Analyzing Home Building Sites: Make the Best Use of Your Land

Home Site Design | Compass
Learn to navigate your home's site design.

Evaluating and understanding building sites is such an important aspect of house design, I devoted an entire “lesson” to the subject in my book,  Designing Your Perfect House: Lessons from an Architect.

If you were to ask me what mistake I see most often in house design and homebuilding, I would say it would be errors in the “siting” of the house. By “siting,” I mean the way the house is positioned on the property. Houses are often set too high or too low, making them look awkward or creating water drainage problems. 

Many other times I’ll see houses that don’t make good use of the site’s opportunities. It’s a shame to see a house built from a “stock” house plan plopped down on a site in a way that wastes view opportunities and ignores sunlight and energy efficiency opportunities.

Take advantage of your property’s opportunities.

If you take the time to analyze and evaluate a piece of property, you’ll be able to select the best property for your house before you spend money buying it. Once you have a great piece of land, you can design a house that suits that land and takes advantage of all it has to offer. Let’s look at some of the things you should pay attention to when evaluating a piece of property.

A Brief List of Information and Criteria to Include when Evaluating Building Sites: 

Property Lines

These show the legal limits of the land. They will show on a site plan or plat. There may also be stakes or metal pins placed at the property corners. Keep in mind that your property will not actually extend to the street. There is usually a right of way area between your front property line and the pavement. Physically, it will look like your yard extends to the street. But legally, it ends at the right-of-way.

Building Setback Lines

These lines, established by the local jurisdiction’s zoning regulations, show the required front, rear, and side yards where a building cannotbe built. 


These are other legally defined areas where building cannotoccur. They area areas where utilities or access lanes might be located.

North Arrow

 This indicates the orientation of the site relative to the points of the compass. Does it face north, south, east, or west? 

Sun Path

Note where the sun rises and where it sets in both winter and summer. Take special note of where the sun is at midday. That is due south and is important to determining the best orientation for rooms and windows. This has a tremendous impact on the brightness of your house and its energy efficiency.


You should note areas of moderate and steep slopes. Moderate slopes can be opportunities to create walk-out basements and they can work nicely with many house designs. Steep slopes are challenging. And in some locales, building is not permitted on steeply sloped land. Some building sites are simply too steep to build on. 

Significant Trees

 Locating significant trees and woodlands is important and will help you place the house in the proper position to preserve the trees and maximize the aesthetic beauty of them. Note the extension of the tree limbs. If construction or traffic disturbs the land within the drip line of an established tree, that tree will die within a few years.

Site Features

 Note the location of boulders, drainage swales, creeks, and other features you want to avoid or integrate into your design. 

Primary Direction of Approach

Knowing the direction from which you and your visitors will come and go will let you design a house that feels right on the land. Avoid placing the front door in a position where it will be hidden by other parts of the house and cannotbe seen as you approach.

Significant Views

 Note the direction of views you would like to capture in your house design. 

Locations of Neighboring Buildings

 It’s important to note these so you can plan screening for your privacy and your neighbors’ privacy.

Possible House Locations

As you analyze building sites, you’ll find yourself thinking about good spots for your house. Note these when the thoughts occurs.

Zoning and Community Restrictions

Check to see if there are height limits, area limits, lot coverage restrictions or other rules that will influence your design. 


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Bill Hirsch | Architect

Bill Hirsch

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