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The Site Development and Design Process: An Interview with Paul Dobberstein of Eckman Engineering

By Paul Dobberstein

Tell us a little bit about your company and its foundation.

Eckman Engineering was started over 14 years ago with the goal of providing quality-engineering and surveying services at competitive cost for developers, individual homeowners, municipalities, state agencies, transportation departments, and heavy civil construction contractors. When the firm was established there was an unmet need in the market for skilled, professional and knowledgeable engineers and surveyors competing with low overhead, rapid response and providing cost effective solutions.

With this goal in mind, the company has grown and now performs work statewide in New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts. The success of the company has been driven by consistently providing engineering services of the highest quality with timely service that the larger firms are not able to match. Something that makes us unique is that the vast majority of work, in both the office and the field, is performed by individuals who are licensed in the applicable discipline, be that Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors, or Septic Designers. This ensures that the work is done right the first time, and any unforeseen issues can be resolved quickly and effectively. Eckman Engineering provides a wide and varied array of multidisciplinary services that allows the company to keep the vast majority of work in-house. The union of our distinct capabilities, land development, civil site, transportation, environmental, survey, geotechnical and structural, limits the need to partner with other firms and allows us to shepherd each project from conception through permitting and onto construction.

The work we have completed throughout the years for individuals has been some of our most rewarding. The work for individual homeowners requires an acute knowledge of local, state, and federal design requirements as well as a deep understanding of the relevant permits and environmental considerations. This knowledge is not something that the average person has and guiding someone through the design and regulatory process, seeing their project come to fruition is extremely satisfying. This familiarity with the process has been gained over the many years in operation as well as through adding qualified new employees to the company with a wide variety of expertise and skills. Our staff draws not only from the experience gained while at Eckman Engineering but also from their long professional experience at other larger firms as well as academic pursuits. As a result, we are able to tackle the more challenging projects with ease.

What are some important questions to ask the engineer before beginning the site designing process?

What work needs to be done to achieve the desired outcome? Is what you want to do feasible? What is the time frame for completing the work? How much will completing the work cost? Having the client and the engineer/surveyor on the same page is vital for a successful project. A lack of understanding or misguided assumptions by either the client or consultant can result in unnecessary and costly delays in completing the project.

What is the process of developing a site for residential use?

The beginning of the process for developing a residential site is first having a clear understanding of any limitations of the site. What are the local building setbacks to the property lines, for that matter, where are the property lines? Are there any easements encumbering the property that will limit development of any part of the property? Does the site have access to municipal sewer and water, or will it require on-site water (a well) or a septic system?

If a septic system is required, what are the soil conditions on site? Are there wetlands on the property, and if so, does the municipality have building or development setbacks that need to be taken into consideration? What is the topographic condition of the site? Is the property located in a flood zone? Are there any drainage issues that need to be addressed? Generally, most of these questions can be preliminarily answered by obtaining data from various local, state, and federal government sources. Going headlong into a project and investing thousands of dollars, only to find out that there is something that will severely limit or even preclude development of the site isn't good for anyone.

Once some of these preliminary questions have been answered the real work can begin. Generally, this will start with some sort of survey of the property. In some cases a boundary survey may be required to identify the location of the property lines, a topographic survey may be necessary in order to design a septic system, or to design drainage and grading on the site. If there are wetlands present, a Wetland Scientist will be necessary to delineate the wetland line, which is then located by the surveyors. After the survey data has been gathered, identifying the conditions on the site, and with applicable regulations applied, the design process can begin.

In close collaboration with the client, limitations are identified and explained, and options presented. After the client has approved a site design, local, state, and, if applicable, federal permitting can begin. For simple projects this may just be a trip to the building department or maybe the planning board in the town for approval. If a septic system is required, or the property is being subdivided, state approval will be needed. If wetlands are going to be impacted local approval is sometimes necessary, state approval will be needed, and, if the impact is large enough, federal review may be required.

After all of the necessary approvals have been acquired, construction can begin. In most cases we work closely with the contractor to ensure that the design is built according to plan and all conditions of any permits are being adhered to. Once construction is complete some towns require an as-built survey of the property to ensure that the design was built as permitted.

How do you suggest clients prepare for a this process?

Plan, plan, plan. As I described above, the process for developing a site can require things that many people are not even aware of. Having a good understanding of what issues a site may have, even in a general sense, prior to beginning the process can help the client plan for how long and how much the process could cost. Obtaining all of the permits required today can take significantly longer than most people realize, and can certainly cost a good amount of money just in application fees. Most folks who work in this field will be happy to talk to a prospective client about what they are looking to do and explain possible issues and time frames. If you find one who isn't willing to take that time with you, you should find someone who will. The process can be frustrating and confusing, having a good relationship with your engineer and/or land surveyor is very important. Essentially, understand what you are up against. Don't plan on taking a vacant lot, subdividing it in two, and be building a house in four weeks, its not going to happen.

What are some common issues you face when it comes to site development?

The most common issues usually relate to the regulatory process. Obtaining a variance to zoning, permitting a wetland crossing, etc. Another common issue is designing a cost effective and aesthetically (think of all the ugly mounds you see in peoples yards) pleasing septic system on sites with poor soil conditions. Unfortunately, one other common problem is helping a client understand that they may not be able to do exactly what they want to do, considering the applicable constraints on the property.

What are some reasons an area of land may not be good for residential use?

Three things, among others, are the main reason a piece of land may not be good for residential use. First, wetlands, if there is a significant area of wetlands on the piece it can be difficult to work around the different buffer areas and other restrictions, in order to achieve the desired outcome. Second, poor soils, if an on-site septic system is required soils play a big role. If the seasonal high water table is close to the surface, or the ability of the soil to absorb water is limited, septic systems can become large, expensive, and restrictive on the size of the house that can be built, where it can be built, and how the site will look. Lastly, is the site topography. Steep slopes are protected from development in some towns, and they can also present significant design challenges in terms of access, etc.

What's the best way for people to get in contact with you?

The best way to get in touch is by phone at 603-433-1354, or by email p.dobberstein@eckmanengineering.com or our website, http://www.eckmanengineering.com/

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