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Motif Articles - Working with (not against) Challenging Topography

Updated: May 22, 2023

If you are looking for a unique and custom home that reflects your personality and lifestyle, you might want to consider building on a site with challenging topography.

A site with challenging topography is one that has steep slopes, irregular shapes, or other features that make it difficult to build on. However, these challenges can also create opportunities for creative and innovative design solutions that enhance the beauty and functionality of your home. Also, they're sometimes less expensive too.

In this blog post, we will share some ideas on how to design a home with topography in based on our experience in the surrounding Austin area.

Motif Architects Lakeway Texas
Typical "flat lot" in the greater Texas Hill Country (We joke about this all the time!).

Working with an Architect that's comfortable with challenging topography.

The first step in designing a home with challenging topography is to find an architect who has experience and expertise in the greater Texas hill county area. An experienced architect in Lakeway can help you navigate the zoning and building codes, assess the site conditions, design a home that suits your needs and preferences, and coordinate with other professionals such as engineers, contractors, and landscapers.

At Motif, we design homes that blend with the natural environment and respond to the site constraints. We have consider factors such as challenging site topography, views to lakes and country sides, trees, and other natural features that make each site unique and special.

Motif Architects Lakeway Texas
Brass Buttons is situated nearly 200 ft above Lake Austin (near Mansfield Dam) with a partial cantilevered structure.

During design, we also have to collaborate with our clients to understand their needs and preferences... and how they plan to use the land. We use various tools and methods such as site observation visits (from land and water), surveys, sketches, models, and exhibits to explore the best location for a new home on the site.

Our home designs are not only beautiful and functional but also respectful and harmonious with the environment. One example is our Big Horn Project, which was designed to work with challenging topography and not against it.

Motif Architects Lakeway Texas
Big Horn project utilizes the topography with a sunken music studio.

Motif Architects Lakeway Texas
By lowering the pool, they lake blends with the pool from the house above.

Motif Architects Lakeway Texas
Lowered pool, sunken fire pit lounge and cabana - Big Horn project

Motif Architects Lakeway Texas
A custom bridge that will support a golf cart, connects the boat dock to the garage level.

Studying the Site is a critical first step.

The next step in designing a home with challenging topography is to study the site in detail. This involves visiting the site, taking measurements, surveying the topography, analyzing the soil, water, vegetation, climate, views, orientation, access, and utilities. This information is essential for understanding the opportunities and limitations of the site and developing a design strategy that maximizes its potential.

Our small team will visit your site several times to observe and document its features. We will also utilize survey information from local surveyors to provide accurate data on the site boundaries, elevations, contours, and existing structures. This data is used to create a site analysis diagram that highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of the site.

Walking your site with an architect before design of a new home is important because it helps you and the architect understand the site conditions, opportunities, and limitations. It also helps you communicate your vision and goals for your home and get feedback and suggestions from the architect. We also believe this first step helps you establish a good relationship and trust with the architect.

Motif Architects Lakeway Texas
Drone imagery is captured to assist with 3D modeling of the sites topography - Big Horn project

Selecting the Best Location for the Home

The third step in designing a home with challenging topography is to select the best location for the home on the site. This involves evaluating different options based on factors such as visibility, privacy, accessibility, drainage, solar exposure, wind direction, views, noise, and aesthetics. The goal is to find a location that balances these factors and minimizes the impact on the site and the environment.

Our team at Motif, will explore several possible locations for the home on the site. We considered how each location would affect the shape, size, orientation, and layout of the home.

We also considered how each location would affect the construction cost, complexity, provide privacy and views. Chose a location that will reduce the need for extensive grading and retaining walls becomes essential to budget and constructability.

Modeling the Site and Context with Building Information Modeling (BIM)

The fourth step in designing a home with challenging topography is to model the site and context with building information modeling (BIM). BIM is a digital tool that allows architects to create 3D models of buildings and their surroundings. BIM can help architects visualize how their designs will look like in reality, test different scenarios and alternatives, perform simulations and analyses, detect errors and conflicts, and communicate their ideas more effectively.

At Motif Architects, we use BIM software to create a 3D model of each project and its context. We imported the survey data into the software and used it to generate a realistic representation of the site topography. Our team will then added other elements such as trees, roads, buildings, utilities, etc.

By creating a 3D model, it helps aid with our design discussions. BIM software provides real time adjustments to the design according to our clients feedback and preferences. The software will also perform various simulations and analyses such as solar studies, energy modeling, structural analysis, etc.

Selecting the right contractor

The final step in designing a home with challenging topography is to construct the home. This involves hiring a contractor who can execute the design according to the specifications and standards of quality. It also involves coordinating with other professionals such as engineers, inspectors, suppliers, etc.

A qualified contactor will ensure that the home is safe, durable, and compliant with local and national building codes.

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