ecological design working on sensitive sites 04/2016


It’s common that our clients want to do right by the environment when designing their new homes. Daily, we are exposed to news of the growing ecological challenges that are so prevalent of our time, making it difficult to decide exactly where we can start to make the biggest impact in fixing the problem. At Flavin Architects, we’ve adopted the philosophy that progress towards a sustainable world can start right at home with tangible improvements to our own surroundings.


In this post we’ll review some techniques for improving how storm water is managed on your property.


Each site we encounter has its own opportunities to be environmentally mindful. In several recent projects, we had been asked to design a new home or to do a major remodel on the site of a pre-existing home. In the instance of remodeling, we’re ahead of the game from the beginning, since we are adapting a site that has already been altered instead of adding a new footprint to a previously untouched space. Access driveways, gas and water utilities, and septic/sewer are already in place and can be worked with rather than installed from scratch.We always aim to improve the existing site conditions by keeping the updated home within the footprint of the previously existing structure, while also being mindful of environmental conditions that may have previously not been taken into account. For example, a building addition can tread more lightly on the land by being placed on piers instead of a full foundation.



Buildings and roads are often the greatest offenders behind water runoff and erosion during storms. Not only does runoff damage the soil on your property, the eroded earth can damage downstream properties and wetlands. Thankfully, managing rainwater on your site to decrease runoff and erosion is readily achievable. Standard asphalt driveways are impervious, allowing for rainwater runoff. A good approach if you have an asphalt driveway is to slope the driveway to allow the water to flow into shallow ponds called “rain gardens”. As the name suggests, these can be beautiful with the addition of water loving plants. Rather than using standard asphalt, consider instead a gravel drive that will allow water to soak into the ground, or for a higher price point, you can use “porous paving”, a type of asphalt that allows water to soak through. For parking areas that are only used occasionally, we love “grass block pavers” which allow grass between the concrete pavers. Roof runoff is also a major factor contributing to erosion. Our approach to fixing this is to capture all the roof runoff in gutters and downspouts and then direct this to an underground cistern that allows the storm water to seep back into the ground slowly.


Several of our recent projects have the added constraint of being located near wetlands. Our objective for these projects is to assure that the wetland is a more beautiful and productive resource post construction than it was before we arrived. A fair question, of course, is asking whether it would be better to leave the land alone, than to build in the first place. What we’ve found in many cases is that the existing wetland area and surroundings have already been damaged and there is much to be done to improve this environmental resource. The techniques of storm water management that I spoke to above can help a great deal. When an existing home is near a wetland, the plants chosen can immensely improve the wetlands overall function. For example, sloped lawns do a poor job at capturing rainwater. Around the wetlands border, choose to incorporate native species. Here in New England, species including ferns, dogwoods and river birch are ideal for implementing into a wetland landscape. While these may suggest a naturalistic woodland vibe, these plants can also be arranged to convey formal and traditional, or a strikingly modern aesthetic. We’ll dive deeper into landscape design in an upcoming post.



A special thanks to the Blueberry Farm Design Team:
Ben Wood Studio, Shanghai, China
Stephen Stimson Landscape Architects, Cambridge, MA
Medford Engineering and & Survey, Medford, MA
Eaglebrook Engineering, LLC, Danvers, MA
ReRosa Environmental Consulting, Inc, Ipswich, MA 


Text by Colin Flavin, AIA
Flavin Architects