Tips for building on a sloped terrain

Introduction

This ‘Tips for Building on a Sloped Terrain’ post originated from a question that we had received a while back on our Facebook page, and it has since become one of our most well-received posts. We were asked if we had any tips for building on a sloped terrain. So here is our updated response:

Sloped terrains are incredibly exciting as well as challenging sites for architects and architecture students to work with. They offer you the perfect opportunity to explore complex sites and engage with dynamic natural landscapes. By working with such sites, you are able to develop a deeper understanding of how sloped terrains work and also learn about the different design approaches that have been used over time to accommodate designing in such conditions.

These landscapes can also serve as great testing beds for innovative approaches and concept ideas. The complexity and challenges of sloped sites will push you to think of creative design responses that effectively respond to the natural topography.

Whether you are working on a sloping backyard or something larger, building on any uneven ground requires careful planning and strategic execution. We hope to provide you with some valuable tips and insights that will help you navigate the intricacies of building on sloped terrains through this post.

Let’s start by looking at some of the advantages and challenges of designing on sloped terrain.

Scroll to the end to download this article as a handy PDF guide!

Advantages of Building on a Sloped Terrain​​

 

There are numerous advantages to designing on a sloped site, here are 5 key ones:

Spectacular Views
Sloped terrain can offer some incredibly beautiful scenic views that can attract clients and developers. These can also increase the overall appeal and value of the property.
Privacy and Seclusion
The natural undulation and location can provide your client with privacy if that is one of their brief requirements and it can also help in shielding them from neighbouring properties or busy streets.
Natural Lighting and Ventilation
Sloped sites may benefit from enhanced natural lighting and ventilation depending on their orientation offering valuable opportunities to integrate sustainable strategies into the building’s design. By employing the right design strategies, reliance on artificial systems can be reduced which can lead to cost savings and promote overall energy efficiency.
Natural Insulation
Depending on the design approach you take, the earth on a sloped site can sometimes be used as a natural insulator, aiding in reducing heating and cooling costs and thus contributing to the building’s improved energy performance.
Innovative Design Opportunities
As mentioned in the introduction of this post, sloped terrains can allow you to explore and implement a number of innovative design strategies that enhance the site and create unique spaces for your clients to enjoy.
Tips for Building on a Sloped Terrain

Challenges of Building on a Sloped Terrain

 

There are several challenges that you will face while working with sloped sites, the following 5 are a few:

Difficult Site Access and Transportation
The steep nature of the sloped terrain can make access and transport of materials and equipment to and from the site quite difficult. When designing on such a site you will have to account for safe alternate routes to the site and carefully plan for the crucial site services.
Drainage and Erosion
Sloped sites are prone to erosion and surface water runoff. You will need to implement appropriate drainage systems and erosion control measures to effectively prevent erosion, mitigate flooding, and ensure the structural integrity and longevity of your building.
Foundation and Stability
Building a foundation on an uneven site can be challenging and costly as it will require specialised engineering and construction techniques. Ensuring the structure’s foundation is secure and mitigating erosion is crucial to your building’s long-term stability and integrity.
Cost and Safety
Working on sloped terrain will often involve increased costs as you will need specialised construction skills and equipment, have longer construction times, and most importantly have to implement necessary safety measures for the workers. The challenging nature of the terrain requires you to carefully plan and adhere to safety protocols to prevent accidents and injuries.
Complying with Local Building Regulations
The local authorities in charge of your site may have special regulations and guidelines for building on sloped terrain, including restrictions that preserve the natural landscape or address potential environmental impacts. You will need to adhere to these for the approval of your design proposals.

16 Tips for Building on a Sloped Terrain

 

Now let’s dive into some handy tips that will make designing on your challenging sloped terrain seem a little less daunting.

Client Requirements

Client Requirements

As for any design project, start by getting to know your site and your client. It is of utmost importance that you carefully question and consider what your client’s goals and expectations are.

In most cases you will have to develop a brief for your client and the design project. We have already written a really useful post that guides you through this process and also includes 2 handy checklists to make your life a bit easier. You can check it out, right here:
Architectural Design Brief – The Checklist

Site Analysis

Site Analysis

You will need to be able to thoroughly analyse your sites for your design projects in order to come up with well-informed design responses. This most definitely holds true for challenging sites such as steep or sloped terrain.

On sloped terrain you will have to work to understand the opportunities and limitations of the landscape. Factors like the soil composition and drainage patterns will need to be considered to avoid issues further down the line.

We have a number of comprehensive posts with lots of great advice and guidance to help you out with your site analysis. These incredible posts will give you in depth information on how to analyse your site, what resources to use and more! Be sure to give them a good read:
Architecture Site Analysis Guide – Data Collection to Presentation
Contextual Surveys – Where to Get Relevant Information

In addition to this, if you would like to, you can purchase our Site Analysis Complete Pack that contains everything you need to become a pro at site analysis. You can find out more here:
Site Analysis Complete Pack – First In Architecture

Prioritise Access and Safety

Prioritise Access and Safety
Related to site analysis, it is crucial that you think about site access for both the end users and the site workers who will be navigating the steep site. Consider incorporating ramps, steps, or terraced pathways.

It is also very important that you account for health and safety and conduct risk assessments to ensure the well-being of the construction team and to maintain a secure work environment.

Make sure you look for local authority regulations and follow their advice to best respond to the site

 Seek Expert Advice

Seek Expert Advice

It can be quite challenging to build on sloped terrain, so it is important that you get all the help and expert advice you can to work on such a site. Collaborate with experienced architects, engineers, and contractors who are well-versed in building on sloped terrain to ensure the project’s success.

You can also seek guidance from specialists like geotechnical engineers and environmental consultants, who can help you design a foundation that ensures your building’s stability and safety.

Drainage

Drainage

Your sloping site may dictate higher building cost with regard to drainage and sewers, depending on the size of the project. If the sewerage system is uphill from the site, will you need to have pumping systems installed? If the system is downhill, you may need to slow flow down to the sewers.

You will need to consider water runoff from the site and make sure you have sufficient measures in place to deal with surface water. Investigate soakaways and drainage channels to make sure your surface water is dealt with correctly and doesn’t end up flooding your lower floor or the surrounding area.

Light

Light 1
Light 2

Consider how you will use light. Does your site benefit from a good aspect? How can you make sure you get light into the building?

Try to bring in natural light to create brighter and more inviting spaces. Think of using skylights, solar tubes, and shading devices to enhance natural light while maintaining control. Also ensure that you strike a good balance between natural and artificial lighting to create spaces that are aesthetic as well as functional.

Views

Views 1
Views 2

Think about views and maximise them wherever possible. You can use glazing throughout your design to offer captivating and unobstructed views of the surrounding landscape that your users can enjoy. Think about the positioning and sizing of the windows and openings in your design and how they can be used to frame special views on your site or perhaps even to block unpleasant ones.

Terracing

Terracing
Multi-Level Terracing
Multi-Level Terracing Section

One benefit to having a steep site is that you can look at designing a stepped building which means lots of opportunity for slimmer rooms with glazing – and again better views.

Investigate change in levels within your building and how these relate to each other and offer views out of the site and beyond. You could be looking over the roofs of the lower parts of the building from the upper. With this in mind think about interesting roof finishes or maybe sedum, green roofs. There is also the opportunity for terraces and outside spaces.

Cut and Fill

Cut and Fill
Cut and Fill
Cut and Fill Section

Cut and Fill is a key technique for adapting to sloped or uneven terrain. It is the process of carving out a level plinth on a sloping site, in order to build a home that is essentially designed for use on a level site. Any spoil that is cut from the bank is reserved in order for it to be brought back to make up the levels on the lower edge.

Depending on the type of slope you are working with, this can be a more cost-effective solution as you don’t have to cart spoil away from the site. You also do not need that many external materials to be transported to the site.

Stilts

Stilts
Stilts
Stilts

Building on stilts is one way of addressing steeply sloped sites. This avoids the need for expensive foundations and also negates the requirement for tanking. Stilt construction offers improved ventilation, mitigating moisture-related concerns.

The other benefit is that it leaves the ground untouched. It could also be implemented on multiple levels, optimising land use. Additionally, stilt construction can have ecological advantages, as it preserves the natural environment and allows wildlife to thrive beneath the structure.

Cantilevering

Cantilevering
Cantilevering
Cantilevering Section

You can cantilever your building or parts of your building to create architecturally intriguing structures that complement the slope. This will help you create more space to work with and it can be particularly useful if you wish to preserve the slope. You will be able to create some visually striking structures.

Basements and Retaining Walls

Basements
Retaining Walls
Basements and Retaining Walls
Basements and Retaining Walls
Retaining Walls

When creating basements on sloped terrain, the walls are often subject to a lot of force from the surrounding banks of land and therefore become retaining walls. They can be useful in managing the grade of slope and preventing erosion.

Structural engineers will need to be involved in the design of these structures, and a detailed design stage is important to ensure good waterproofing.

Another option is stepping the ground by using low level retaining walls, or gabion walls to create those stepped terrace levels in the landscape, as mentioned before.

Basements and Retaining Walls
Gabion Walls 2

Modular Construction

Modular Construction

You could use prefabricated or modular components to streamline the construction process on sloped terrain. These can be more efficient and cost-effective solutions to address the site’s challenges.

Sustainable Design

Carry out your research

Ensure that you integrate sustainability into your design by using eco-friendly materials and incorporating energy-efficient design elements that promote a greener approach to building.

Doing this will not only benefit the environment but also promote the health and wellbeing of the occupants, all the while leading to long run cost savings.

Landscaping

Carry out your research

By working with the natural contours and undulations of the sloped landscape you will be able to achieve a more harmonious impact with your design proposals. Explore strategies that focus on preserving and integrating natural elements into the design, such as trees and water features that form part of the site.

If you would like to learn more about how to landscape a sloped or steep, feel free to check out our blog post on:
Landscaping a steep or sloped site – an introduction

Precedent Studies

Carry out your research

You will greatly benefit from analysing good precedents that demonstrate strong and successful instances of building on slopes and steep terrain. Studying these will help you gain valuable insights about effective design strategies for building on sloped landscapes.

We have got the perfect guide that will take you through the process of analysing precedents, do check it out:
Architecture Precedent Study and Analysis

Here is our Pinterest board with lots of inspirational projects to get you started:

Comprehensive Checklist for Building on Sloped Terrain for Architects

Client Requirements:

  • Understand the client’s vision, goals, and expectations.
  • Collaborate with the client during initial design phases to ensure their input is considered and integrated into the design.
  • Discuss and confirm the project’s scope, budget, timelines, and any specific client requirements.
Site Assessment and Analysis:

  • Determine the gradient, topography, and orientation of the site.
  • Identify soil conditions, stability, and drainage/water flow patterns.
  • Are there any trees, rocks, or natural features that need preservation or consideration?
  • What is the impact of sunlight and wind exposure on the slope?
Local Authority Regulations:

  • Review local authority regulations specific to sloped terrain.
  • Are there specific requirements for slope stabilisation and erosion control that need to be followed?
  • Have you obtained all necessary planning permissions and approvals from local authorities?
Geotechnical Investigation:

  • Conduct a thorough geotechnical study to understand soil composition, bearing capacity, and potential challenges.
  • What are the recommended foundation types based on the geotechnical report?
Structural Engineering:

  • Engage a structural engineer to design a foundation suitable for the slope’s conditions.
  • Determine the best structural systems considering the slope’s incline and potential loads.
Design Concept:

  • Develop a design concept that integrates with the natural landscape and minimises site disruption.
  • How can the design embrace the slope’s unique features while optimising space and functionality?
Grading and Earthwork:

  • Plan and execute appropriate grading and earthwork to level the building areas.
  • How will cut and fill operations impact the site and neighbouring properties?
Retaining Walls and Slope Stabilization:

  • Evaluate the need for retaining walls or other stabilisation measures.
  • What materials and designs will best complement the overall architectural aesthetic?
Drainage and Water Management:

  • Assess surface water runoff and plan for proper drainage systems.
  • How will the drainage system integrate with the building design and landscape?
Accessibility and Circulation:

  • Ensure accessible routes for individuals with disabilities, considering the slope.
  • How will the layout accommodate different levels and comply with accessibility standards?
Environmental Considerations:

  • How can you minimise disturbance to the natural habitat and biodiversity during construction?
  • Consider incorporating sustainable and eco-friendly materials and technologies.
Construction Planning and Phasing:

  • Develop a construction timeline that factors in challenges specific to working on a slope.
  • Consider logistics and access routes to the site for construction personnel, vehicles and equipment.
  • Assess the availability and proximity of key services such as electricity, water, and waste disposal needed for construction.
Quality Control and Monitoring:

  • Establish a robust quality control process to address potential issues during construction.
  • How often will site inspections be conducted to ensure compliance with design specifications?
Community Engagement:

  • Engage with the local community and stakeholders to address concerns and gather feedback.
  • How can the project positively contribute to the community and its surroundings?
Project Documentation:

  • Maintain accurate and comprehensive documentation throughout the project, including plans, permits, and inspection records.
  • How will project documentation be organised and shared with relevant parties?
Risk Management and Contingency Planning:

  • Identify potential health and safety risks associated with building on a sloped terrain and develop mitigation strategies.
  • How will unforeseen challenges be addressed to keep the project on track and within budget?

You might also be interested in:

 

We also have lots of incredible sloped site content. Be sure to check it out:

landscape architecture FI
How to Calculate Slopes and gradients
Landscap Architecture Resources
Landscaping a sloped site

Download the Guide!

 

Download this helpful article as a pdf to keep for reference later!

Tips For Building On A Sloped Terrain

Conclusion

 

In conclusion, building on sloped terrain offers exciting design opportunities and challenges. The advantages include spectacular views and privacy. However, difficulties in site access, drainage, foundation stability, costs, and local authority regulation compliance can require careful planning and expertise. Balancing these aspects is key to creating successful designs that integrate seamlessly with the natural landscape.

We recommend you fully embrace the opportunities presented by sloped terrains and design by keeping innovation and sustainability in mind.

Hopefully you found this article helpful! Comment below and let us know some of your thoughts or tips on working with sloped terrain.

Also, feel free to share this with a friend 🙂

Thank you for reading!

 

Author

Written by Valanne Fernandes, a Part 1 Architecture graduate. Valanne is a content creator with First In Architecture, spending her time researching, writing and designing inspiring new content for the website.

Image Credits

Site Analysis
https://onekindesign.com/2019/03/13/modernized-farmhouse-maine/

Prioritise Access and Safety
https://j-safe.co.uk/adjustable-site-stairs/

Seek Expert Advice
https://www.constructionjobsireland.ie/career-advice/your-career-as-a-geotechnical-engineer/

Drainage
https://www.can.ltd.uk/technical-information/slope-drainage

Light
https://www.archdaily.com/20190/khyber-ridge-studio-nminusone/500de3ea28ba0d662500198c-khyber-ridge-studio-nminusone-image?next_project=no

Views
https://www.archdaily.com/925017/slope-house-hsu-rudolphy

Multi-Level Terracing
https://www.archdaily.com/967872/encaved-stone-villa-tsolakis-architects

Cut and Fill
https://www.archdaily.com/998166/latypi-residence-a31-architecture?ad_medium=gallery

Stilts
https://www.archdaily.com/912619/woodhouse-hotel-zjjz?ad_medium=gallery

Cantilevering
https://www.archdaily.com/981117/spl-house-bernardo-bustamante-arquitectos

Basements and Retaining Walls
https://www.archdaily.com/971120/aguacates-house-francisco-pardo-arquitecto/617c77515850540164a85fb6-aguacates-house-francisco-pardo-arquitecto-section?next_project=no

Gabion Walls 1
https://www.archdaily.com/903689/the-versatility-of-gabion-walls-from-infrastructure-to-urban-furniture/5bb4c8daf197cc52ed00015c-the-versatility-of-gabion-walls-from-infrastructure-to-urban-furniture-image?next_project=no

Gabion Walls 2
https://www.tcs-geotechnics.co.uk/retaining-walls-slope-reinforcement/

Modular Construction
https://blog.anchorhomes.com.au/build-modular-home-on-sloping-block

Sustainable design
https://www.casa-architects.co.uk/approach/sustainable-design/

Landscaping
https://www.gardenista.com/posts/talk-town-restrained-landscape-modernist-estate-hastings-hudson-ny-charles-shaw-edmund-hollander/

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15 Comments

  1. I never knew how important site analysis was in the construction and planning on a house until today. If there was no site analysis done before the commencement of constructing the building, plans would change dramatically when they saw the landscaping. That is why plans are so important when constructing anything.

    Reply
  2. building a structure with in sloping terrain may cost extra expensive compare to that of flat terrain but it is more challenging with respect to the designer/planner

    Reply
  3. I am interested in the property, Which is made on slop. The back wall of the ground room is the retaining wall. There are no pillars but one room is above and another room lower level was constructed. What is your advice, can I buy this house. It will strengthen in long run.
    Please advice. There are other houses on sale.

    Reply
    • Hi there, I’m afraid I can’t comment on individual situations such as this. All the best with your house purchase. Emma

      Reply
  4. Mam I have a small doubt.The new flat surface that we generated,we will start laying plinth on that surface or do we consider it as the plinth level ?Basically the new flat surface will be a ground level or plinth level

    Reply
  5. This is a very helpful article. Thanks for this!

    Reply
  6. Hi Emma
    Great and thoughtful article. Do you think drainage issues for houses built in sloping sites get enough thought? We frequently hear if new and existing homes being affected by efflorescence, water entry in basement garages and flooding. What advise do you have for people thinking about how to handle drainage on sloping sites?

    Reply
    • Hi Matt,
      Absolutely, definitely worth us looking at creating an article that focuses on drainage around sites, thank you for the suggestion.

      Reply
  7. A sloping block or site can be both a blessing and a curse. It can be a blessing, as it can offer you some wonderful views, and your house will be a very beautiful place to enjoy your life with your family. On the other hand, it can be a curse because building on a sloping block can be a really difficult task as it poses some tough challenges. Hence, to fulfill the task of building a house on a sloping block, you should always contact reliable and experienced sloping block builders. Building a house on a sloping site or block has many challenges, and hence, it requires some innovative and creative thinking.


    Regards,
    Reblog it

    Reply
  8. please make the advises be regular to help the people in the Industry

    Reply
  9. That’s very informative and that it can be replicated anywhere is very beneficial!

    Reply
  10. Congratulations on a well researched and comprehensive guide!
    I can’t think of anything you might have left out.

    Reply
    • Thank you Robert.

      Reply
  11. very interesting read! kudos Valanne! i m practicing architecture in Nepal where most of the lands are mountainous, well we also need to define what is called a mountain, hill and slopes. slope ratio is an important topic as we deal with seismic forces.

    Reply
    • Thank you for your comments Sonam, much appreciated.

      Reply

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