There are two camps within which most of us fall, depending on how we put on footwear: the sock-sock then shoe-shoe crew or the sock-shoe then sock-shoe crew. Both techniques arguably have their merits, though I am a staunch follower of the both-socks-before-both-shoes approach. As I was carefully putting on my pre-shoe foot-sweaters this chilly April morning, though, it occurred to me that this debate could actually go beyond just how we dress our feet.
The same notion applies to designing a home and establishing landscaping. Is it best practice to complete one task before addressing the next, or to tackle both in tandem? According to Soren deNiord of Soren deNiord Design Studio, a home’s landscape should be considered at every step of the design and building processes, not just after your socks are on.
With more than 15 years of experience in landscape design - backed by an award-winning portfolio of projects ranging from private residential to state land planning - Soren is an expert in homesite stewardship. He has masterminded the landscaping of many BrightBuilt and Kaplan Thompson homes, blending his creative artistry with a deeply-rooted commitment to sustainability.
Ideally, says Soren, a landscape designer is the last professional to come on and walk off a homesite. This does not mean, however, that the landscaping is the shoe, the final cherry on top of the proverbial new home sundae. Instead, the land and its care are really the foot that we put everything else on. No matter how we choose to dress it up, one truth remains constant: if the shoe we choose doesn’t fit, it is easier - and often less expensive - to change the shoe than the foot.
This uncomfortable comparison is more succinctly explained by Soren. He advises us to invert the typical approach of regarding the landscape as a finishing touch, and instead recommends including it in as a preliminary consideration. “Imagine the landscape you want to live in as soon as possible. Instead of matching the landscape to the house and site, choose them all to work together.” Understanding hydrology, proximity to neighbors and infrastructure, and existing vegetation before buying a site allows you to plan for and mitigate development costs down the line.
Involving a landscape designer early in the process will also help guide you towards the right design for how you want to use and enjoy your new property. For Soren, master planning is key. He suggests investing in an up-front design showing how best to site a house, fixing basic circulation patterns, identifying desired outdoor living specifications, and establishing long term goals for a property.
Once a location and BrightBuilt model are chosen, Soren then aims to understand points of interface between the structure and its landscape. Those interactions can be tailored to meet the user’s programmatic and experiential requirements, from capturing and maximizing viewsheds to integrating outdoor living spaces.
He also prioritizes a plant palette reflective of a new homeowner’s values. “Plantings are as personal as window treatments”, so it is important to understand a client’s goals, budget, and aesthetic. If the goal is to support and strengthen local ecologies, Soren favors native plantings, diverse vegetation, and inclusion of natural habitats and perches. Groundcover for these landscapes is often a custom seed blend, called a “meadow mix”, that creates low maintenance yards lush with wildflowers and pollinator plants. Such an approach, however, will draw in both the visitors we want - like bees and charming woodland creatures - as well as those we don’t, like mosquitoes and ticks.
If those aren’t your flavor, a more managed landscape may be preferred. Manicured lawns composed of turf grass or (preferably) native sod are often less expensive to install, though require more frequent and involved maintenance. Plantings can also be adapted to reduce the presence of stinging pollinators, which are most drawn to blue and violet-hued blooms.
In between the wild and pristine aesthetics exists an entire universe of possibilities, including edible gardens, rain gardens, and any other type of garden your land will accommodate. Once Soren understands what vision someone has for their landscape, he can begin thinking about home placement and solar exposure.
Siting a high-performance home requires adherence to some fairly strict rules of thumb regarding orientation, sun angles, and clearing for solar gain. A landscape designer will define areas that can be cleared to help site the house and driveway appropriately, but more importantly, advise on how to minimize disturbance while doing so.
The amount of clearing required for optimal performance of your home’s energy systems depends on the height and type of surrounding trees. Basic geometry can be used to measure the height of vegetation against the sun’s angle in a given location during the winter months (when heating and energy demands are highest). An unshaded radius is then created around the windows and roof, the most critical points for solar gain.
Tree clearing is carefully balanced with the need to maintain or plant foliage for solar cover in warmer seasons. Deciduous trees conveniently do a lot of this work for us, shedding leaves in winter to allow more light to pass through and leafing out again in spring to shade against unwanted passive solar heating. Over-clearing a site to maximize sun exposure actually works against a Net-Zero home’s natural heating and cooling cycle.
Soren notes that while pre-cleared lots may seem advantageous as blank canvases for a house and landscaping, they can end up costing homeowners more during the final stages of development. The vegetation, especially mature shade-bearing trees, removed from fully cleared sites will need to be re-established once construction is complete. Privacy and site lines should also be considered from the outset. Premature and overzealous removal can create unwanted gaps and exposure along your property’s edges that will need to be replanted. “Clearing and site lines can be cut out over time”, he reminds, especially as budgets allow and landscapes are lived in and better understood. Clearing and replacing ultimately equates to paying twice for something that need not have been an expense at all.
Disturbance to your landscape can also be reduced by shrinking the amount of time a site is left “open” and unplanted during construction. Traditional homesites are often exposed and unusable for a year or more during the building process, leaving them vulnerable to erosion and damage from the elements. What better way to expedite this timeline than prefabricated construction?
Prefab homes significantly compress the build cycle; BrightBuilt homesites are typically open for just 4 to 6 months! “Having all of your ducks in a row before breaking ground is best practice”, says Soren. Finalizing customizations to your home before it goes the factory - and sticking to those decisions - will reduce the likelihood of fabrication delays and the amount of time a site is left unnecessarily exposed.
Once a lot is selectively cleared, the foundation can be placed and left to cure for approximately a month. Foundations can technically be laid any time of year, but will be most costly in the winter months when frozen ground and snow complicate digging. Outside heating sources may also be required for a foundation to cure correctly.
Planning a construction timeline around optimal ground conditions will also spare you some mess on set day. Mud season - early spring thaw - is the most challenging and destructive time of year for a modular home set. Large machinery, especially modules and cranes weighing more than 30,000lbs, are tricky to navigate lightly across soggy, muddy landscapes. If designer and factory availability permit, strive for an early to mid-fall move-in, which allows the bulk of site work to happen within an ideal window of predictable weather and peak ground stability. Site preparation should happen in May and June while the home modules are simultaneously built off-site. By July, on set day, the rest of the house can be placed and assembled atop the foundation in just a matter of hours.
The construction footprint can be further reduced by deliberate planning that minimizes mechanical equipment moving around the landscape. In most cases, the path machinery takes to deliver modules is already part of a homesite’s infrastructure, such as a driveway or main roadway in close enough proximity to the foundation. Prefabricated building also lessens the need for exterior finishes reliant on heavy machinery, such as window installation, by completing that work in the factory before the home ever hits its final destination.
After modules arrive, front load the most disruptive finish work, such as utilities, siding, exterior decks and porches, and roofing if needed. This will allow your landscape designer to begin planting with a few weeks of the set and in tandem with the final interior detail wrap-up.
As a general rule, the more a property’s natural dynamic is disturbed, the more remediation it will require to restore a functioning and usable landscape. Understanding these tradeoffs and the costs associated with them before selecting land to build on will allow you to incorporate those expenses into your financial planning, as well as approach site development with an economically and environmentally strategic plan.