Building a Sustainable, Healthy House: How to Make the Most of the Site Design

Posted on
December 22, 2018

High-end residential design begins with site selection. This article will explain how to choose the best spot to build your new home using smart sustainability planning.

Location and Orientation

The location and orientation of the new building will affect the functionality of the home and quality of life for its users through factors such as:

  • Accessibility and security,
  • Energy consumption, and
  • The local ecology.

A well-chosen site, particularly in urban areas, provides important access to services, infrastructure and public transportation.

There are many factors to consider in site selection; here are a few that we recommend focusing on:

  • Existing grades,
  • Sun and wind exposures,
  • Snow accumulation,
  • Watersheds and potential flood zones,
  • Airplane travel paths, and
  • Wildlife corridors.

Building orientation is an additional consideration that will affect:

  • Design and location of functional elements,
  • Use of daylight,
  • Heat gain and loss,
  • Natural ventilation, and
  • Views.

Build orientation is typically directly related to building access (i.e., it determines where the front door and other entryways will be placed), so proper interior layout can help integrate passive and active solar exposures.

Sustainability Design

Smart sustainability design seeks to maximize the efficiency of a site during construction and afterwards.  You don’t have to be an environmental activist to be interested in sustainability design; as an intelligent way of minimizing costs and impacts to the surrounding environment, it makes a sound foundation for any good design. Below are some steps for implementing sustainability design into your site selection and construction.

1. Conserve Existing Buildings and Materials

Current sustainability codes focus on regulating new construction. However, usually new construction begins with demolishing existing buildings, which wastes the resources that were already used in creating those structures. Instead, your site selection process should seek to partially or entirely retrofit existing structures if possible and viable. Another sustainable practice would be to minimize land disturbance by considering the existing land grade and preserving existing foliage (trees and bushes).

2. Erosion Control

Erosion control refers to practices that prevent topsoil from being worn away by wind or water. Here are some design techniques for maintaining erosion control, both during construction and once the site is being lived on:

  • Use native or locally adapted planting species (if possible), as these tend to withstand natural climatic conditions better;
  • Employ proper grading and water runoff design to allow for rainwater retention and re-use;
  • Use zone and drip irrigation, along with rain detection, in landscape designs to reduce the use of potable water;
  • Use water-gardens, ponds, wetlands and dry swales to bolster your water retention and reduce the need for watering; and
  • Incorporate porous driveways and sidewalks to allow for natural water seepage and slow discharge.

3. Heat Management

The “heat island “effect is a well-known consequence of conventional building and design, where dark-colored roofs and pavements accumulate heat from the sun. There are a number of solutions that you can explore to avoid this effect:

  • Light-coloured roof surfaces will help reduce the “heat-island” effect as well as prolong the use of the roofing material.
  • Solar (photovoltaic) cells can be incorporated into roof and wall design to gain solar energy.
  • Proper shading and glazing for areas which have high sun exposure can help reduce heat gain while maximizing the use of outdoor space during times of direct sun.
  • Use of green (vegetated or living) roof.

4. Building and Roof Design

Green roofs are useful for avoiding the “heat-island” effect; they also assist with water management, and provide wildlife habitats.

For overall sustainability issues, ventilating the building properly, especially through natural gravity ventilation, will help to naturally maintain proper temperatures while adding to a well-designed system of cross-ventilation relying on prevailing wind patterns.

As climate change takes hold and the need for sustainable building design grows, it will become more common and more important to consider proper site selection, site design and building orientation in all construction. These factors not only affect the owners and users of the building, but all of us.

To learn more about how to use sustainability design in your new home project, please contact to schedule your intitial consultation meeting.

Photo credit: Magdalena Kurylowicz

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