Site-specific considerations when building on undeveloped, forested land

Kevin Caldwell
This is installment #3 in regards to ecological, site-specific considerations  when building a Green Built structure on undeveloped, forested land.   There are several assumptions built into this process including an accurate, recent survey of the property and working with professionals.  Perhaps more important, one must have perk-tests and rough slope and site analysis prior to property purchase and knowing general buildable areas that are not too steep or inaccessible.
The first step is information gathering about the property in digital formats (and/or paper formats if digital does not exist).  I do this in ESRI’s ArcMap which allows me to collect and view all of this information in layers over USGS and aerial photography, and easily print and modify maps over time.
A short list of the primary information to be reviewed includes local geographic region (example – the Asheville Basin vs. the Pisgah Range), property boundaries, geology, soils, slopes, aspects, streams and wetlands, existing roads, rights-of-way, and rare plant and wildlife species records.
Once collected, information needs to be organized, reviewed, edited, printed for field usage and meetings, but most of all – interpreted so that this information can be accurately used to protect the land in the building process.  Not all information gathered needs to be shown on maps or used directly within field surveys.  For example, geology directly and powerfully influences the tree-species and understory vegetation composition of the land, but this feature is usually not shown on maps while soils might be – especially those that are prone to erosion.  Two very useful map types that work well include USGS (contour interval) and aerial photography overlain with property boundaries (including your neighbor’s).
Keep in mind that this data is simply a starting point to help define the parameters, physical conditions, potential constraints and pitfalls, access points, and opportunities on a given property.  As information is learned and collected about the property such as rare species locations, wetlands, rare natural communities, old roads, new access points, old homesteads or orchards and even trash, trespassing or hazards, it is added to maps for planning.
Next and perhaps the most exciting thing – fieldwork!  This is the treasure hunt and perhaps the most interesting part of learning about the land:   its previous human history, existing conditions, plant and wildlife resources, water and wetlands, potentially re-usable resources, and least-impact siting locations.  In blog #4, we’ll hit the field and see examples of what we might find.