12 Design Strategies For Contoured Sites in Architecture

In a natural landscape, a human being can be an intruder. It is important to realize that design must be done with minimal damage to the existing site properties and should rather accentuate them instead.

The essence of land planning for any project involves three important steps:

  • Choose the most suitable site and thoroughly understand its contour map.
  • Let the site itself suggest the plan forms for your design.
  • Extract the full site potential by performing a site analysis.

There are four ways to go about contours while designing your space:

  1. Preservation
  2. Accentuation
  3. Alteration
  4. Destruction


Leaving the existing features of the site undisturbed. 


Taking advantage of the existing features of the site and accentuating it and in a way, building around the features to emphasize them.


Make changes to the existing nature of the site and alter it to fit your personal requirements and needs. 


Excavating or removing the existing features present in the site so you don’t have to consider the contour of the site. But this is often not preferred and is only performed at extreme cases with no other option. 

Contour Preservation Strategies:

  1. Use contour as a wind break
  2. Use contour as a visual screen
  3. Use contour as a sound barrier
  4. Use contour as Functional spaces

It might be highly tempting to alter or destroy the contours to fit the needs of the site. But there are some exceptional characteristics of contours that might even help elevate your design to the next level.

The following are some of the reasons to preserve your contours:

1. Contour as a wind break

The existing contours can be made to act as a natural barrier to highly prevailing winds and help nurture a calmer environment on the other end of the contour. 

2. Contour as a visual screen

Contours can prove to be especially useful as privacy screens due to the level differences. 

3. Contour as a sound barrier

Due to the thickness of the contour, there are excellent sound barriers. They help screen the audio from one side of the contour so it doesn’t travel through to the other side. 

4. Contour as functional spaces

Contours, as is, can be exceptionally functional. The undulating surfaces could be put to real use in the design process itself. Some of the few ways contours can be used as functional spaces are:

  • Game courts
  • Gardens
  • Plantations

Contour Accentuation Techniques:

There are some contour accentuation techniques that have been used for decades. You would’ve come across these same techniques being implemented in contours to enhance the contours across several projects. 

1. Cut and Fill

This involves the process of cutting the ground to level it and use the excavated soil at a different place to level it more. 

2. Excavation and Grading

Grading is basically the method of sculpting the land to fit the needs of the current requirements. This is done for the following reasons:

  • To ensure proper drainage system can be put into place.
  • To make sure that the zoning and circulation requirements and needs are taken care of. 
  • To protect from stormwater runoff or soil erosion.
  • In some cases, for planting vegetation or even improving the aesthetic qualities of the site. 

3. Retaining Structures 

These structures, often made of wood, stone or pre-cast steel or sometimes even vegetation, are used to retain the earth. These are situated at areas where there is an abrupt change in ground level.  

4. Providing bridges and decks

We talked about accentuating the landscape. Bridges and decks have both function and aesthetic purposes. They are often situated overlooking a fantastic view from the contoured landscape height. Bridges help connect the ground plane to another from a height. 

Working with slopes:

  • Use of slope for protection
  • Imposed structures can be used to hug the slope
  • Rest the structures on a platform 
  • Build structures to stand completely free

Although working with contours might seem complicated and intimidating at first, they are in real life challenging and often exciting to work with. Knowing and understanding these basic principles is a great way to get started with your contour design. 

To know more about landscape architecture and buildings with contours, do check out the following book this article was referenced from:

Landscape Architecture: A Manual of Environmental Planning and Design

  • A book by Barry W. Starke and John O. Simonds

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12 Design Strategies For Contoured Sites in Architecture