Design for Site Opportunities

Architecture lies between program (the spaces needed in a building) and site and has an intentional effect on the form and material of a building. Architecture takes advantage of site opportunities while balancing pragmatic and idealistic elements.

The Pragmatic _ Site Opportunities

The pragmatic considerations of architecture and site are mostly related to the survey, zoning, and building code. The survey will give us the site boundaries and topography. Zoning will always control your building’s height, size, and site position relative to the setbacks and easements. Building code will determine construction typology and large egress elements. There are also storm-water considerations, site access, sun angle, fire safety, and much more.

The Idealistic _ Site Opportunities

Diagram Home with a Path to the Lake

The idealistic considerations of architecture are elements that make a place comfortable, livable, and enjoyable. These include aesthetics, sound control, taking advantage of a view, and much more. Efficiency and pragmatism will never solve all the problems. Architects look to the Idealistic considerations in order to design something special and avoid the “cookie cutter” aspect. Through idealistic ideas and considerations architecture can even make a poor site livable.

Diagram Public and Private Views

Many make the mistake of picking a floor plan or an aesthetic too early, before considering the opportunities of the site. This can be problematic because those missed opportunities can make a home truly exceptional and, in most cases, do not cost any extra money.

Architecture is born from ideas and those ideas are tied to site. The ideas and therefore the context informs and guides the decisions related to layout, form, function, aesthetics, materials, etc.

Diagram The Dock House

The Dock House: Based Upon the Ideas of the Site
The concept diagrams on the right indicate the layering of information and organization of the spaces based upon the context. This home design is based upon the view and access of a nearby lake. The ideas of the site helped us to organize the plan and shape the architecture to create an ideal lake house.


Designing a building without a context would be as strange as designing an interior without a building. These ideas and decisions layer on top of each other to create architecture unique to the site. Rather than selecting a floor plan from the internet, first imagine the opportunities of the site and how the shape and layout of the building could respond to that site. For example, say your site has a view, imagine a home that takes advantage of that view from the living, dining room, kitchen, and the master suite. This one opportunity would immediately begin to organize your plan and start to shape your building.

The Dock House Based Upon the Ideas of the Site

An opportunity may also arise from what may be viewed as a negative site variable. The site may offer an opportunity for the architecture to make it more livable and therefore more valuable. As an example, say you have a site located near a busy road. Then the question becomes how do we isolate the living room, dining room, kitchen, and master suite from the road to offer us peace and quiet? Perhaps the guest beds, office, and the bathrooms take the road side of the home to create a sound buffer or the roadside has fewer windows. Regardless, this consideration is more idealistic than pragmatic for we are trying to create a more comfortable environment that feels more like a home and less like a toll booth. The image above is a great example of how a cookie cutter approach does not work for a difficult lot. This home has the wrong architecture. The “ranch style” architecture has made this lot more difficult to live on because the design ignores the busy road. This home design may work just fine in a neighborhood but is problematic on this challenging lot. I look at this image and shake my head. As an architect, given the same opportunity, I would drool over the potential to create something special which solves such extreme site issues.


A Site with the Wrong Architecture.

With an idealistic mindset, we are able to solve much bigger problems. There are a lot of “junk lots” out there. An idealistic mindset and an out of the box approach can make the project livable and sell-able. In fact, a “junk lot” is a great opportunity.


There are limitless ways and examples of how architecture can solve such problems. As architects, we are trained to explore many options and are experts at manipulating building elements. Some problems are as pragmatic as structural analysis while others are as idealistic as aesthetics. In a good design, the pragmatic and the idealistic are in balance. One does not outweigh the other as both are essential to creating excellent places to live and work.

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