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by Paul Fisette and Dennis Ryan

Contractors who make a practice of stripping all existing trees from a lot before starting to build can point to several practical reasons for doing so. A treeless lot increases efficiency by providing freedom of movement to workers, heavy equipment, and delivery trucks. It doesn't cost much to clear an unoccupied lot, and even if it's necessary to plant new trees at the end of the job, that cost is easy to predict and write into the budget. But making the effort needed to save existing trees can pay much larger dividends. Besides providing shade, the leaves of deciduous trees give off large amounts of water vapor, lowering the surrounding air temperature through evaporative cooling. In a cold climate, evergreen trees can lower winter heating loads by reducing air infiltration and protecting walls from heat-scrubbing winds. Well-placed mature trees buffer road noise and mask sounds from neighbors. They improve privacy and screen unsightly views. In addition to these homeowner benefits, saving trees can work to the builder's advantage. Regulators, municipal officials, and the media often regard builders who preserve trees as environmental stewards, which may translate to faster and easier permitting. Projects with retained trees stand apart from the competition, making them easier to sell. Building a reputation as someone who can work successfully with existing trees allows you to stake out a market niche that can be a continuing source of profitable work. In the long run, the benefits of saving trees often far outweigh the cost.

Developing a Plan

If you don't start thinking about tree protection until the excavator arrives on the site, you're beaten before you start. A successful project requires planning the project around the trees, rather than just trying to minimize damage as the job proceeds. This involves walking over the site as early in the process as possible, identifying and flagging desirable trees, and marking their positions on the site plan. With that information in hand, it's possible to plan the locations of roads, utility lines, materials storage areas, and the siting of the house itself with an eye toward saving as many of the desirable trees as possible (see Figure 1).


Figure 1. The initial site survey of a wooded lot should note the locations of all trees to be saved and delineate root protection zones. Planning well in advance of construction makes it possible to adjust the position of the house to accommodate desirable trees.