I receive several emails a month from people who need help with the process of finding land, working with municipalities, and building their straw bale home. For many individuals, this is the first time they have ever ventured out into the world of green construction, and the implications of building green can affect the approach they take to finding land and working with the local authorities in order to create the dream home they desire. I have written blog entries in the past about evaluating your site, but may not have mentioned information about working with local planning departments.
This week, I received the following email that inspired me to write a bit more about this process. I have included some information from an audio interview and added some new information here as well.
My husband and I have previously attended a straw bale workshop and have yet to build a straw bale home. What keeps us from doing so is all of the groundwork that would need to be laid prior to the construction. We do not own land, and we would like to remain in Phoenix where we currently own a home. When we bought our current home, we relied on the realtor to take us through the steps of becoming homeowners. We have yet to find a realtor who can guide us in purchasing property in the city with the idea of straw bale construction in mind. All of our children have medical needs that require us to remain in the heart of the city. Could you be of assistance in the area of planning the year prior to the year we would be able to construct?
Thanks for your email. The key to purchasing the right land is to make sure you know as much about it as possible. Which directions do the prevailing winds travel? What is the solar access? How will neighboring houses affect the land? These an many other questions should be discussed early in the process. Knowing what you want, in detail, makes the search much easier because you can weed out those plots which do not fit in your criterion. I would make a clear list of all the aspects you want in the land.
The home design would come after you have the land so the house can best fit the property. The planning process is relatively simple as long as you understand what the City wants from home designs. In my City, the planning department has eight items that they like to see addressed for new developments (they have a different list of requirements for single family homes which cover everything from impact on the Historical aspect of the City to solar access for neighbors). A new development, on the other hand, is required to meet at least 3 of the 8 listed items. When I did my Straw Bale Village development, I met all of the 8 items, not just 3. This made my project greener and more responsible and it meant that the City could easily approve my request as they saw my commitment to doing things in a responsible manner.
Create a relationship with the people in the Planning and Building Departments that shows you want the best for your family and the impact on the City. That will go a long way. Most inspectors and planning officials work hard to protect the interest of the City. It is hard work to keep a City congruent with its goals when each home owner can impact that congruence with a new design and construction. If you can show the “powers that be” that you want to work with them and within the requirements they set (assuming they are reasonable requirements of course) the officials will be very helpful along the way. If you argue with them and create a combative relationship (something that happens far too often, especially with building inspectors) you can expect trouble during the process from start to finish.
Remember that the officials want to make the process easy for you. Sometimes it won’t feel that way, but a healthy relationship with the officials in charge will help you simplify the process. If you feel like you need help, I am available for consulting work and can help with all aspects of the job from site evaluation and design, to planning and construction.