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your opinion on a potential Type 1 error for South facing slope

 
pollinator
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Hello permies!

Lately my wife and I have been looking to buy a piece of land suitable for a small homestead, in the Marche region of central Italy, close to the Adriatic coast.

Based on many years of experience in cooler regions of Europe (and what we believe to be sound permaculture principles), we have determined that the property should be South-facing, on a gentle slope that is not steeper than 10%.  

Aside from the difficulties of finding land for which a building permit can be obtained, we are surprised at how difficult it is to find a property with the right orientation (and land that is not too steep). We've had to discard more than half of the properties we found because they were on a North-facing hillside. (Properties on flat / nearly-flat terrain are very few, AND more expensive.)

The awkward part is that my father-in-law - who lives in the Marche region and is an olive-grower - believes that our insistence on a South-facing plot is ridiculous.  His own homestead and olive plantation is on a North-facing hillside, and he uses that as an argument in trying to convince us that orientation is not important. He says that in this region excessive heat in summer is a much bigger problem than winter cold - hence we should be okay on a North-facing slope.

As an outsider, I have spent quite a bit of time in the Marche, and I've seen that, at around 43 degrees North latitude, its winters are indeed relatively mild, but you still get quite a few nights of frost each winter, as well as a couple of days of snow in the more inland parts of the region.

If I take into account the combined effect of the low trajectory of the sun in winter, a potentially long & steep-ish slope above the house, and trees or buildings that cast long shadows, I imagine that between, say, November and March, a North-facing house can become quite a miserable place, even in a quasi-Mediterranean location. And I doubt that I'd be compensated for this by the potentially milder heat in summer.

So here is where I would appreciate the opinions of permies who live in a similar / equivalent climate zone. Am I crazy to insist on what I think is the right orientation?
 
master steward
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Levente, Welcome to permies.

I know nothing of your climate and/or your preferences as to having south facing.

I have lived in at least two north-facing properties. To me the benefit of those properties was I didn't do much in the front yard except go to/from work, shopping, etc.

We had the children's play area, chickens, and gardens in the sunny backyard.

Our current location is west facing, which we really liked until the ice storm this year took most of the branches that were shading the front door. We use the west side for our garden and the north side is used for parking vehicles, the south side is too hot to do much so it is mostly used to walk the dog.

To me, this is a personal preference and I have never purchased a home based on which way it was facing. To me, price and amenities are more important.



 
pioneer
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I live on a South Facing Slope at 40 degrees North. My problem is too much heat and too much sun. Plants can only absorb so much sun. In the tropics, you grow under palms or shade screens to elevate this problem blocking of the sun from 9am to 3pm. The six hours they get in the morning and evening is plenty.

If the house is stand alone and north facing and not built into the hillside, then surely the other side is south facing?

Have you used Weatherspark? Here is a Link comparing the capital of your region with the capital of Marche. As you can see there's a significantly longer growing season for a similar amount of daylight. Winters are warmer and brighter. I doubt a gentle north facing slope will feel gloomy, especially if it's near the coast. The coastal region will also give you maritime advantage of on-shore, off-shore breezes in the morning and evening.

Maybe you could sacrifice the perfect aspect and find a property that has harvestable water or a good catchment area so you aren't in short supply during the hot summer months.
 
gardener
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Welcome Levante!

How do you define small? Are you looking at 1 acre - 5 acres - more or less?  

I live on an area of Vancouver Island which is often described as a "Mediterranean Climate". We're further north than you which means longer days in the summer and shorter in the winter, but not by a whole lot. However, our winters starting in November can be incredibly cloudy - some years we will rarely see the sun for 3 months, other years, aren't so bad. We are close enough to the ocean that normally we get a cool on-shore breeze at night, which is nice for the humans, but our tomato plants aren't so keen on it, so I (and others I know) have taken to only growing  mini-tomatoes because at least they ripen!

Our land (approximately 10 acres) is rolling with some sloped areas, flat areas and steep areas. Our flat area has a steep area to the south and in the winter it is a cold trap, however this is aggravated by the tall (75-100 foot) native trees on much of our steep land. It makes me really appreciate the few sunny areas I have. We are actively trying to remove a few key large trees and replace them with fruit trees with a shorter natural height.

The smaller the site, the more you have to worry about what the neighbors might plant or not that will affect your climate. If you have enough land using the concept of the savanna can help to cool and shade things while still giving you sun.

A site with steeper areas may still allow you to do interesting things if you follow Sepp Holzer's approach, but it's important to recognize how large a piece of land he has to work with and understand that some things don't scale easily!

Many people are too shy to do this, but I'd suggest if you can to travel around the area talking to people whose farmland is oriented different ways and ask them what they like or don't like about it. Many people are willing to answer those sorts of questions so long as you ask them in a general - "what grows well" sort of way.

good luck
 
pollinator
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For what it is worth, I enjoy looking north much more than south.  The lighting is much better.  Glass also appears cleaner;)

Those cooler north slopes can actually help prevent frost damage by keeping plants dormant longer.  A warm south sloping face will cause plants to break dormancy early just to get hit by a late freeze.

Personally, I'd just drive around and see what you see growing on various properties.  When you see something you like, look for similar to purchase.

Thanks to the diversity of plants, almost any property is better for something and not others.  Are there particular crops you really want to grow.

I'm sure there are some charts and calculations you can do to see just how much shade you will get in the winter on any given slope at your latitude.
 
Levente Andras
pollinator
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Anne Miller wrote:
We had the children's play area, chickens, and gardens in the sunny backyard.



Fair enough. The question is: if the property were on a slope of 10% or steeper, would you still be able to enjoy the south-facing backyard in the same way? (Would you have a backyard at all? My current site is south-facing, but the slope is around 12% - and with the house being built onto a cut in the slope, there is no "backyard" at all - just the hillside.)

And would the backyard be sunny enough if the N-facing, 10-12% slope that you're on is long - i.e., if there's a lot of hill above you?

What would that backyard feel like between November and March, when the trajectory of the sun is lower, shadows longer, and days shorter?
 
Levente Andras
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Edward Norton wrote:I live on a South Facing Slope at 40 degrees North. My problem is too much heat and too much sun.



At the height of summer, in my current location (46 degrees North) "too much heat & sun" can equally be a problem.  I guess the question is: with a N-facing site, at what point does the milder summer microclimate compensate for the potentially shorter and less sunny winter days? Or: at what point do the two aspects balance each other out?  At 43 degrees North, I'm guessing I could settle for a N-facing plot if its slope was around 5%.

An interesting note here: Browsing real estate adverts for properties in the Marche, my wife and I noticed that when a property was south-facing, the advertisement always mentioned this as a selling point. So one could conclude that even the locals appreciate the south-facing sites.

Edward Norton wrote: If the house is stand alone and north facing and not built into the hillside, then surely the other side is south facing?



Indeed. But if the slope is steep (10% or more), when you look South from the house, you're looking at the hillside. I don't want to be facing a hillside when I want to enjoy a bit of sun...

Edward Norton wrote: Have you used Weatherspark? Here is a Link comparing the capital of your region with the capital of Marche. As you can see there's a significantly longer growing season for a similar amount of daylight. Winters are warmer and brighter. I doubt a gentle north facing slope will feel gloomy, especially if it's near the coast. The coastal region will also give you maritime advantage of on-shore, off-shore breezes in the morning and evening.



That's a very useful tip, thank you!
 
Anne Miller
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With a 10% slope would I have a backyard at all?



As I said, I don't know about your climate or preferences.

Most of my properties had been graded so that the homesite is relatively flat.

And then there were a lot of trees on one of my north-facing properties, though the backyard was sunny where we had the garden and we planted shade-loving plants in the north side.

The property where I now live that is west to east is on top of a mountain. There is a slope going west to east, being higher though I doubt that it is even 5%. I don't know what the property looked like before the earthworks were done. A large tank/pond was dug and a another site for a foundation that was abandoned for a better location.

What are your plans for the property you are looking for?  That might help our readers answer your question better.

It sounds like you are looking for a blank slate rather than an established homesite.

Have you looked at how south-facing properties are laid out in that region?  Have they had earthworks?

As stated earlier, I feel price and amenities are more important.
 
pollinator
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I'm up at 57N and on a Northfacing "slope" you would probably count it as flat. but it slopes about 3% The largest strawberry grower in the area is also on a N facing slope at about the same angle. After talking to them I found they had the same experience as me, my plants are about 1 week later than others on S facing slopes but after that we don't see any difference, the slope is not enough to stop the sun in the winter, we lose the last 30minutes of direct sun to shadows but for us this far north there is no power in the winter sun anyway so we don't lose much there. we're certainly less prone to frost than flat land.
 
Levente Andras
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Skandi Rogers wrote: I'm up at 57N and on a Northfacing "slope" you would probably count it as flat. but it slopes about 3% The largest strawberry grower in the area is also on a N facing slope at about the same angle. After talking to them I found they had the same experience as me, my plants are about 1 week later than others on S facing slopes but after that we don't see any difference, the slope is not enough to stop the sun in the winter, we lose the last 30minutes of direct sun to shadows but for us this far north there is no power in the winter sun anyway so we don't lose much there. we're certainly less prone to frost than flat land.



That's what I would expect of a 3% N-facing slope, and it's something I could definitely live with at 43N. Sadly, in the Marche region of Italy that type of "flat" land is hard to come by.
 
Levente Andras
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Anne Miller wrote:

Most of my properties had been graded so that the homesite is relatively flat.



As far as I know, only limited amounts of grading / earthworks are allowed by regional regulations - I saw house plans where the grading of a fairly steep slope was so minimal, that the slope ended only about 1 foot from the foundation wall, and the fill allowed only for a couple of metres of level space in front of the house.

Anne Miller wrote: What are your plans for the property you are looking for?  That might help our readers answer your question better.



The plan is to live on the land, and be able to grow our own fruit and veg, and keep a small flock of poultry (like we currently do) - all this initially mainly for subsistence, as my current work would leave me with too little time for commercial growing.  This may change in the future though - and usually there is the possibility to buy adjacent agricultural land, if we feel we need more space.

Anne Miller wrote: It sounds like you are looking for a blank slate rather than an established homesite.



Ideally an established homesite - but failing that, a blank slate is also acceptable.

Anne Miller wrote: Have you looked at how south-facing properties are laid out in that region?



That's a good question. We discovered with dismay that (regardless of orientation) traditional buildings in the region were erected as if the builder didn't give a damn about summer heat. The south-facing side of the house almost never has a veranda or porch - in fact, when they do have a feature similar to a porch, it looks like it was built as an afterthought (it often is a recent addition) and it's usually placed on the less exposed side of the house. And the roof has almost no overhang. As a result, the entire wall, as well as all the windows and doors on it, are typically completely exposed to the summer sun. And this is true of recent build as well.

See this for illustration of what I'm trying to describe:
https://www.google.com/search?q=casa+colonica+marche&tbm=isch&ved=2ahUKEwixqqXp__vyAhVK2KQKHTNCAmwQ2-cCegQIABAA&oq=casa+colonica+marche&gs_lcp=CgNpbWcQAzIECAAQE1CUvypYjdQqYK3XKmgAcAB4AIABhQKIAfQPkgEDMi05mAEAoAEBqgELZ3dzLXdpei1pbWfAAQE&sclient=img&ei=aUo_YfHRAsqwkwWzhIngBg&bih=478&biw=822&client=safari




 
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I think a south facing slope is good, but if a north slope did not work at all, then you would have a lot of northern hillsides barren of any plant life. I think the farther north you are (opposite for those in the southern hemisphere) the more important a south facing slope is. The father south you are the less it matters. Also, the rest of the climate matters too. In my climate (northeast USA, around 45 Lattitude) it is the warmth we are looking for more than the extra light. Eliot Coleman's book Four Season Harvest has a whole section where he talks about visiting France (and I think Italy) along the same latitude as his farm here in Maine. People kept telling him the problem was not enough light... he was able to prove them wrong, and it was actually related to temperature and expectations of when and how fast things grow.

South-facing is nice, but in a warm climate... I personally would not make it a definite on which everything else hangs.
 
Skandi Rogers
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I notice the older houses have small windows, maybe that was their defense rather than an overhang.
 
Jay Angler
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Levente Andras wrote:

The south-facing side of the house almost never has a veranda or porch - in fact, when they do have a feature similar to a porch, it looks like it was built as an afterthought (it often is a recent addition) and it's usually placed on the less exposed side of the house. And the roof has almost no overhang. As a result, the entire wall, as well as all the windows and doors on it, are typically completely exposed to the summer sun. And this is true of recent build as well.

This is soooo... true and I find it interesting that you've noticed it in Italy as I have noticed it in North America. Despite access to far more intelligent concepts of environmentally sound building practices, all the houses are built to some "perceived desired style" rather than functional from Mother Nature's perspective! We teach our children so much at school, but I don't recall anything about what makes housing efficient to run, comfortable to live in and resistant to local threats.
 
Anne Miller
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Jay said, "Despite access to far more intelligent concepts of environmentally sound building practices, all the houses are built to some "perceived desired style" rather than functional from Mother Nature's perspective! We teach our children so much at school, but I don't recall anything about what makes housing efficient to run, comfortable to live in and resistant to local threats.



Very few people look at homes with passive solar in mind.  They want square footage, lots of bedrooms and baths, a pool and fireplaces. Of course, the conventional builder doesn't do this either.

When considering passive solar homes are usually rectangular with the long side facing south.  This is how my current house was built.  With windows are on the north and south, facing each other to optimize airflow.
 
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