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Lurking in the shadows


Article re-printed from "National Post" September 22, 2001
"National Post"
is hereby acknowledged for the content.

Ralph Bouwmeester calculates how proposed buildings
 will limit the sunlight on adjacent homes


Blinded by the light: Bouwmeester's program determines
the shadow that would be cast anywhere in the world.

It is enough to make you tear out your hair. A couple of years ago, you found a new townhome that was just perfect for you. It was centrally located, close to transit and shopping and came with a host of amenities that suited your lifestyle to a tee. The spring day you viewed it was clear and sunny, showing off the freshly landscaped exterior to advantage. The sunlight shone warmly on the freshly painted walls of a charming outside back patio, the outstanding feature that sold you on the place. Then, a year later, yikes.

The bulldozers came. They razed an entire row of old houses right behind your complex and up went a new condo building, situated in such a way that now it casts a shadow over your patio during the peak hours of summer sunlight, and your next-door neighbour's, too. The thing is, both you and your neighbour are at the end of the complex and it is pretty obvious that if they had made a few simple adjustments to the condo, you would still have your sunny patio and everyone would be happy. It is too late now. How come someone didn't do an analysis to figure this out before they built the damn thing?

If something like this has not actually happened to you, it has quite likely happened to someone you know. There are variations on the theme: The new monster home wedged into a street of older homes, casting permanent shade over the next-door neighbour's once-sunny breakfast nook; a house addition that looms over what was once the adjacent property's rose garden, now planted with gloom-loving ferns - you get the picture.

While architects and builders generally take into consideration the shadow impact of a new development or addition, often the method they use to figure out what is called "sun positioning" is based on generalized sunlight tables that cover a large geographical area. Site-specific sunlight projections can be askew. The discrepancy seems subtle on paper but the ramifications are huge for the homeowner or homebuyer left shivering in the dark by the inaccuracy. Enter Ralph Bouwmeester.

Mr. Bouwmeester is a Toronto-area civil engineer who created a unique solar computer model, a kind of hyper-sundial that accurately determines how much sunlight a building will get as well as where it will cast shade. The model is based on a series of astronomical formulas. For any position anywhere in the world, on any given date, it can calculate the position of the sun in terms of azimuth, the direction in relationship to true north and altitude, which refers to the height above an observer's horizon. To generate sun position data, basic input is required: dates, times and the observer's location expressed in latitude and longitude. Mr. Bouwmeester developed the basic program in 1982, making gradual improvements and refining the software for personal computer use in 1991. He has used the program on development projects since 1987.

The model can be used at the micro level for individual units and homes, as well as for large developments. Builders, developers, architects, municipalities, homeowners and ratepayers groups are lining up for Mr. Bouwmeester, who has saved many neighbourhoods and properties from being eclipsed. His model is so effective he is in demand across North America,


having recently done sun-positioning analyses for office towers, high rises and single dwellings in California, Florida and New York City. The building and development boom in Toronto has revved his business into overdrive. While he has not consulted homebuyers directly as of yet, there is no doubt his services could be of value to someone who wants to make sure they are not getting a shady deal. He can tell prospective purchasers how much sunlight a property will get - and where it will fall - before they buy.

"I've been an amateur astronomer ever since I was a kid," says Mr. Bouwmeester, who became obsessed with sundials back in the early 1980's. "I wanted my model to take into account the fact that the Earth has an elliptical, not circular, orbit around the sun. Sundials, and the method many architects have used to determine sunshine at any given time of day, are based on latitude. But within each latitude the sun's position can change somewhat every 10 or 15 kilometres."

Mr. Bouwmeester got an opportunity to beta-test his model on a single-family infill project in Durham Region. A neighbour went to the Ontario Municipal Board, concerned that the new house would overshadow their property. Prior to the issuance of a permit, Mr. Bouwmeester was called in to do a sun-position analysis. There was good news all around. His survey concluded the shadow impact would be minimal and the house went up as planned.

His first high-rise project was the Oasis condominium in Don Mills. Another project in Scarborough, the St. Paul L'amoreaux retirement home at Warden and Finch Avenues, had Mr. Bouwmeester determining whether a new development next door would reduce the sun access of specific individual units. This led to minimal structural changes to the new building. In another situation, the owner of a downtown high rise wanted to transform its mechanical penthouse, which housed the building's electrical and utilities systems, by making some adjustments that would accommodate extra rental units. Would this affect sunlight on adjacent properties? Mr. Bouwmeester confirmed it would not.

Sometimes, his work has nothing to do with preventing disputes between neighbours. For a home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Mr. Bouwmeester was brought in to figure out how to position the swimming pool for maximum exposure to sunlight. He has even supplied evidence in court to support the claim of a defendant in a traffic accident case who maintained he had been blinded by the sun.

Mr. Bouwmeester is currently consulting on several proposed high-rise condominium projects, one in the Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue area, another at Yonge near Summerhill Avenue, and on a plan to develop 13 high-rise condos on a large parcel of vacant land in Mississauga. He is also advising on a site intensification project - the development of two new residential high-rise buildings on a site with three existing high-rises in the Bayview and Steeles Avenues area.

"Certainly, some architects stick with their own analyses," says Mr. Bouwmeester. "However, the ones I deal with appreciate the fact that they can concentrate on what they do best, that is, design the building. They prefer to leave the sun/shade analysis to someone else who can take responsibility for that component of the project."

That said, developments continue to be built in the Toronto area without accurate shadow-impact studies. Not far from where Mr. Bouwmeester lives in Barrie, Ont., a new high rise was built on the waterfront where it looms over a marina, casting it in shade for most of the day. "I wish they'd called me," he says.

National Post
September 22, 2001

Contact Info:

Ralph Bouwmeester, P. Eng.
R. Bouwmeester & Associates
Barrie, Ontario Canada
Phone: 1-705-726-3392

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