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 asked me what mistake I see most often in house design, I would say it’s 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. 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 and then you can design a house that suits the land and takes advantage of all it has to offer.
Property Lines: These show the legal limits of the land. 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.
Building Setback Lines: These lines show the required front, rear, and side yards where a building can not be built.
Easement: These are other legally defined areas where building can not occur.
North Arrow: This indicates the orientation of the site. 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. This has a tremendous impact on the brightness of your house and its energy efficiency.
Slopes: You should note areas of moderate and steep slopes. Moderate slopes can be an opportunity 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 just 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. Read here for tips about protecting a tree's roots during construction
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 is hidden by other parts of the house and can not be 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 design for your privacy and theirs.
Possible House Locations: As you analyze building sites, you’ll find yourself thinking about good spots for your house. Note these when the thought 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.