Site planning

Provided by Simon Bell: Senior Research Fellow, OPENspace Research Centre


What, Why, When, How, Extras


What is it?

Rotunda axo

Villa Rotunda podium mediates between purity of built form and specificity of the landscape.

Locating any building in the landscape requires careful consideration of the context so that the building fits functionally, visually and environmentally. This means considering the existing site location and context, its surroundings, views in and out, access and connectivity, microclimate and building setting. Detailed site organisation is insufficient unless the broader context is evaluated. Site planning is therefore all about ensuring that the building becomes an integral part of the landscape, is unified with it and responds to the spirit of place.







Why use it?

While architects may consider the design of the building to be fundamental, in the landscape this is secondary to the correct positioning of the building. It may be that it is clear where the site is and the building line in an urban context, when building on a footprint of an earlier building, may restrict planning options. In other circumstances the relationship of one building to another as well as to non-built features such as landform, slope, trees, waterbodies, roads and views means that a wider set of aspects needs to be considered. It is vital that no significant existing features of value are ignored or removed unnecessarily.


Palmeira sketchPalmeira plan

Alvaro Siza, swimming pool responds very carefully to the rocky coastal landscape. (Click image to enlarge)


When to use it?

In any circumstance where a building location is not predetermined and where there is flexibility for siting, then an appraisal of the opportunities must be undertaken before the site is finally chosen. Shelter or exposure to wind, shading, and collection of cool air in hollows and low points on site (which will affect heating or cooling requirements in the building and the usability and relationships of indoor to outdoor space) should be considered at the outset of siting the building, to maximise benefits. Protection of valued features and the recognition of conservation areas should help ensure that the building is a positive addition to the scene.


How to use it?

Key points:


  • Moledo

    'House in Moledo' by Eduardo Souto de Moura 1991, confrontation with rock face.

    Evaluate the wider setting within which the building site is found, checking for valuable existing natural or cultural features. Map these and note the means for protecting them.
  • Check the environmental features of the site – aspect, natural drainage, exposure to winds, topography, walls, shelter belts or individual trees that contribute to naturally sheltered or sunny locations where the building can take advantage of microclimatic conditions to reduce energy consumption.
  • Consider opportunities for collection of surface water runoff from roofs, hard surfaces, etc and disposal of it on site; in larger sites, consider opportunities for treating some or all drainage outflows within the site.
  • Moledo

    'House in Moledo' by Eduardo Souto de Moura 1991, elevation echoes the terraced landscape. 

    Consider views into and out of the site and the effect the building may have on the visual composition of the area, potential competition with other visual features or possible screening effects.
  • Consider how the general massing of the building relates to the scale and proportion of the setting and context as it is likely to be experienced from major viewpoints
  • Consider whether the site offers opportunities for easy movement between indoor and outdoor space and how to create usable outdoor space with a good microclimate.


Design procedure:


Moledo plan

'House in Moledo' by Eduardo Souto de Moura 1991, plan.

  • Step 1: Prepare a descriptive plan showing the site in the wider context of its surroundings and note on it all features above and below ground, checking a range of sources as well as by field work. Prepare a comprehensive base plan recording all the information. Obtain expert help in identifying and evaluating trees and plants, soil etc
  • Step 2: Interpret the survey to assess the relative importance of different factors and the opportunities and constraints each pose to the potential siting of a building in the landscape. Prepare a table of these factors and how each can be a constraint or an opportunity to ensure that nothing gets forgotten at later design stages.
  • Step 3: Analyse microclimate using shadow diagrams and wind roses in order to identify how the building and associated outdoor spaces can maximise the potential for shelter and solar gain, depending on how it is sited.
  • Step 4: Assess the topographic levels in detail in order to reduce the need for underbuilding and so that natural insulation from the earth can be used while ensuring that the building is not sitting too high and out of place, exposed to view and to the elements. Consider how excavation into the site may be used and what might be the options for using any soil produced by such excavation to further enhance shelter and insulation.
  • Step 5: Keep the sheltered, sunny places for outdoor use and make easy to access from the building.
    Moledo diagram

    'House in Moledo' by Eduardo Souto de Moura 1991, diagram of relationship to landscape.

  • Step 6: Take numerous photographs of the site and the views into and out of it. Scope these views so as to ensure that the main public impacts can be anticipated. These should be used to prepare visualisations for assessing visual impact.
  • Step 7: Prepare and evaluate a number of options for siting the building respecting the different sets of factors identified at the survey and analysis stage. Prepare perspectives showing the massing of the building from key viewpoints so as to be able to assess its position, scale, proportion, unity and overall visual impact.
  • Step 8: Select the location which best fits the site and maximises the opportunities while conserving as many natural and cultural features as possible. Consider how the site planning addresses the need for inclusive access, including good access at grade without the need for steps and ramps
  • Step 9: Proceed to the detailed building design and site layout stage, modifying and rechecking the siting as this proceeds, and considering how additional landscape design work can overcome unavoidable negative visual or environmental impact.


Related strategies

Landscape design: urban

Landscape design: rural

Site planting

Case studies