When Building on a Challenging Piece of Land”

Date August 21, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Publication SantaFe.com

Categories Real Estate


Thinking of buying land and building your dream house? If your lot is well priced but "challenging"€ in its character, local architect Peter Wurzburger deals with your questions.

I'm thinking of building a home on what looks like a steep or challenging lot. How do I get started?

There are a number of steps to be researched. Some can be done by the buyer, some by a contractor, but in general an architect with prior experience most likely can navigate the process and identify issues in the most cost and time effective manner.

How do I get locate an architect if I haven't really gotten underway?

At some early point you'll need to spend someone's time, and some of your money, to get the process started. You should look at nearby homes, get the names of the architects, and approach them as a possible consultant.

Do I do this before or after I buy the land?

If possible, I'd recommend you (or your consultant) research the governing laws before you enter an agreement. You can buy the land, however, subject to conditions in order to give yourself time to explore specific site issues.

What can they do as a consultant and how is that different than hiring them as an architect?

You hire a consultant to assemble preliminary information, not design a house. The consultant identifies the governing agencies, laws, restrictions and requirements.

Depending on the jurisdiction, or the authority that controls a certain territory, these may include ridge top ordinances, overlay districts, historic districts, areas of flooding, availability of water, sanitary possibilities, available utilities, and height restrictions. Make sure you get all of the covenants.

Is there anything else the consultant does besides gathering information from government entities?

If no obvious mine fields are uncovered from the preliminary information gathered, you'll need to have a topographic survey (topo) done to show how steep the various areas are. The topo survey measures the elevation of points on a particular piece of land, and presents them as contours on a plot, from relatively flat, steep, or too steep, depending on what the building department requires.

You can hire a surveyor yourself but an architect is in a better position to describe exactly what is needed. It would be frustrating for you to have the surveyor prepare a survey at five foot increments only to find the building department wants two foot increments. Your architect may also direct the surveyor to only analyze certain buildable site areas rather than spending additional money to determine slopes over the entire parcel.

Is there anything other purpose for the topographic survey (topo)?

Primarily, the topo will identify how much of your land is suitable to build on. On hills, the buildable area may be drastically reduced, depending on the steepness of the existing grade and the code. The topo should also provide information as to drainage, views, utilities, easements. All of these will be of great value in the future design.

How do I know it there's enough land to build on?

This is a good time to do a reality test with your architect/consultant. What size house do you want? How many bedrooms? How much outdoor space will be used for patios or landscaped areas? What size garage? Your architect should compare the potential size of what you want with what will be allowed after you deduct setbacks and land that is too steep.

Do I know yet if the land is buildable?

Not quite. You should also get a soil report and consider radon testing, although you could proceed and just deal with soil issues during construction.

What are radon testing and soil issues?

Radon testing seeks out gas that would have to be dealt with in the design of the foundation. Perhaps neighbors have been tested and no gas was detected. It's your choice whether or not to spend the money for testing.

A soil report involves digging test pits or drilling holes to see what's below the surface. Obviously, if you have a larger site, you'd like your architect to have an idea where the house is going, so you know where to do the testing. The soil report can uncover friendly soil for construction-or not so friendly. Soil reports will also give recommendations for the design of the foundation. This information will be used by your architect or structural engineer to design the foundation. Remember you're not drilling a million test holes; so what they find in those locations might be different than what is uncovered under the house. You may hit a layer of bedrock while testing that, during construction, turns out to be a rock layer concealing clay below it.

That's a lot of steps. Are there any guarantees?

If you throw enough money (or too much) at a problem, you can usually get it solved. These questions were about "challenging"€ sites. That's why homes built in quantity are on flatter or undulating land.

So, I've collected all of this info. What's the next step for my architect/consultant?

Now might be a good time to pause and talk with a contractor about the cost impact all this information-especially the soil report-has on the cost of the house and the driveway getting to the house. While most people think in terms of construction cost per square foot, soil related foundation costs are usually a separate additional number. Most contractors will include a "rock clause"€ which basically says that you pay extra when they hit something hard. The soil report should give you a heads up as to how bad this may be and how much rock contingency money to establish up front. Otherwise, you'll burn through all your contingency money before you get out of the ground.

Now can we start the design?

Yes, if you've selected your architect. Otherwise, you now take all this info to several architects and decide which you feel the most comfortable with.

Peter Wurzburger, Architect
1512 Pacheco St, Suite A-206, Santa Fe, NM 87505
Phone: 505-992-0390
Cell: 505-577-0390
Fax: 505-983-5989
Email: pwwarch@aol.com