(Continued from Building a Green House)
3. Using the Land Responsibly
I bet it rarely crosses people’s minds that there are ways to use even the tiniest urban lot responsibly or ecologically. They look for a “good neighborhood”, or a good school district — which are important. Or a new subdivision, maybe without building covenants so they can build the kind of house they’d like without superfluous restrictions. The lay of the land, the native vegetation, and how far it is to commute to work, are an after thought.
But, using land responsibly when it comes to building a new home involves a little more. Other things to consider are site runoff and drainage, landscaping, and paving. Also think about how far the house will be situated in relation to work, school, and relatives (older parents to take care of?). With the price of gas ever climbing it just makes economic sense to live closer to work and school. Or try to bring your work and schooling closer to you, maybe in the form of telecommuting. Here’s a website that even caters to hooking up employers and job seekers that specifically want to telecommute.
Bringing your daily routines and errands closer to you will ultimately benefit your pocketbook, to say nothing of being a good steward to the land. Ultimately computers and the Internet can serve as a tool to lighten your dependence on resources. The benefits this kind of technology can bring, I believe, is far outweighed by its cost of production. The environmental cost of producing electronics is becoming better, and there are some safe ways to dispose of older electronic stuff to reduce the leakage of harmful chemicals into the ground when they’re trashed. But, using the Internet to reduce your gas consumption to drive somewhere is far outweighed by the cost of their production, in my opinion. (If you have evidence to refute this please send it my way — I’m very open to a debate on anything.)
Taking classes and working on a degree online is becoming ever more popular. And many people are figuring out ways to earn income, either in part or whole, from the Internet so they can be closer to home and family. Sure, there will always be jobs that require a live person to be “on the job”. But, many could be done remotely, even part of the time. Computers and the Internet are even helping take care of aging parents in their own homes, thus reducing the need for resources to house them in assisted living or a nursing care facility.
I could go on about how computer technology can help to save resources. But, let’s get back to focusing on building on your own plot of land and the most responsible way possible.
A more rural approach to using land responsibly can be found in the time honored approach of ‘stewardship of the land’. This Michigan DNR website offers a great starting point for understanding good land stewardship and usage. And their approach to “focus on the building blocks” when assessing good land usage can certainly be applied to building on a lot in an urban area.
At the beginning they recommend to just BE on your land for some time. Bring out a lawn chair, a book, and some snacks maybe. Ideally you should try and spend a year watching the cycling of all the seasons go through. This will give you a unique perspective on basic things like where snow drifts accumulate, where spring time melt water accumulates, where the shade from neighboring trees is cast, what direction the most traffic or industrial noise is coming from, etc. Heck, you might even realize in that time that your land occasionally gets a drift of gaseous effluent from a pig or chicken mega-farm that might prompt you to not even start building!
You might also notice natural features that are homes to wildlife, like rock piles, brush piles, small wetland areas, or dead trees. The USDA has a fantastic backyard conservation tip sheet on preserving a natural backyard environment. For example, there may be wild flowering and fruiting trees that serve as food sources for wildlife that you didn’t recognize during the fall or winter, but see their importance the next spring or summer.
Even if you’re in a rush to build you can still look at current vegetation growth to give you an idea of where the best high-and-dry building spot is and where there’s been some standing water in the past. One word: cattails. If cattails are growing anywhere it’s a sure bet the area is wet some portion of the year. Your challenges in averting standing water around your house in such a location will be greater.
Healing the Land After Building
Once your house is in and you’ve done your best to preserve some of the naturally occurring features and vegetation you’ll be faced with grading and landscaping. Grading is the term used for smoothing out the soil around a house to not only look nice, but to deflect incoming rain water or snow melt. The top of the foundation should be slightly elevated from its immediate surrounding, and then back filled with soil to within a few inches of that line.
Even a 2% or 3% pitch away from the house is better than level ground. Even if you have downspouts sending water from the roof several feet away from the house, that pitched ground will be an extra insurance to preventing standing water right next to the foundation… which is BAD.
When thinking about what plants to put back in around your new house you might want to consider some edible landscaping as well. There are many species of shrubs and trees that can serve double duty to offer visual interest as well as some sustenance. High bush blueberries, kiwi vines, and sweet cherries are some of my favorite.
Plant what’s appropriate to your climate that doesn’t require excess irrigation. Do you really need a full blown green grass lawn in the desert? If you’re really in love with having a lawn where you can walk barefoot while grilling and having a beer, and playing catch with the kids, then the desert should be your last place to consider for this. If you absolutely hate lawn care and snow removal, then the Midwest should be very low on your list for a building site.
You’ll also have to plan for having cars and other vehicles drive on your land to get to a parking area or garage. There are several interesting water-permeable pavers on the market that can be used in place of a concrete or asphalt drive. There’s pros and cons to using either this kind of paver system or traditional monolithic driveways.
In general, a water-permeable paver system will allow better direct absorption of water into the ground and prevent torrential runoffs into the local storm sewer. This is better for local rivers and waterways. A good downpour can wash a lot of oil, garbage, and leaves into the gutter and into the river… yuk. Even if you have an oil dripping car sitting in your drive on these pavers it’s probably better to give the soil a chance to filter it out a bit than to have the rainwater wash it “directly” into the river.
Also, please play nice and don’t grade or landscape your land to annoy your new neighbors. Putting in a hedgerow of scrub roses might seem like a nice idea now (you’re thinking of the beautiful flowers), but the prolific growth might end up over-running both your land areas. (In my experience scrub roses have some of the nastiest, sharpest thorns out there). And pitching your land so the majority of your drainage goes to your neighbor isn’t nice, either. You just might find yourself in court on an issue like that.
Continue at High Performance, Moisture Resistant Houses