Where to build on a large lot or rural acreage depends on so many local conditions - wind, sun, drainage, scenery, accessibility, septic leaching, water sources, zoning, and more.
Building in an urban environment is likely to be more heavily regulated than many rural locations. Planning and zoning restrictions coupled with the existing infrastructure – sewer, electricity, water, access – all play a major role in restricting your options for DIY building.
For this page, we will assume that you are building on a rural site with greater flexibility and more choices available in building orientation, design, and function.
Locating your site - When Barbara and I decided to build on our 10 acre parcel, we remembered lessons from previous building experiences in locating our home on the site. When we built our home, with a contractor, on 60 beautiful acres in rural Minnesota, the land surrounding us was essentially empty. We had one neighbor in a farmstead a quarter mile away. Knowing that plowing out a driveway after a winter storm was really a lot of work, we built close to the road.
Within a year of completion, the quiet of the place was shattered by two young boys racing up and down the road on go-karts. They were actually nice kids just being young and exuberant, but their lifestyle detracted from our preferred experience. Doing it again, the annoyance could have been avoided by building closer to the center of our land.
On our current site, despite having wonderful neighbors who value quiet as much as we, our buildings are situated almost in the center of our 10 acres. We now consider that a buffer zone or set back should be a prime consideration in deciding where to build.
Orienting your Building – Siting your home for comfort, view, and efficiency means considering heating, cooling, and views. The decisions regarding these factors will depend largely on where you are building. In Minnesota, Canada, or any other locale likely to experience extremely cold weather, passive solar heating might well be an important option, even a necessity.
Here in SE Arizona, despite our near 5,000 ft elevation, the sun and the need for shade and cooling overshadows the need for solar gain. In fact, we have built a wrap-around 8’ porch roof to provide us with shade.
We do have cold days, as low as 2 degrees above in my experience, but our super insulated straw bale home keeps us snug with great efficiency using a small propane wall heater. The insulating properties of the straw bales also let us efficiently cool the house with a small evaporative cooler, eliminating the high cost of forced air heat exchanger units.
A factor that is rarely heard in urban building but must be considered for comfort in rural homes is wind. Especially during spring and fall months, we know that the prevailing wind is likely to appear around noon and blow until sundown.
As a consequence, we turn our backs on the wind. The front door and most of the windows face away from the wind and only two small windows provide the opportunity for air entering on the windward side. We located our orchard to windward to further shelter the house. This adds considerably to our comfort and economic temperature control.
Other Factors – If you are building on a slope, you might consider berming or otherwise protecting from flooding. We have built on somewhat higher ground between two washes and have created 18” berms to prevent sheet flooding. I diverted one small wash into a larger wash some distance away.
As our home is built on a bajada, or alluvial fan below the Dragoon Mountains, we do experience occasional sheet flooding. These precautions keep all our building dry and comfortable even during our seasonal monsoon rains – up to 2” in 45 minutes last year.
We planned our home so water and electricity entered upslope and the drains to the septic system were slightly down hill. The first two buildings have a grey water waste system and composting toilets, so no worries.
Learn your Land – We lived in a little camp trailer weekends and summer vacations for a year to learn our land. We listened and observed the seasonal changes in wind, sun, rain (and flooding), and cold.
With that information, we were able to locate our buildings in harmony with the land and in such a way as to provide beauty, comfort, and safety for ourselves here on our desert homestead.
Unless you also build in SE Arizona, you might consider these factors and spend some time listening to your land. It will tell you where to build.
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