Working in sun and
KEN FAUGHT/TORONTO STAR
Engineer Ralph Bouwmeester checks out a
University of Toronto campus sundial. He started
studying solar positions to design a sundial.
Engineer does solar
to help developers design buildings
By Robert Burg
Special to The Star
If you want happiness, says a 1930s' song, you
can always direct yourself to the sunny side of
But where do you find the sun in large cities and
towns? After all, those high-rise buildings do
have the potential to cast long, depressing
Ralph Bouwmeester tries to find solutions. The
civil engineer, who works in Barrie, has created
a niche analyzing the shadows caused by tall
His work often kicks in when the developer
proposes something that exceeds the city's height
limits. If the project has merits, city and town
governments may grant approval, but not before
they ask the developer to prove that the project
will not cast dark shadows on important public
spaces or private properties - such as that sunny
side of the street people prefer, a heavily-used
playground, or a single-family home down the
With computer software he developed, Bouwmeester
calculates the angle in which the sun's rays
strike a proposed building. All he needs to know
is the height, latitude and longitude of the
location, and the date and time of day that might
be of concern. With his software, he then
determines exactly how large the shadow will be,
in which direction it will fall and for how long.
If the project will put adjacent properties in the
dark, the sun and shade specialist might work
with the architect to modify the design reduce
the shadow. Other times, Bouwmeester can confirm
that the architect's plans won't cast long
shadows and alleviate the anxieties of concerned neighbours.
``The key is a lot of people don't realize that
this type of analysis is really possible,'' said
Bouwmeester. ``I think it is a very cost
efficient way to ensure that a building is
designed in an effective manner that respects
For the Oasis Condominium project, being built on
Eglinton Ave. near Victoria Park Ave.,
Bouwmeester's analysis showed that an
eight-storey building in the proposed complex
would cast shadows on residential properties to
the immediate north. The solution involved
stepping back the building so the original
eight-storey design would only have six storeys
on a portion of the north side.
``By reducing the top two floors from this
section, obviously the shadows cast would be
shorter, and would no longer encroach on the
neighbouring properties,'' said Bouwmeester.
The developer proceeded with the project without
losing units. Bouwmeester discovered that the
suites lost on the north side could be regained
by adding a storey on the south side without
``If a shadow is terrible then Ralph will show
it,'' said Paul Northgrave, the architect for the
Oasis when Bouwmeester was hired to do the shadow
impact study. ``But I don't think we ever lost
density (on a project). Most of the time we just
put it elsewhere and the building is a little bit
more expensive to build.''
Bouwmeester's precision, said Northgrave, who has
used him about 12 times, gives developers
valuable information when they must discuss the
impact of the project with anxious neighbours,
and with local planners.
``If we have an objecting neighbour who says his
flower boxes have no more sunlight,'' said Northgrave, ``Ralph can tell you on any day of
the year down to the minute how much sunlight
that flower box will get.''
Normally Bouwmeester's work begins once a
preliminary design is prepared. But he hopes more
developers and architects recognize that his
skills can be used early on to improve the design
and value of the project. For example, he can
help to position terraces and windows to get
maximum sunlight, and to provide for the best
views of a sunrise and sunset.
``Those sorts of things are issues that appeal to
people's senses, and I strongly feel that they
can help promote projects or specific units
within a project,'' he said.
As a child in Bowmanville, Bouwmeester owned his
share of telescopes to gaze at the stars. His
first serious attempt to study the sun was in the
early 1980s when he began to design a model for
an accurate sundial.
``Traditional sundials that I have seen don't
take into account certain variations in the speed
at which the earth revolves around the sun during
the year - so they either run fast or slow,'' he
While the model is long complete, Bouwmeester is
still looking for the municipality or developer
to build it.
Often his knowledge is sought after by police
departments and defence lawyers. For example,
Bouwmeester provided testimony for a motorist in
Barrie accused of dangerous and careless driving
causing injury. The defendant maintained that the
sun suddenly blinded him when he turned a corner
and struck a pedestrian crossing at an
``Nobody believed him at the trial that the sun
suddenly popped out of a tree and he couldn't
see, but my testimony was sufficient to show that
the defendant's testimony was reasonable, and the
judge acquitted him,'' said Bouwmeester, who
started his own civil engineering practice in
1995, including sun and shadow work studies as a
Beginning in early 1997, he also took his
specialty to the Internet by opening a Web site,
to help expand his business contacts.
He recently finished a project for a New York
architect who was looking to increase sunlight in
a high-rise building in crowded Manhattan by
repositioning and enlarging windows.
Two years ago, in a completely different
environment, he helped a Phoenix developer
building single-family homes find ways to
decrease the exposure to sun to make the homes as
cool as possible.
His goal is to be the most reliable and
well-known source in solar positioning on the
Internet. To increase his exposure he offers free
sunrise and sunset tables on his Web site for
anyone. His Web site is www.sunposition.com.
``I have done a couple of hundred of these for
people from all over the world - in 15 or so
countries and on every continent,'' said
He often gets queries, from professionals to
homeowners, on how they can optimize sunlight for
their work sites and homes. But perhaps his most
interesting request came from a New Zealand
television station wanting to know whether a
location in the Pacific Ocean country or offshore
would be the place to film the earliest sunrise
of the new millennium.
Bouwmeester did the research and concluded that
Pitt Island in the Chatham Island Group, about
800 kilometres east of New Zealand, will be the
place to see the first ray of sunlight for the
The station promised to give credit to
Bouwmeester during its millennium broadcast.
While he is grateful for the publicity, the best
compensation would be a free trip to the event.
``I am waiting to be invited to go over there,''
he said, laughing. ``That would be something.''
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