Smart Shade Planning: A Shade Audit Prevents Needless Mistakes

shifting shade of a white patio umbrella

The first step in understanding your unique outdoor shade needs is to do a shade audit, 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 audit helps you determine where to place any new shade structures.

A basic shade audit has 3 parts:

PART 1. A visual part where you draw the area you are auditing. This uses a little observation of the shifting shade and tells you where and when shade will fall in your area.

PART 2. A thinking part where you answer questions about the space and how it's used. This will tell you where and when shade would be most beneficial for you.

PART 3. The solution(s) — what kind of shade to add and where, or where to move activities and when — your personal shade solution!

PART 1: Sketch It

Sketch the outside edges of the area you are auditing (your yard, park, playground, etc.). It may be helpful to make a note of what time these areas are used.

  • Note the ground surfaces such as grass, concrete or wood. Some surfaces such as concrete and stone reflect more light and get much hotter than others.
  • Include all permanent structures (buildings, patio, deck, fences and / or 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 of the plants are evergreen or deciduous (lose their leaves in the cold months), or if any outdoor shades are temporary or portable
  • 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 the shade at different times of the day. You might want to use a different colored pencil or crayon so you can see the different shade patterns for each time of day. Include 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 section on Understanding the Shifting Shade for more information on determining where the shade will fall at different times of the day and year.

In the world of shade professionals, determining where shade will fall is called "shade plotting". As part of the shade audit, 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.

Take a look at the callout box below for a brief introduction to 3D modellers used for plotting shade.

3D Modeling

Like all shade plotting methods, computer modeling can be extremely complex. Much of the complexity with this method, though, is in actually learning the computer program. One of the simpler applications to learn is Google's 3D modeler SketchUp -- and it's free to download!

This program helps you build 3D representations of the area you want to shade and any shade structures you might want to add. SketchUp focuses its accuracy on the shapes of your shade structures rather than the location of your shade. So SketchUp's shades may not be strictly accurate, but more accurate images of your area and structures may help you visualize your shade more clearly.

Webshade is a highly advanced computer program designed specifically for shade audits and shade plotting. It allows you to input precise drawings of your area and structures, and calculates the size and direction of the resulting shade.

SketchUp and Webshade, combined with a basic understanding of the shifting shade, can really help you understand where shade will fall from the shade structures in your area. You can use these tools to develop accurate shade plotting, or you can use them simply to enhance your understanding of your own basic shade audit.

PART 2: Think It Through

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

What features are in your area? 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 audit drawing neat and clean, which is nice if you try to show someone else what you're doing.

Draw the morning and afternoon shadows 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 your shade audit as a guide.

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.

We're developing shopping pages too, so whenever you're ready you'll be able to start making that personal shade solution a reality.


  • It can be helpful to involve as many people as possible 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.
  • 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 audit like this can save you time, disappointment and money by helping you understand your shade solution BEFORE you invest in outdoor shades.

Click here to go back to the page on outdoor shades.

Interested in learning even more?

Return to top of page: How To Do A Shade Audit