How To Choose The Right Site For Your House

You've got a lot of ideas for your new home; you’ve been to open houses, cut pictures from magazines, and have a pretty good idea of what you want your house to look like. You’ve researched costs, talked to builders and architects, and set up a budget.

But wait - there’s one big decision left to make that can impact the success of the whole project.

Where Comes Before What

Too many soon-to-be-homeowners have a house design in mind before they have a building site.

That's getting the horse way out in front of the cart.

Before you start working on the design of your house figure out where you’re going to put it. In fact, the sooner in the design process you consider the property, the better the house will be.

Give your architect the opportunity to shape the house with the effects of the site in mind; the orientation and slope of the lot, the location of adjacent homes, even the presence of or lack of trees can strongly affect how the house and the rooms in it should be arranged.

Does that sound too obvious? I’ve seen many cases where it apparently wasn't...

I recently encountered an extreme example of a house designed before the lot was selected, when my firm was asked to remodel a home on the Lake Erie shoreline. You’d expect such a home to have abundant glass facing the lake, but we found only a few small windows – and those were badly located relative to the spectacular views.

How did the original owners miss the fact that there was a Great Lake quite literally in the backyard?  My guess?  Someone bought a house plan book, picked a plan, and dropped it onto the site.


Choose Wisely

In most subdivisions, the lots aren’t wide enough to allow many options in orienting the house so the orientation of the lot is critical. Let's use a real-life example to show how the lot affects the placement of the house.

Lots 100 and 101 on the drawing below are similar in size and shape and are located across the street from each other. A typical 60-foot wide suburban home would easily fit on either lot. The same house on each lot, however, would create a very different quality of life.

Here are a few key reasons why.

The placement of rooms in a home is partly determined by access to sunlight. In the kitchen, for example, many families prefer to have the morning light streaming in from the southeast. Likewise, the main living areas should have a southern orientation when possible so that the design of the home can admit sunlight into those rooms throughout the day.

Lot 100 faces east; in order to place the kitchen with windows facing southeast, the kitchen would have to be in the front of the house.

And while that’s not unheard of, it can create other functional problems in the layout of the plan. With the kitchen at or near the back of the house, it won’t get any sunlight until afternoon.

Lot 101, on the other hand, faces west. If the kitchen is near the back of the house, especially if it’s on the southeast corner, it can be arranged to draw in the morning light and that light can be coaxed into other rooms as well.

The difference between starting your day in bright sunny spaces or dark dreary ones can affect your mood all day long.

And since contemporary American family life revolves a great deal around the kitchen, the position of the kitchen affects the position of most of the rest of the rooms of the house.

Each of these lots also slopes down from north to south. It’s generally good design practice to locate an attached garage on the high side of the property, which reduces the number of steps from the house to the garage. More than a few steps from the house to the garage can be awkward and takes up space in the garage.

On both lots, the garage would best be placed on the north side. But on lot 101, with our kitchen placed at the southeast corner, we’ve created a longer walk to carry groceries from the garage to the kitchen. On lot 100, since we’re not getting any light in the kitchen anyway, we can move the kitchen to the north side, nearer the garage.

Which is more important to you? Most of my clients choose morning light in the kitchen over easy access from the garage. 

But the point is this: it’s the orientation of the lot that creates that choice.

Evaluating properties in terms of their effect on the design of the house, and the resulting quality of life it creates, will help you avoid disappointment later on. If you’re working with an architect, involve him early in the process. If you’ve already chosen a home design, look critically at how the qualities of the lot can affect the enjoyment of your home.

Get the site right, and you'll have a much more pleasant and enjoyable house!

Need expert Residential Architectural advice for your new home or remodeling project? Contact Richard Taylor, AIA at RTA Studio Architects to arrange a meeting or an online consultation.