Plan and Build a Driveway for Your Country Home

You can build your own country driveway if you plan carefully, taking into account traffic safety and visibility, driveability, drainage, and surface materials.


| August/September 1992



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When planning your country driveway, locate and design the entrance to offer ample visibility to traffic.

ILLUSTRATION: SUSAN SCANLON

Turning into our narrow, 200-year-old, packed-dirt driveway had always been arm-wrenching. In "mud-time," during each spring run-off, the drive entry hosted a running stream, while a periodic spring turned the section beside the house into a bog large enough to swallow small cars. The turnaround at the rear of the house had turned into a swamp. Then, our New England, hill-country road was graded and paved—making the approach swampier still—and we decided it was high time to bring the Colonial-era wagon path up to the automotive-era demands of modern times. Now our problems and solutions will not be the same as yours, but the steps we took should help you build a driveway, or renew the drive, of your own country place.

Existing driveways should be "grandfathered" so that surface and interior improvements are exempt from building code and/or zoning regulations. However, if you are making a new or substantially enlarged curb-cut onto a public way, the "setback" from property lines, dimensions and construction of your driveway will require approval from the town(ship) highway supervisor or engineer. If entering a state or county road, an additional permit and inspection are needed. To find out applicable regulations, you can visit your town clerk. Even if it is not required, a consultation with the township or county road boss can provide invaluable help in designing and constructing the best driveway for your soil type, weather, and elevation. Indeed, you maybe able to hire the municipal crew and equipment for the heavy work. Keep in mind that rates are competitive and no one knows how to do the job better.

Early Roads: Building Lessons from the Past

A driveway is a miniature road. Lessons from the pre-mechanized past may be instructive, especially if you plan to do some of the work yourself:

With the advent of wheeled vehicles, Stone Age footpaths became rutted, swampy areas became impassable, and steep grades became untraversable. The first roads (built 3,000 years ago in the Greek islands) were ruts, chiseled into rock hillsides to guide soil and water carts up to terraced fields. Today, the same "technology" is used on mountain logging roads, where ruts are intentionally worn into curves and grades in order to keep fast-moving, heavily-loaded trucks on track when mud roads are wet and slippery. You may find that a rut trail serves just fine for the four-wheel-drive track out to your back 40. Cut the trail in late spring in soft, but not soaked soil, and dig out rocks and roots that are interfering with the ruts. With steady use, the trail should gradually become compacted over the summer and fall, and the ruts should keep you on the road and moving in everything except for axle-deep mud or deep snow.

Road Construction in History

Romans were the preeminent road builders of the ancient world. The illustration shows a cross-section of a typical Roman road. A stone footing, compacted gravel or rubble interior, and a cobble surface remained firm in wet weather but would not turn to dust on dry days. Sides were ditched to carry off water, and culverts and bridges were built over dips to carry water under the road. Cobble surfaces were fine for foot-Legions but too bumpy for wheeled vehicles, and construction was (forced) labor-intensive. In the 19th century, J. J. Mac Adam designed British roads with smoother surfaces that could be built quickly and economically by freemen and draft animals. Not oiled or asphalted like modern macadam roads, the top was of fine crushed rock that compacted with use to shed water, but would not become too dusty in the summer. The road was domed and ditched to carry off rain. Although modern highways have a deeper multi-level foundation and solid asphalt or concrete surface, they are really not much different from Mac Adam's original design.

The Modern-Day Driveway

For your own driveway, it's doubtful that you'll want to bury stone blocks Roman-style. You'll want to adopt Mac Adam's formula of digging out topsoil and laying in a well-ditched, contiguous-ribbon wedge of adhesive soil and rocks, compacted to repel water and topped so it won't grind to dust.





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