Choosing a Site for Your Metal Building

choosing a site 1

Metal buildings are a popular type of construction for everything from hangars, storage units, and manufacturing facilities to shopping centers and entertainment venues. In the US, over 28,000 metal building are constructed each year.

If you’re building a new metal building, the first consideration is site selection. Countless personal and legal considerations exist when selecting a site, and, if you are unfamiliar with the issues, consider hiring a professional to help. To get you oriented, let’s take a look at a few big issues.

What’s in this guide?


An ideal location is a highly individual choice, but it’s a critical choice. To make your project a success, it’s important to develop a clear idea of what you want and need before you start. Depending on your buildings use you may want to consider the following:

Building positioning Utilities access
Zoning requirements Soil and water issues
Deed restrictions Customers and markets
Views Suppliers and supply chain
Rail and highways access Future expansion requirements
Site development costs Purchase and development costs
Setbacks, Well & Septic Building on a slope
Wind and sun exposure Abutting properties

Any of these factors can make or break a location’s suitability. Site location is a complicated endeavor. So, involving professionals before you buy or finalize a location is worthwhile.


Your potential site’s first consideration  is zoning. Zoning laws stipulate the allowed use(s) within defined sectors, the types of structures that can be built, e.g., residential or commercial, a building’s size, density of structures, e.g., number of buildings per acre, floor-area to land-area ratio, and minimum open space. Usually, a zoning permit is required before any other progress can be made on your project.

A zoning permit is not the same as a building permit. A zoning permit only applies to the land use and type of structure you want to build. A building permit focuses solely on the building itself. It ensures the details of the building you intend to construct meet legal requirements for safety and accessibility. Usually, both a zoning and a building permit are required. See our article on Building Codes and Permits for Metal Buildings for more information.


Soils vary widely in strength and stability. Ideally, the soil at your chosen location will have a mixture of particle sizes, good chemistry, and be able to absorb water. Soil that is too loose let’s buildings sink, too hard and water won’t absorb, too acidic and building materials corrode, and too much clay will cause excessive shrinking and swelling creating problems with your foundation.

Soil Maps

However, few sites have perfect soil, and much can be done to fix or manage any problems that may exist. Your engineer can help you find solutions for your specific issues by using soil maps that show the slope of the land surface, its biological, chemical, and physical properties, and the potential for water runoff, drainage, or storage. In the US, soil maps are available from the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service at the Web Soil Survey site.

Soil Testing

If no soil maps exist for your area, the soil can be tested, and even if a map is available, testing may still be required. You need soil borings (drilling deep into the soil and removing a plug for analysis) at the building’s foundation, and for any roads, parking lots, sidewalks or other load-bearing structures. Inspectors might perform another “open-hole” inspection once digging for the foundation has started. Professionals use these tests to determine how much weight your soil can support and if any remediation is required. They may also determine the type and size of foundation that your building needs.

Soil tests also look for groundwater on the site. The tester will look for water in the bore hole at the time of the boring and again 24 hours later. The presence or absence of water may dictate whether or not there can be sub-surface levels in the buildings. Additionally, some areas have regulations for minimum distances between a foundation and the water table. Too close and chances are you can’t build there.

Septic and Wells

If you will not be able to tap into the municipal water and/or sewer system at your location, you will need a well and/or a septic system on your land. For health safety reasons, many regulations around wells and septic systems exist, so plan and test carefully to meet them.


A septic system pipes wastewater into a treatment tank then out to a “leach field” where it slowly percolates through the soil to make it harmless. If the soil drains too slow, the system will back up, too fast and the waste will reach the ground water before it is fully treated.

There are two types of tests that can determines if your soil is sufficiently permeable to allow leaching: the perc test and the deep hole test. A deep hole test may be performed first, but many locals mandate perc tests. Check with your local officials for specific requirements in your area. Either way, the lab will analyze the soil from the test location for permeability and indicators of seasonal high-water level. Your location may require a separate test for high-water level.

Tests may also fail due to

  • Steep slopes
  • Filled land (Native soils are typically required.)
  • Wetlands or flood zones, or
  • Site drainage patterns.

If your tests fail, some locations may permit certain remediations or alternative septic systems. If an alternative is not allowed, then you can not build in that location.


A similar situation occurs if you need to provide your own water on the site. Drilling a well usually requires a separate permit. Typically, the cost of drilling is based on the depth required to reach water. If the water table is very far from the surface, drilling can become expensive. Additionally, you may need to try multiple locations, and there is no guarantee that water will be located. Maps of the local aquifer may exist to help and consider checking with adjacent landowners on the depths and locations of their wells. A knowledgeable well driller can advise you on best practices in your area.


Ordinances require minimum distances between the septic tank and leach field and the buildings, property lines, water pipes, wells, and any open water. The specifics of these requirements, and allowable variances, vary widely from town to town. So, make sure you involve your local official in your early planning stages.

Municipal Services

If your site can tap into existing water and sewer systems, then you will not need any of the tests mentioned above. However, be prepared to pay “tapping” fees plus additional charges based on the length of pipe required to hook up your building. Expect the same fees for connections to electrical, gas, and cable services.

Other Site Development Costs

Site development costs can vary widely and range from tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Utilities, wells, septic, and soil testing are not the only considerations that can add to these costs. Here’s a few other items to consider when considering a building site and drawing up your budget:

Surveys Paving: roads, driveways, parking areas
Septic system design and installation Sidewalks
Well drilling, pump, and hookup to building Earthwork: excavation, cut-and-fill, and grading
Permits, fees, and inspections Landscaping
Legal costs Impact fees

A professional land developer or real estate agent can help ensure you consider all the issues and that you assess the costs for project accurately.

Situating the Building

Lastly, you need to be able to position your new building on the site in way that not only meets building and zoning requirements, but also serves your purposes and desire for aesthetics. Which way your building fits on the land will determine how easy or hard it is to access, how appealing or easy-to-see it is from the road, and how much and what kind of natural light it will receive. These concerns affect business traffic, advertising, occupant satisfaction, usability, and influence building design. And especially if your land is sloped, verify that you can position the building away from water drainage paths to help mitigate future water issues.

To help get a feel for the land, take time to walk the property at different times of the day to check the light. Look for drain paths and erosion from rainwater and avoid those areas. A 10% or less grade is ideal, and you want to sit your building on the upside, if possible. Lower areas can have water issues. Drive past it from different directions to assess accessibility and how visible signs may be.Your architect may be able to help you with these issues.


Choosing a site for your new metal building can be daunting task. But, good decisions here are crucial for project success. The issue is sufficiently complex and important that there are entire books on the subject. So, do your research. Use professionals, like real estate developers, government planning and zoning agencies, architects and licensed engineers as early in the process as possible. Then enjoy your new building for a long time to come.