The prevailing theory is that good house design springs from its particular setting. There could be some folks who design an eye-catching house first, then head out seeking a likely spot to build it. Most, though, buy their land first, then seek inspiration from it. Their aim is to arrive at a design that complements the site rather than clashes with it.
This general goal is a noble one. A question arises, however. Where specifically on any particular property is the best place to situate the house? If you own a small lot, you probably have little choice. Even on a sprawling parcel, there may be one obvious location. Usually, however, several possibilities loom.
Suppose you buy five or more acres atop a hill. Your first inclination might be to build your home on the ridge.
Closer inspection may reveal greater advantages to building a little lower. Doing so can avoid constant exposure to the elements. Or your mountaintop panorama may be marred in one direction by unsightly cooling towers from some distant nuclear power plant, wind farm or antenna array. You may prefer to forgo the 360-degree panorama and focus the view toward a particularly impressive landmark, say a lake or scenic valley, or to gain a dramatic sunrise or sunset. Building into the hillside can also give you a sloping site, which is ideal for a walk-in basement that will save you the cost of adding a second story.
Many factors will influence your choice of one particular spot over another. They boil down to two categories: aesthetics and practicality.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the person designing a log home must not let emotion totally overrule common sense. In other words, there are two sides to every view. The first, of course, is the perspective that will be enjoyed from the house. The second is how the house itself will appear on the landscape. One that fails to harmonize with its setting may afford the owner an inspirational vantage, while, to its neighbors, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
Where aesthetics are concerned, there is one rule to follow: Go with the flow. Regardless of size, wherever you decide to build your house, strive to flatter the land.
Practical considerations are more complicated. They include topographical features, orientation and access.
Terrain presents some aesthetic consequences, but for the most part it involves down-to-earth decisions. Besides the possibility of undesirable exposure from a hilltop location, a valley setting also raises issues. As air cools at night, it moves from higher elevations to lower ones, producing effects that may be desirable or not, depending on your circumstances.
Likewise, a ledge location halfway up a slope that is initially appealing may eventually become precarious. Think California mudslides.
Then there are windbreaks, whether from the contour of the land itself or from vegetation, particularly trees. Trees also can affect the amount of sunlight that hits the house. Building just north of a stand of deciduous trees, for example, may provide warming sun in the winter and cooling shade in summer. Conifers in the same spot will block the sun year round.
Avoid building too close to large stands of trees. If carelessness or lightning ignites them, well-stoked flames can quickly threaten the house.
In remote settings, there is value in having a pond near the house, whether naturally occurring or created. Having a dependable water source available to firefighters can substantially lower insurance costs. Ponds are also pretty to look at, either from the house or an outdoor room.
Nearby bodies of water must certainly be taken into account. Any northerner familiar with the concept of lake-effect snow will understand the wisdom of locating a home away from the path of winter winds whipping across water. At the same time, homes in milder climates may be situated to take advantage of cooling summer breezes blowing in from the water.
Every location has what are known as prevailing winds. That is, the wind generally blows from one direction in the summer and from the opposite direction in winter. This principle explains why airport runways are aligned in certain directions. In fact, the nearest airport is a good place to inquire about the prevailing winds in your area. Other good sources are your local weather station or state energy office.
Avoid building where topographical features funnel the wind, intensifying its velocity—a phenomenon known as the Venturi effect. Instead, seek areas where the wind speed is constant. If you don’t have such a spot, plant trees or build a garage that can block or redirect the wind.
Consider the impact of topography on construction costs. Steep, rocky or densely wooded sites will add time and money to the project.
Once you’ve explored the terrain and found a likely spot, turn your attention to orientation—which way a house is turned on that spot. Usually the determining factor is sunlight. Most houses are rectangular. To maximize solar gain, align your home east and west so that the long sides face north and south. Wisdom dictates having the entrance face south and fewer windows facing north.
When laying out the rooms, place the public areas on the south side.
You may have good reason for reversing this arrangement, however, especially if you are building just south of a road and don’t want your home facing away from it. You may also want a south-facing sunroom in back of the house.
When considering your home’s orientation, check the sun’s path before deciding where to put windows and skylights. If you are able, track light throughout the year. The farther north you build, the greater the seasonal extremes.
Access is crucial both while your home is being built and afterwards. You may desire to build a mile off the nearest highway to ensure maximum privacy, but understand the implications of such a decision. When building the home, you have to move construction equipment onto the site. Unless you plan to exist off the power grid, you will need hook-ups to utilities. After construction, you will regularly drive on and off your property. Besides the initial expense of building a driveway or access road, there will be maintenance costs to keep it passable.
Speaking of access, water is essential for any site to be considered buildable. Unless your land is linked to municipal water and sewer systems, you will need a well and a septic field. You also want good drainage to move water away from your house and avoid flooding. Take these requirements into account when looking for a specific site.
All of these factors will guide your decision where to build. What’s more, they will determine subsequent landscaping after you move in. Using existing natural features as a starting point will aid in achieving harmony with your setting.
Above all, remember that these are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules. The best part of building from scratch on your land is being able to do what you decide is best for you. At the same time, heeding conventional wisdom from those who have confronted the same problems, as well as seeing the big picture, will lead to getting the most enjoyment from your home.
This article ran, with more photos, in the 2007 annual issue of the Log Homes Illustrated’s Log Home Plans. You can order this issue by calling (800) 258-0929.