At first glance it appears like our little one acre is virtually flat. But walking around the piece you can see that it’s very slightly lower on the south end than the north. And the surrounding land is similarly pitched. But, when we put in large egress windows on the south end of the basement, this near-flatness would be a problem (I’ll explain later).
The piece is almost square, being bordered by a nice paved road on the west, fencing on the east and south, and a small tree line on the north. The other side of that tree line turned out to be a horse path in the summer and a snowmobile path in the winter! Even with the limited snowfall in recent years there was quite a bit a very fast snowmobile traffic in the winter.
Unfortunately I didn’t know that during the planning or building phases. If I was aware there’d be noisy snowmobile traffic during the winter I would have sited the house another 25 feet away from that edge of the property.
The horses passing by really weren’t a problem, especially since I’m a horsey person myself. If I could see them coming from a ways off I’d make sure to hail a greeting so the horse wouldn’t get spooked when approaching. And any droppings that would land on the trail would go into the compost heap. If I would’ve stayed in that house I would certainly build a fence along that side of the property to keep my dogs from scaring the horses in the summer and getting in the way of the snowmobiles in the winter.
Directly across the road to the west is a large 40-acre field that is actively farmed, and a portion of High Cliff State park, also with a large grass field. This lack of trees to the west of the building site allowed the winds to just pummel the house in the winter. In hindsight I should’ve been more careful to seal up the framing inside the porch ceiling. The 10 x 30 foot porch on the west side of the house really caught the wind. Some days the wind was just right that it would cause the plastic venting to vibrate and hum like the reed in a flute!
The building site was a plowed field just a few years before, so there were no trees to take into consideration. Well, I take that back. There were a couple smallish choke cherries, and a couple moderate sized Box Elders on the north side, but one was taken out completely for the garage, and the other severely trimmed back. The intent was to eventually remove the other one completely, too, but we just didn’t get around to it.
Box Elders (Acer negundo) make for really messy trees, especially when they grow very large. Because they grow so quickly they tend to have whole branches that die off… and then fall off! It’s best to remove them if they’re close to buildings. Large falling branches usually do nasty things to windows, siding, and roofing.
Dealing With The Niagara Escarpment
High Cliff State Park is on a north-south line going along the eastern side of Lake Winnebago northward to Door County (Wisconsin) that is actually the western edge of the Niagrara Escarpment, the same geologic formation that forms Niagara Falls between New York state and Canada. It’s a fairly thick layer of limestone that’s not all too easy for a water drilling rig to get through (the well turned out to be 180 feet!).
My house is right across the road from High Cliff Park. And the building site itself proved to have about 15 feet of soils before reaching the “ledge” of limestone. So this was ample space to dig out for the basement foundation. But, there were several very large rocks that the backhoe dug out in the process (these were pushed off to the side in a pile for later landscaping).
Otherwise the digging was fairly easy in the soil. A few feet down we did come across some concentrations of clay, but the soil was fairly loamy and slightly sandy.
The Soil Analysis
A couple decades ago the standard practice to test the efficacy of the drainage of soil was to dig a hole, fill it with water, and make a note of how long it took to soak in. Seriously. There are so many variables in this approach I can’t believe the results were anything valuable.
Nowadays the standard practice, and required by law before putting in a septic system, is to dig down about 4 feet and have a trained soils analyst jump in the hole and look at the soil profile. This is a lot more scientific and accurate in determining if a particular location is suitable for a building site and/or septic system.
However, these kind of regulations vary according to which State or County you plan to build in. And urban area will have different rules on this also as your house will be hooked up to a municipal sewer system.
Call your local County courthouse Land Use Office for the local regulations. Your soil characteristics and profile can have a significant impact on what and where you build.