One bright morning almost a half century ago, my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Gibbs, led us all out into the play yard. There, chalk in hand, she marked the edge of a shadow being cast by a nearby roof. “The sun,” she carefully intoned in kiddyspeak, “looks like it’s standing still, but it’s actually moving all the time.”
After absorbing this statement without much effect, we filed back into the classroom again to play, forgetting all about the little mark until Mrs. Gibbs marched us back out a few hours later. This time we were all astonished to see that the shadow was now far away from the chalk mark. How about that--the sun really did move!
No doubt kindergarten teachers across the country go through a similar exercise year in and year out, but alas, for many designers, the lesson doesn’t seem to sink in too well.
To cite a notorious example, the architects of one of San Francisco’s tallest buildings, 555 California Street, saw fit to place a grand outdoor plaza on the north side of their 52-story tower, yielding a supposed public space that’s shadowy and forbidding for most of the day. Now, if high-powered architects (in this case, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and Wurster, Bernardi and Emmons) can make such a colossal planning blunder, imagine how easily lesser talents can bobble the assignment.
As crucial as good solar orientation is to the livability of indoor rooms, it’s absolutely indispensable to the “rooms” you create outside. An interior room that, for whatever reason, is not blessed by sunshine can at least be given the illusion of natural comfort by being heated. An outdoor space has no such recourse. If it’s not warm and inviting by nature, it simply won’t get used, no matter how elaborate its design.
Although this seems like common sense, hardly a day goes by that I don’t see projects new and old being outfitted with artfully designed patios, terraces, decks, or balconies placed on the shadowed north side of buildings.
Spend what you will on flawless workmanship and amenities like benches, hot tubs, or barbecues--it’ll all be utterly wasted unless the outdoor room you’re creating gets sunshine in every season and at every daylight hour that you plan to use it.
Therefore, before you worry about fancy paving material, pergolas, and what have you, take a solar survey of your property. Which side of the house is sunniest? Is there room to put the outdoor space there? If not, is there a runner-up area that has sun at most of the times you’ll use it? How about access from inside? Your outdoor room should directly adjoin the house, because if it’s stuck out in some sunny but far-flung corner of the yard, no one will go there.
All this applies equally well to places with hot climates. You can always reduce strong sun with shading or deciduous planting, but you can’t bring in sun where there isn’t any. Your outdoor space should be usable in winter as well as in summer, in the morning and evening as well as at midday. Remember, old Mr. Sun only looks like he’s standing still.
Oh, and Mrs. Gibbs--I know it’s been forty-eight years, but thank you.