Site optimization: Paving the way for smoother land development projects

The biggest cost differential when dealing in site development from one site to another is the earthwork. So, when selecting a site, it is critical to not only take into account the initial purchase price of the property, but also what sort of investment it will take to prep the site for development.

June 10, 2014 |
GS&P Dialogue

When designing Schwan Cosmetics USAs 173,000-sf headquarters and manufacturing facility in Murfreesboro, Tenn., Gresham, Smith and Partners reviewed three potential sites using site optimization software called SiteOps. In a short timeframe, the firm developed conceptual grading plans for each of the three sites with a grading cost analysis for each. Rendering: courtesy GS&P

Being able to determine early on that a site does not fit within a project budget is extremely useful. And, as many of us are likely all too familiar, having a thorough understanding of a selected site can also mean the difference in keeping a development project moving on-time and on-budget.

Thanks to advancing technology we can now be smarter and more efficient, and in-turn better stewards of our clients’ time and resources. By using site optimization software, we are able to offer a more thorough analysis of a site early in the design process, helping our clients to be better informed of potential site issues and eliminating the surprise factors. Making the right decision at this early stage of a new development can make or break the long-term success and viability of a project.

More Thorough Insight, Greater Flexibility

The biggest differential cost when dealing in site development from one site to another is the earthwork. So, when selecting a site, it is critical to not only take into account the initial purchase price of the property, but also what sort of investment it will take to prep the site for development.

Over the past year, our team has been using site optimization software called SiteOps. It helps us cost-effectively provide conceptual site designs in a more in-depth and efficient manner for our clients. Starting with existing topographic and property boundary information from local GIS databases or from a site-specific survey, the software streamlines the process of conceptual layout and grading design. This conceptual design shows the correlation between the costs for site grading that would be necessary for the associated development planned for the site. 

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When designing Schwan Cosmetics USA’s new 173,000-sf headquarters and manufacturing facility in Murfreesboro, Tenn., we reviewed three potential sites. In a very short timeframe, we developed conceptual grading plans for each of the three sites with a grading cost analysis for each. 

By considering the grading cost along with the property purchase price for each property, the true cost differential between the three sites could be better understood by the client. We altered certain parameters to see how changing certain design characteristics or siting of the building would impact the overall site plans and their resulting effect on the cost. By running the various, detailed scenarios on three differing sites, it provided the team with confidence about which location was ultimately the preferred alternative.

Enhanced Communication

Using this type of software has improved our communication with not only the client, but with other project team members – architects, contractors, etc., as well. The visualizations that are created through the utilization of the software go a long way in helping to communicate early design concepts to the client. It helps to clarify or alleviate their concerns early in the process regarding design details that may have not been as clear on 2-D drawings and site plans. 

For example, if a client is concerned about the visibility of the development from adjacent roadways, the site design can be exported into sketch-up, the building model brought in, and sight line studies conducted. If a client feels the parking lot design is too prominent on a site and wants to see varying configurations, data points and schematics can be updated without the need for several additional days of design. The result is a visual graphic that not only shows how the location would be altered, but what the cost implications are associated with the changes.

The software allows our designs to be easily imported into other CAD programs. We’ve seen tremendous benefit in how that allows us to take this early conceptual data and build upon it through the next phases of a project. It also becomes information that can be shared and/or incorporated into architectural and construction plans related to the site.

Not a Magic Bullet

As with any type of technology, there are limitations. The output generated is only as good as the data that is provided to system. While there is never a magic bullet that can ensure the elimination of all surprises on a project, we’re working to use our years of experience coupled with advanced technology to help developers/owners feel more confident regarding their site selection process.

About the Author

Stephen Brown, PE, is an engineer in Gresham, Smith and Partners’ Land Planning and Design division. He specializes in sustainable site design and stormwater management, and has extensive experience in coordinating with developers, local planning departments, municipalities, and state and federal agencies. More posts by Brown. 

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Gresham, Smith and Partners

Gresham, Smith and Partners' blog, Dialogue, is about starting discussions. We want to get people thinking about issues and trends that are impacting the design services industry and the market sectors GS&P architects, engineers, interior designers, planners, consultants and environmental scientists serve. Great ideas are typically enhanced through conversation and often stifled by singular views and opinion. We hope you'll join in this conversation and help us to create a meaningful Dialogue. Visit

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