How do I site plan for a project?
What to consider when thinking about locations for your build.
Whether it’s a woodshed, cabin, or picnic table, the biggest consideration in building a thing should probably be Where in the hell do I put it?
Having built a bunch of stuff (with some successes and plenty of failures) I want to help you figure out how your potential project can best compliment the larger space, work with the landscape, and imbue the folks who use it with positive feelings.
I’ll be honest… it’s harder than it looks. There are hidden subtleties to why a space looks and feels welcoming. A great book on the subject is A Pattern Language.
And a good book on on about a newbie exploring this subject is A Place of My Own, by Michael Pollen, which chronicles his journey of building a small cabin. Within it he references A Pattern Language among another dozen great books worth looking into.
Without the benefit of working with a knowledgable architect or designer you’ll have to personally factor in as many considerations and concessions as possible. No site will be perfect in every way. Instead, it’s about considering all the angles and making the best choice based on the parameters you’re working with.
So, what parameters do you need to take into consideration?
Where does this structure fit within the larger site plan? The practicality of using it. How it looks. Consider your house, paths, parking, driveway, etc. Look not just at the paths that are laid out in concrete, but at the paths that have been worn by the subconscious efficiencies of humans. These are called “desire paths.” Look at where you and other folks tend to move and how you use the space.
Light is a crucial element. It affects usability, wear and tear, warmth, and emotion. Picture the shadows the structure might cast and how it impacts the usability of other spaces. How much sun exposure will it see and what face of the building will catch the most sunlight? Will you be on the deck in the evening eating dinner and wanting sunset warmth, or will you most use the deck in the mornings?
In many climates the goal might be a spot that allows for shelter from the punishing sun of the middle of the day, but allows warming sun exposure in the mornings and evenings. I use an app called Sunseeker that gives an augmented reality overview of your surroundings with where the sun will be at different times of the day and year.
You can mock things up with sticks, tape, rocks, or with Photoshop.
Keep in mind that not all of the above conditions are fixed. You may be able to easily move a door. Or add a window. Or modify a deck. If a site is perfect except for a few shadows cast by a problem tree, you might be able to cut it down.
The reality of human tendencies.
Really give some thought not just to how this thing will be used, but if it will be used as intended. The truth is we humans eventually succumb to primitive inclinations which are cataloged at length in—again—A Pattern Language.
For instance, balconies that are uncomfortably shallow don’t see use. A deck to dine upon will hardly see any meals if it’s too far, or down a flight of stairs. A main door won’t be used if the back door lands on a desire path.
Sometimes it’s a fine line. With features such as hammocks, picnic tables, or campsites, users tend to desire a sense of privacy, yet also some degree of inclusion; they want to feel like they’re in the mix, just not too in the mix.
The point being, human preference can be fickle. When out in the world start paying attention to what spaces seem to get used as intended and which ones don’t.
What about the actual earth? How sloped is the proposed site?
If the ground is pretty level you can work with that. It can be leveled out and a foundation poured. If it requires a lot of earth work to level you might opt for pouring footings/piers to create a level surface above the tilted landscape (this has the added benefit of leaving the landscape looking more natural and getting beneficial airflow under your build). For lower cost/cheaper builds, like a firewood shed, you can use concrete deck blocks and cut your posts to different heights.
Another option for sloped earth are ground screw footings. Or if you’ve got trees, you can use treehouse hardware and build into them. It’s a favorite of mine.
Pay attention to what happens when it rains. Does water pool at your site? Any runoff cutting through it? Water is the enemy of construction. Make sure your site has, or will have, good drainage.
Will the slope of the roof dump rain on you when you enter the building? Will it need a gutter? What direction does the wind typically come from? If it’s a partially enclosed shelter, is it oriented in a way that the wind and water spray will be blocked? Is your build generally constructed to to hold up to the stormy conditions that your site sees?
What about the actual construction process? You may need to run utilities. If you’re not doing that yourself, bring in a plumber or electrician and run a few site proposals by them and hear out the difficulties, benefits, and costs of each. Can you easily get materials to the site? Are you able to bring in heavy equipment if necessary? Where can you stage your supplies?
If you’re reading this, you’re probably not a professional architect or designer. So you’re going to have to work harder for good results. You’re going to put in more time than someone would reasonably expect in service of making a thing feel natural and effortless. Your cheat code for lacking the experience of a professional is to make up for it with obsession.
Make mockups on a computer. (You can hire someone on Upwork or Fiverr if this is beyond your skills.) Lay it out with sticks and rock. Temporarily put a table and chairs out soak in the vibes at different times of the day.
You’ll consider as many facets as possible, but you should also accept that the only way to learn is to learn by doing. It’s a drum I beat often… Mistakes will be made. Lessons will be learned. And that’s okay. The next project will be better for it.
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