In our thirty-some years in the landscape business in Montana we've been increasingly alerted to the potential problems inherent in home building sites prior to and during construction. From this we've put together some guidelines we'd like to pass on in hopes you will find them helpful.
Choosing a home site
Do not be in a hurry. Spend time walking your property, experiencing it in all seasons. Look down at the soil and native plants as well as out at the mountains! Consider several home sites, remembering that in hindsight people often regret having put too much emphasis on a spectacular view that can only be obtained by positioning a home at a high, unprotected point on their property. If this type of view is a top priority for you consider the following:
Access: Will it be difficult in a full blown Montana winter with gobs of snow and inevitable drifts? How will your road be plowed? How about utilities? Power lines not being aesthetically pleasing, are underground lines an option?
Wind: Will you be protected from it? If you are in a windy area this is extremely important if you value your sanity.
Soil: Is it deep and productive enough for you to grow the plants you want? Rocky ridges aren't known for lush vegetation, if any at all. How important is a garden? Do you want to grow trees and shrubs for shade, wind protection, and beauty? With deep, fertile soil plants will grow far faster than if it's of lesser quality.
Neighbors: The view may be stupendous from your picture window, but how does your home affect your neighbor's view? Will the location of your house be offensive to them? Can you site your house so it's not intrusive to others?
No backs: Once your home is built there's no giving it back, ("no backs"), trading it in for a different location. Even if you decide to sell to someone else and move away, the house will stay. So do it right the first time around. Hire an environmentally oriented architect and landscape designer from the start and express your concerns.
PRESERVE NATIVE VEGETATION: WITH LANDSCAPING, NOT LAND-SCRAPING
We all know "Thou shalt not covet", but we say it's okay to be covetous when it comes to indigenous vegetation and topsoil. They're such a precious commodity in Montana that nobody can afford to be indifferent to them. If you treasure them you must take firm steps for their protection. Existing plants do not all have to be levelled and destroyed during the building phase, contrary to what some contractors believe. Once destroyed, native vegetation is devillish to restore. So be proactive. If you value the native aesthetics of your property, choose landscaping over land-scraping. Here's a way to go about it.
The concept of a building envelope is a means of preserving the natural but often fragile beauty of one's property during home construction. In this non-traditional approach house and driveway are "enveloped" by native vegetation. There are three zones to be determined:
#1 The area occupied by the house and driveway, known as the footprint. Here it is seldom possible to preserve native vegetation, but not so topsoil which should be stockpiled for future use. Not a bucketful should be wasted. By preserving topsoil you will not have to haul it in later from elsewhere. This is crucial because it can be very costly. Equally important, topsoil usually carries seeds with it, so by using your own you will not be importing seeds from plants that may not be the same as yours.
#2 The area surrounding the house and driveway and extending out 10 feet - or whatever distance you and your builder agree upon. This perimeter denotes the absolute limit of construction. All work and materials must be contained within its confines. To ensure that this area is clearly understood it is best to stake or fence it. Your contractor must be in agreement with this concept and you should put your wishes in writing so they become part of the contract. There should be a penalty for non-compliance. That might get someone's attention and let them know you are serious about this! Some plants may have to be eliminated but not all. Agree ahead of time which ones they will be. As above, stockpile all topsoil for future use when you revegetate this strip. Vehicles should be limited in this area to absolute necessity since the more ground is driven on during construction the more it becomes compacted and is difficult to restore.
#3 The area beyond the limit of construction. Here natural vegetation and soil should be totally preserved. If ever there was a place to push the proverbial envelope, this is it! Once native grassland and plants are disturbed it can take a lifetime to restore them in Montana.