous ditches across it to deal with runoff and rain.

We spent many days walking all over our building lot. Cattails defined the ditches. We discovered water irises in the some parts of the field _ a sure sign of lots of moisture there through much of the year. The woods were filled with fir, spruce and tamarack _ more signs of poorly-drained soil.

We also discovered some heartening things _ blueberries and blackberries were competing with the goldenrod near the woods. Ducks and pheasants enjoyed the fields and ditches. Spring peepers and toads also inhabited the place. We would have to find a way to live with this ecosystem, rather than destroy it.

We looked for any microclimates on the lot. A microclimate is a local area where the temperature is a few degrees different from the surroundings. You can identify it by noticing if local plants are blooming or dying off at different times than the norm. The ideal place to build a solar home is in a warmer microclimate, where southern slope, southern exposure or wind blocks (such as trees or other buildings) contribute to the warming. The worst place to build is, of course, in a colder microclimate.

We were unable to identify any microclimates in the field area of our lot. And so our plans just needed to deal with the biggest issue we could see _ water _ while respecting the ecosystem that was already there.

Next time: how to make the best of our wet building lot