How Site Location Impacts Your Building Layout and Design

There are parts of the commercial building planning process that typically get project owners and others excited. Building layout and how it’s situated on a lot may not always be top of mind. However, where and how a structure is positioned in the landscape, along with other external factors, can make a major difference in a building’s design and overall budget.

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Conducting a site evaluation as part of the site selection process can help alleviate potential problems. Whether you already have a building site or are just starting the search, involving a commercial construction manager, architect, and engineer as early as possible can help you ensure constructability and help determine the most suitable layout based on your budget and the following factors.

End Users, Traffic, and Neighborhood

Knowing who is going to use a building and how they’re going to get there may have the greatest influence on a building’s location and design. One building site may be chosen for its proximity to bus lines or bike lanes in the heart of downtown. For most people, however, vehicles are an essential part of their lives, and access to highways and trucking routes needs to be a major consideration.

Property and Building Entries

An entry is more than a doorway. Accessing a building’s parking lot from the road is an entryway, as is the sidewalk leading to the main entrance, or even a skywalk in a dense urban setting. A site may have access to multiple roads, which can play an important part in deciding the ideal traffic flow and minimizing congestion. Designs with main entrances that face the road or parking lot of a building are most common, but some factors could warrant other considerations.

For example, entrances with a northwest exposure might pose problems in winter climates where snow, wind, and ice require more maintenance to keep those who enter safe. Design elements such as a snow melt system, wind breaks or earth berms can be incorporated into a design to help mitigate some of the harsh winter weather. Similarly, a drive-through canopy on a hospital, hotel, or bank can influence where a building is located or oriented on a site.

Sitelines and Views

When determining a building’s layout, consider sitelines, both when viewing the building from afar and those from the inside out. For some project owners, it’s important to have their building seen from a certain location such as highways, interior roads, natural areas, or even other buildings. How a building is designed and positioned on a site could make the difference between a pleasing accent to the natural landscape or an ugly eyesore. You don’t want your building to be the talk of the town for the wrong reasons.

If a building site overlooks picturesque views, deciding which building occupants will have access to those views can influence the overall floor plan and layout of a building. It’s not uncommon for commercial office building projects to reserve the best office space for executives, managers, and conference rooms, whereas a public venue or service organization may reserve the best views for guests in large cafeterias, waiting areas, or group gathering spaces.  

Orientation and Shape

Natural elements in the terrain may affect the shape of a building and its physical size. Project program requirements and certain styles of architecture will also influence the overall shape of a building.

A linear-shaped building, for example, can take advantage of passive solar heating in certain climates by having its long axis primarily running east or west. In other climates, however, such an orientation can create excessive heating/cooling loads without proper shade devices. Though typically more costly to construct, a linear design has the potential for more appealing sitelines and natural light in the interior, and many consider linear designs more attractive from a style standpoint as well.

Circular or square-shaped buildings, with equal access to views on all sides, are generally more cost-efficient to build and may take up a smaller footprint. Designers can factor in skylights or atriums if additional natural light is desired in the interior spaces. Project owners can also opt for a hybrid version of linear and square buildings.


Having a site with a great deal of topography change or slope can be an attractive feature, but it can also greatly affect where on the site the building, parking, and access points are located. Not surprisingly, it’s more expensive, too. Relatively flat terrain generally allows for easier access and constructability, whereas positioning a building on a steep slope may pose accessibility challenges and require additional engineering, materials, foundation work, and more.

Additional concerns with significant slope include drainage that could affect the building’s interior. Ideally, a building is located at the highest elevation. When that’s not possible, engineers need to consider how water will be shed away from the building and the use of water collection ponds, waterproofing materials, sump pumps, and other efforts to prevent damage.

Exterior drainage is also important, as parking lots and sidewalks require maximum and minimum slopes for proper drainage and safety. Sites with a significant slope or elevation change may require extensive landscaping, retaining walls, and terraces to prevent erosion, allow for more building access, or create more usable outdoor space.

When possible, it’s a good idea to talk with a design engineer or architect before you purchase a piece of property to decide whether it makes sense from a constructability and budget standpoint.

Zoning Ordinances and Building Codes

The International Building Code has a number of codes that affect what, where, and how a building is constructed, such as the number of stories allowed for a certain type of occupancy or construction type and specified fire ratings and access requirements for design elements and in between buildings.

Counties, cities, towns, and villages all have their own zoning ordinances and codes that business owners and building designs need to adhere to as well. In some instances, it’s possible to get variances for special circumstances. For example, you might be able to get a variance to build an addition onto an existing 100-year-old structure that is beyond the normal building setback.

How to Mitigate the Risks of Building Layout Missteps

Leaning heavily on the expertise and past experiences of your construction manager, designers, and engineers as early as possible can help you meet your budget, desired timeline, design goals, and other objectives. Even if you’ve already acquired your building site, a qualified construction team will be able to help you make the best and most cost-effective decisions based on these and other factors.

The Samuels Group provides all-in-one services to help you move forward with your next commercial building project. Contact us today to discuss your vision, and let’s make it happen together.

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