Smart Shade Planning

A Shade Assessment ensures you’ll have shade when and where you need it.

The first step in understanding your unique outdoor shade needs is to do a shade assessment, which is a part of overall shade planning. This useful activity helps you develop a personalized outdoor shade solution suited to your area and your needs.

By observing the existing shade around the areas you want to add shade, a shade assessment helps you determine where to place any new shade structures or plants.

A Basic Shade Assessment Has 3 Parts:

  • PART 1. Sketch the area you want shade. This uses your knowledge of the shifting shade and tells you where and when shade will fall in your area.
  • PART 2. Think about the space and how it’s used. This will tell you where and when shade would be most beneficial for you.
  • PART 3. Visualize — what kind of shade to add and where, or where and when to move activities — your personal shade solution!

PART 1: Sketch It

Sketch the outside edges of the area you want shade (your yard, park, playground, etc.). It’s helpful to note what time these areas are – or will be – used. Sometimes a rough sketch is all that’s needed. But being precise with your sketch can help with larger or more complicated projects.

  • Note the ground surfaces such as grass, concrete or wood with a name tag or a color. Some surfaces such as concrete and stone reflect more light and get much hotter than others, so you might want to be careful that these areas get shade.
  • Sketch all permanent structures or features (buildings, paths, patios / decks, fences / walls). These may provide shade or they may benefit from being shaded, depending on how you use the space.
  • Include everything else that might provide shade:
    • large plants* that might provide significant shade (trees, large shrubs or hedges).
      * it may be helpful to note if any outdoor shades are temporary or can be moved.
    • any built outdoor shades (patio covers, pavilions, umbrellas, etc.)
    • Include activity areas that could benefit from any shade you might want to add (children’s play areas, pool areas, break areas, dining areas, etc.).

Sketch where the shade is when you need it. You might want to use a different colored pencil, crayon, or even a layer of tissue paper so you can see the different shade patterns for each time of day. If there is nothing providing shade, set up a temporary post or a patio chair – something that will cast enough of a shadow for you to sketch.

Consider morning, mid-day and mid-afternoon for short-term shade solutions.

For long-term or year-long shade solutions, draw the shade at morning, mid-day and mid-afternoon for both the longest and the shortest days of the year. Now you’ll be able to see about where the shortest shadows and the longest shadows will be for morning, noon and afternoon in your area.

Read our page on Understanding the Shifting Shade for more information on determining where the shade will fall at different times of the day and year.

Software tools help plot an entire year of shade in a few minutes

In the world of shade professionals, determining where shade will fall is called “shade plotting”. As part of the shade assessment, they plot out a map of the different places shade will fall from any given object over a period of time. This lets you see on paper (or computer screen) exactly where existing and / or proposed shade will fall at certain times of the day or year. This can get marvelously complicated depending on how exact you want to be. In fact, several sun angle calculators and computer programs have been developed especially for plotting shade with great precision.


Like all computer modeling, shade plotting can be extremely complex. Much of the complexity with this method, though, is in learning the computer program. One of the simpler applications to learn is Google’s 3D modeler SketchUp – and there is a free version.

This program helps you build 3D representations of the area you want to shade and any shade structures you might want to add. SketchUp can cast real-world shadows based on your location’s longitude and latitude.


Shademap can help with shade plotting. It is not precise, but it’s free, simple, and accurate, with real locations.

PART 2: Think It Through

Ask yourself and those who use the area to think about the following questions:

What features need to be shaded? Do you have a deck, patio, swimming pool or children’s play area that needs outdoor shade when it’s being used? Are these areas getting enough shade when they are being used? Most features like these cannot be moved, so consider where you can add outdoor shades for these areas.

What time of day do you use the area? Do you like to garden in the morning? Do you have lunch parties on the concrete patio? Do children play on the lawn in the afternoon?

Are these areas being shaded during those times? Some activities can be done at a different time or moved to make better use of the shade. If your garden gets shade in the afternoon it might be worth considering tending your garden in the afternoon. Can you move your lunch parties to a shaded area of the yard? Would it work to have the children play in a different area of the yard? If not, what kind of outdoor shades would work in those area? A few umbrellas (temporary / portable) could shade you during your morning gardening and fold away when your work is done. Perhaps an evergreen tree (permanent) in the lawn to shade the children? A patio cover (permanent) to shade the patio?

Keep in mind shade will be most important during the middle of the day when the sun is at its highest. Be especially sure you are protected from 10 am to 3 pm. Plan in advance what may need to shift around to provide you with shade for that length of time. Can you move the shade structure, itself? Is it light enough? Is there room enough? It may be easier to shift items, people and activities around under the shade instead. Keep in mind that shadows are also smallest at midday, so you’ll want as large a shade structure as possible for activities that take place at midday.

Which areas are already getting shade: morning, mid-day and mid-afternoon? How much shade is provided at the different times of the day? At different times of the year? Is this enough shade to cover the areas you use at the times you use them?

Consider what surfaces are made of. Surfaces such as concrete, asphalt and sand reflect heat and UV radiation. Their sufaces can get especially hot and heat up the air around them. It’s a good idea to shade large areas of these surfaces to keep the air temperature down, even if only a small area of them actually gets used.

PART 3: Visualize It

Imagine, envision, decide where you would need to place an outdoor shade structure so its shade will fall where you need it when you need it.

Sketch in the new outdoor shades you’re thinking of adding. Doing this on a separate piece(s) of tracing paper lets you explore lots of options without having to erase every time. It lets you move proposed shade structures around or change out a small proposed shade for a larger one. It also lets you keep your basic shade assessment drawing neat and clean, which is nice if you try to show someone else what you’re doing.

Draw the shade beside the new outdoor shades on the same piece(s) of tracing paper, trying to make the shadows fall about the same distance from these objects as they are in real life. Use the shade patterns and colors from the other objects in your shade assessment as a guide. Sketch the range of shade for the times that you’ll be using the area.

You’ll begin to develop a pretty good idea if you want (overhead) shade for midday sun and / or (vertical) shades for morning or afternoon sun. And you’ll know about how much space you have to work with — whether you have room for a big tree or patio cover. You may have a sense whether you want permanent or temporary / portable outdoor shades and whether you have a structure to attach awnings or curtains to.

Your budget can come into play now, so you can begin to explore whether you want to add that structure for those awnings or curtains, or whether you need a freestanding solution. You may want to start considering the materials you’ll want to use as well, since this can affect your budget, too.

You may come up with several options based on your shade audit. Once you know where your shade structures should go, you can start exploring your many outdoor shade options. Take a look at the section on structures or read ahead to the section on materials.

Shade Assessment Tips

  • It can be helpful to involve several people in your shade audit. Different people may use the space in different ways. For example, shade audits for commercial spaces and public spaces involve interviews with the variety of people who use them. Talk to family members to learn how they use the space – when and where they would need shade.
  • It can be helpful to note the kinds and sizes of your plants. A small, young tree may cast a small pool of shade near its trunk one year, but in a few years may grow ten feet to cast a large pool of shade ten or more feet away from the trunk. Also, if it’s a deciduous tree — the kind that loses its leaves in the winter — it will leave virtually no shade in the winter, no matter how tall it grows. A shade audit can help you determine if you need to replace it with a different kind of tree, or if you should move activities around to make use of all of the shade that young tree will provide in a few years when it’s all grown up.
  • Don’t forget temporary shade structures, even for permanent settings. These can be invaluable in providing shade at critical times, but can be removed at other times, allowing the warming sunlight when needed.

A shade assessment like this can save you disappointment and money by helping you understand your shade solution BEFORE you invest in outdoor shades.

Other Outdoor Cooling Methods

Outdoor shades are a nearly universal solution that increase the cooling effectiveness of other cooling methods, like outdoor fans and misting systems for added cooling effect. These other cooling methods combine well with outdoor shade, too:

  • Misting fans are a clear example of how misting systems work with another cooling method – outdoor fans – to maximize cooling in a single device.
  • Swamp coolers (desert coolers) use a similar technology as misting systems, but in a contained unit.
  • For special circumstances and enclosed areas, consider portable air conditioners.

Take a look at our comparison page or our pages on other outdoor cooling methods.