Did You Know: Working With the Land and Where to Build What

Posted by on Jun 24, 2015

As civil engineers and surveyors, there are many aspects of our daily jobs that are second nature to us. But we hear common questions about our field often from the public. In this “Did You Know” blog series, we’ll answer some of these questions.

When they see a new building or development going up, most people think this is when the work really begins. But as site engineers, we have already put in many hours of work figuring out how the land needs to be shaped, how to respect the attributes of the land and where the structure should actually be built. How we make these decisions is something we’re asked about often, so in this edition of our Did You Know series, we’ll address three major questions about shaping the land and where to build what.

Why would a site need to have the land shaped to accommodate a building or development?

The majority of the projects we work on involve property that has not previously been developed in any way. There may be hills, valleys, streams, wooded areas and a number of configurations. In order to put something there, we have to shape the land accordingly and work around those existing features as much as possible.

What determines how you shape the land?

Developing a smaller development, like an office building or a fast food restaurant, is much different than a 100,000-square-foot industrial facility. So how we work with the land depends a lot on the type of facility. The land may be shaped with a view corridor in mind or with the project budget in mind. Site security can be another factor when the building needs to be out of sight and secure. There may be environmental features on the land that we need to work around or incorporate in some way as well. So it really hinges on what type of project, if there is a budget to work within and other parameters such as visibility, security and sensitive environmental issues.

How can you design a site while keeping the land’s attributes in mind without having to make major changes?

We always try to fit the development into a parcel in a respectful manner, being sensitive to the land’s attributes. A good example of this is Jefferson County Metropolitan Industrial Park (JeffMet) in McCalla, Alabama. In this case, we had many wetlands to work around. We did this for several reasons including groundwater recharge and to protect potential storm water release points. These large areas of wetlands that were left unimpacted create a nice buffer between the buildings and really enhance the beauty of the park.

Another example is Martin Army Hospital where we did a lot of engineering work to get the building to fit on a challenging site while taking great care to respect the land. We designed an innovative storm water management structure involving a 50 acre site that was designed to discharge less rainwater post-development than pre-development. This innovative design earned several awards and exceeded the environmental stewardship goals expressed in the LEED sustainability plan to achieve a LEED Gold Certification.

How do you decide where buildings should be located on the land?

We generally know with a retail/commercial setting, that the parking will be placed in front of the building, and the building will be back off the road a bit. In an industrial setting, there may be employee parking in front and truck delivery areas behind the building. If the land we’re working with includes a back portion that is all rock, we need to stay away from that, which may mean shifting everything closer to the front of the property. Or there may be an economic reason to put parking on the side of the building instead of in the front. So again, it depends on the type of development and on the land.

As you can see, shaping the land and locating the best position for buildings on the site depends on a number of factors. Is it a small or large development? Is it commercial or industrial? Are there environmental factors to consider? These answers are important, because there are different needs associated with each. Even when we know these needs, we spend time doing due diligence, which sometimes involves four or five different plans to find the best approach to suit all of these factors.

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