Overhangs for Shading Building Elements

Exterior overhangs provide a practical method of shading building elements such as windows, doors, and walls. Overhangs are most effective at midday. This is especially true for building elements facing south in the northern hemisphere (or north in the southern hemisphere). If the building element bears more than about 30 degrees off true south, the effectiveness of an overhang, as with any solar feature, begins to decrease significantly.

Overhangs usually only affect the amount of direct solar radiation that strikes a surface. Diffuse sky and reflected radiation gains are not often directly affected by overhangs.

The higher overhead the sun is, the shorter the shadow a person will cast on the ground. However, the short brim of a baseball cap can create a long shadow across the body of a standing person. The same concept applies in designing overhangs for buildings. The higher, or more vertical, the arc of the sun, the longer the shadow that the building overhang generates along the face of the wall. Summer shadows extend down walls the furthest, winter shadows the least. Sites closer to the equatorial path of the sun have deeper-extending wall shadows than ones farther from the equator, assuming the same overhang length.

Overhangs may be solid, louvered, support vegetation, or combine all of these aspects. Some shutters, eaves, trellises, light shelves, and awnings serve the same purpose as an overhang. They are particularly effective for exposures oriented within 30 degrees of true south (true north in the southern hemisphere).

Overhangs may also be fixed, operable, and/or portable. Examples include roof eaves, awnings, and Bahama shutters (top-hinged louvered shutters typically propped open with wooden dowels) respectively. Fixed overhangs offer perceived longevity and low maintenance at the expense of flexibility, or the ability to adjust to site-specific factors. Although adjustable devices allow the user to fine tune the amount of shade or direct sunlight, they require more maintenance. Portable fixtures generally provide flexibility and longevity plus some personal involvement with installation and removal. Overhangs may be inappropriate for sites with restrictive regulatory guidelines.

For example, your calculations indicate your house needs a three foot (~1 meter[m]) overhang on the front. The local zoning ordinance restricts eave extension to two feet (610 millimeters [mm]) beyond the front yard setback. If your house is located precisely on the setback, you must do one of following: relocate your house at least one foot (305 mm) back of the front building setback, redesign your building fenestration (windows, doors, grilles, vents, and other openings), redesign your overhang, or apply for a variance (an exception to the ordinance).

Openings, such as windows, do not always require fixed overhangs. A fixed overhang designed for optimal shading on the autumnal equinox (September 21) casts the same shadow on the vernal equinox (March 21). While northern hemisphere shading may be welcome in September because of the heat, shading in March is usually undesirable. Vegetation, on the other hand, can follow the climatic seasons. Vines that shed their leaves for winter usually leaf out about the time shading is needed. Movable shading devices, while adjustable, often become maintenance problems.

Sizing Overhangs:

Unfortunately, there is as yet no universally workable, simple formula for sizing overhangs. While one overhang methodology works well for some locations, it can be completely inappropriate for others. For example, there are a limited number of overhang sizing guidelines acceptable for buildings located in southern states, particularly hot-humid climates. Guidelines acceptable for the high plains of Montana are unlikely to work for a site in Florida.

Due to the varying microclimate conditions encountered across the United States, the methods presented here are general in scope. Anyone seeking a more specialized analysis should seek professional advice from an architect trained in passive solar design. The bibliography at the end of this section also provides several sources for more in-depth coverage of this issue.

Every climate requires special design attention. The following general guidelines may be useful in determining a suitable overhang design. The guidelines are listed by climate type, for solar noon (when the sun reaches its maximum altitude for a given day). (Solar noon is very rarely the same as noon in local standard time.)

  • Cold climates: above 6,000 heating degree days (HDD)* (at base 65oF [18oC]) * Locate shadow line at mid-window using the June 21 (summer solstice) sun angle.
  • Moderate climates: below 6,000 heating degree days (HDD)*(at base 65oF [18oC]) and below 2,600 cooling degree days (CDD)*(at base 75oF [22oC]) * Locate shadow line at window sill using the June 21 (summer solstice) sun angle.
  • Hot climates: above 2,600 cooling degree days (CDD)* (base 75oF [22oC]) * Locate shadow line at window sill using the March 21 (vernal equinox) sun angle.

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