No conversation about green building can commence without a discussion about the site. “[It’s] mandatory, from where you put the building to how you handle stormwater,” says architect Bill Kreager, principal of Seattle-based Mithun Architects. “It’s critical.” Long after you’ve moved on, the site plan will affect home buyers, local wildlife, drinking water, and a host of other issues that many builders don’t even think about. The Austin, Texas–based Austin Energy Green Building program says in its Sustainability Source Book that the site should get first consideration and be evaluated for all characteristics. It “has a crucial role in future performance of the building and enjoyment of occupants,” the group says. Here, then, are some site items to take into consideration.

Look Before You Leap

It’s easy enough to clear land and drop in as many houses as possible. Surprisingly, this may not be the smartest approach nor the most cost effective. Meticulous planning is better. Before anything else, thoroughly analyze your site for ecological and anthropological conditions, says the Austin Energy Green Building program. It takes a little more time, but it’s worth it. “General climatic data (insolation, temperature, humidity, and wind patterns) should be analyzed in conjunction with specific site elements (i.e., topography, vegetation, water conditions on site, existing built forms, and natural drainage patterns) in the selection of building location, orientation, form, envelope construction, and size and location of apertures,” the group advises. For example, if you use a site’s natural wind patterns you could greatly reduce cooling bills in the summer, says Peter L. Pfeiffer of Austin-based Barley & Pfeiffer Architects.

In the Shade

Before any other decision is made, the site should be assessed for “significant shrubs and trees, which help percolate water to the soil,” says Langley, Wash.–based architect Ross Chapin. Save as many trees as possible and incorporate them into the site plan, architect Peter L. Pfeiffer adds. “They provide shade, [act as] good wind buffers, and enhance the marketability of any home or building,” he says. The Austin Energy Green Building program adds, “Preserving native vegetation can greatly reduce water and pesticide use, and large existing trees add to property value.” It also makes sense to save as many trees as possible. “If you completely clear a site, you will need to rebuild what nature provides for free,” says Chapin. “Have you seen how much trees cost?” Besides, a neighborhood with mature trees simply looks better.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Austin, TX, Charlottesville, VA.