GREEN BUILDING: Site Design & Development
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David K. Horvath, GMB, CAPS, CGP, LEED-AP
General Manager, Certified Builder
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The ‘one size fits all’ approach to building homes in the United States is over. Home building must first consider the region’s climate and the climate’s impact on houses. Tennessee is within the mixed-humid climate zone. A mixed-humid climate receives more than 20 inches of annual precipitation, has approximately 5,400 heating degree days or fewer, and the monthly average outdoor temperature drops below 45 degrees F during the winter months.

This is a particularly challenging climate because it has significant heating and cooling demands, high moisture levels most of the year, and many areas of moderate to high rainfall. Controlling the infiltration of moisture-laden air into the building enclosure and keeping moisture away from cold surfaces are major goals of design and construction. Ideally, wall and roof assemblies are designed to promote drying to both the interior and exterior in this climate. Low perm vapor barriers should be avoided in this climate.

Site Design and Development Goals.
Green building prioritizes effective site design and development as an initial focus for resource-efficiency and reducing the environmental impacts of construction through these principles:

● Select a site that minimizes environmental impact and preserves the natural environment.
● Protect, restore, and enhance the natural features of a site.
● Minimize slope and soil disturbance, erosion, paved surfaces and runoff.
● Manage storm water.
● Landscape for water and energy conservation.
● Minimize environmental intrusion during onsite construction.
● Recycling construction materials and reducing on-site waste.

Building Orientation.
By looking at how houses receive sunlight, site planning can help optimize how much solar energy is available to heat a house in winter and how much heat must be removed with air conditioning in summer. Passive solar design considerations include design elements, material choices and home placement which can provide natural heating and cooling effects in a home and minimize the need for mechanical heating and cooling to take advantage of year-round energy savings.

  • Minimize home exposure to east and west. These orientations provide the greatest solar heat gains. Overhangs or other architectural and landscape elements such as deciduous trees should be considered to shade windows and west-facing walls during the summertime while leaving them unshaded in wintertime. Fencing and/or a trellis can also be used to shade windows and walls on east and west exposures.
  • Sites facing southeast, south, or southwest provide the best opportunities for optimizing a building’s orientation with respect to daylighting and passive solar gain. Moderate amounts of southern glazing provide improved comfort during heating while providing views without an energy penalty.
  • Lots should be planned so that the longer sides of the houses face north or south. Single-family homes tend to have longer fronts and backs and narrower sides, so lots facing north or south are preferred. 
  • Sites sheltered from winter winds and open to summer breezes are warmer in winter and cooler in summer.
  • Use drapes, blinds, shades, or other interior treatments to reduce heat gain through windows.
  • Paving should be minimized and shaded from the sun

A well-designed landscape not only can add beauty to your home but it also can reduce your heating and cooling costs. Elements and considerations of an energy-efficient landscape design include:

  • Climate: Use energy-efficient landscaping strategies based on your regional climate.
  • Shading: Use trees and other plants to shade your home to help reduce cooling costs. It is far better to prevent solar energy from reaching a house in summer than to attempt to manage it once it enters. Shade trees block summer sunlight before it strikes windows, walls, and roofs, dissipating absorbed heat to the air where it can be carried away by the breeze. Trees are most effective when located next to windows, walls, and air conditioners, and when located on the side of the home receiving the most solar exposure. Shade to the southwest and west is especially important for blocking peak solar aim in the summer in late afternoon. Trees more than 35 feet from the structure are probably too far away for shade.
  • Windbreaks: Use trees and/or shrubs around your home to help reduce winter heating costs. Hedge rows and shrubbery can block cold winter winds or help channel cool summer breezes into buildings.
  • Water Conservation: Choosing drought-tolerant native plantings results in less irrigation and less chance for irrigation water to create a moisture problem in the house. Maintenance costs with natural landscaping are often much less than for conventional practice.

Site Grading.
Proper site grading directs surface water away from building foundations and walls. Moving moisture away from a building is critical to maintaining structural integrity.

  • Grading and landscaping should be planned for movement of building runoff away from the home and its foundation, with roof drainage directed at least 3 feet beyond the building, and a surface grade of at least 5 percent maintained for at least 10 feet around and away from the entire structure.
  • Floor levels should always be above the surrounding grade.
  • Basement floors should be higher than the surrounding drainage system.
  • Driveways, garage slabs, patios, stoops, and walkways should drain away from the structure.
  • Design landscapes to absorb stormwater instead of putting in storm sewers to carry it off-site.
  • Consider rooftop water catchment systems so that rainwater can be used for landscape irrigation.
  • Protect trees and topsoil during sitework. Protect trees from construction damage by fencing off the “drip line” around them and avoiding major changes to surface grade.
  • Avoid use of pesticides and other chemicals that may leach into the groundwater. Look into less toxic termite treatments.
  • When backfilling a foundation or grading around a house, do not bury any construction debris.
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Resources for more information on site design and development:
PRIMER: Before You Build in a mixed-Humid Climate, by Building Science.
Site Issues: Sustainable Site Design by the USGBC.
Green & Sustainable Development by the National Association of Home Builders.
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