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Working in Sun and Shadow

Engineer does solar studies 
to help developers design buildings

By Robert Burg
Special to The Star

Article re-printed from "The Toronto Star" August 7, 1999
"The Toronto Star" is hereby acknowledged for the content.
Contents copyright © 1996-1999, The Toronto Star.


SHADOW MASTER: Engineer Ralph Bouwmeester checks out a University of Toronto campus sundial. 

He started studying solar positions to design a sundial.

If you want happiness, says a 1930s' song, you can always direct yourself to the sunny side of the street.

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 shadows.

Ralph Bouwmeester tries to find solutions. The civil engineer, who works in Barrie, has created a niche analyzing the shadows caused by tall projects.

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 block.

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 adjacent properties.''

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 affecting neighbours.

``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 said.

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 intersection.

``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 specialty.

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 Bouwmeester.

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 year 2000.

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.''

Contact Info:

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

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