Chapter 3a : Rural Housing Design Handbook ~ The site and its importance

Let’s now turn our attention to the importance of the site and the critical significance that where you are intending to place your house has upon the design.

The design guides such as those from Cork and Mayo are excellent at giving guidance on what you should be looking for when choosing a potential site and how you can avoid the commonplace examples of houses that look as if they’ve floated down from space and landed on a completely level site.

The advice in these publications is to work with the contours of your site, use the existing planting to create shelter from the elements and to maximise the solar gain by placing the principle bedrooms to the south – all excellent advice.

What I’m talking about here is true understanding your site; from the way the sun rises and how it tracks across the land at every day of every month of the year (I would say that most non-designers don’t really understand how the sun’s path changes as the seasons change through winter to summer), how the winds direction and changes through the year and the different percentages of different wind directions you will get as you stand on a windy day on your site. This understanding is important as it gives probably the strongest basis for hanging any future design upon. The way that you move through your house from the time you wake up to the time you go to bed has an intrinsic relationship to the way spaces are arranged in your future house. The direction of the wind has a massive influence upon where you should position external doors to give additional comfort when you are entering or leaving your house.

As well as these meteorological concerns you also need to fully understand the topology of your site, that is the way your site is contoured and any natural features that should be included in any design. It’s a planning requirement that contours or spot heights are included on any site layout drawings but it doesn’t automatically follow that these contours have been considered in any design. Let’s take two examples that illustrate this point:

Back to our own house again:

Our own site initially had the level of the field approximately 2.5m above the adjacent ground level; as a designer I am immediately thinking about how I can incorporate that distance (which is effectively a standard floor to ceiling height) into my design. Now, I’m not saying the answer came immediately but after a lot of time, sweat and effort; the conclusion was to cut the hill back to the depth of a single storey dwelling, to position our main ground floor rooms at this level and then effectively to replace what we took away with an intensive grass roof. The upper level is then rotated perpendicularly to the ground floor, with the result being that the you can exit the first floor at what is effectively another ground level.

The second example is from the Eastern Design Office in Japan for their cantilevered house in Osaka ( House at Osaka by Eastern Design Office ), where the architects also note the common solution to site difficulties is simply to level the ground to build anew on a level surface. Instead this houses embraces the ground and the contours that surround it; so much so that the house is part nestled into the hillside and the natural contours of what was removed are replicated in the curves within the building.

As architects and designers what is required is TIME, time to think, time to contemplate, time to understand and then time to design accordingly. Unfortunately for those looking for the cheapest solution, time spent in this way comes at a slightly high premium and you need to ask yourself whether you want your architect to come up with the most suitable and considered design for your house and site, or do you not ?

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