The Right To Sunshine – Solar Easement Issues for Solar Homes 0

Solar Easement - what protects your right to sunlight?

Solar Easement - what protects your right to sunlight?

The wakeup call I got one morning was a wake up in more ways than one.  The owners of the Westview solar home that we had designed and built in the small town of Aberdeen were frantic.

“They are building a monstrosity right in front of our south windows and solar panels!” is what I heard that morning.

An Unexpected Neighbour

The Westview house, a passive solar design with a solar power array and a solar hot water collector, was built on a 50′ lot in Aberdeen, Saskatchewan.  In 2008, the owners awoke to an unpleasant surprise.  The southside neighbor had split his lot into two 25′ lots and was building a two story house on the 25′ lot between the Westview and the existing neighbouring house.

Sunlight to these south windows and solar panels are partially blocked by the new development

Sunlight to these south windows and solar panels are partially blocked by the new development

The plan for the new house meant that the view from their south facing living room windows would be an 18′ windowless wall – a wall that would block the sun for at least half of the day.

The Westview house was designed to use the sun for heating through the south windows and for power and hot water from the panels on the roof.

In Fill Building Trends

A series of these houses on a street in Aberdeen

A series of these houses on a street in Aberdeen

The home being built beside the Westview was designed to fit narrow lots for urban in fill areas.  On another street in Aberdeen several of these houses were being built on adjacent lots.  The result looked very much like row houses.

There is a growing trend to building multiple identical, or almost identical, units – whether houses, apartment blocks or condominiums.  You had better remember your address, because you won’t recognize your home from its distinctive exterior!

Appeal to the Town

The owners appealed to the town for help, but to no avail.  There were no zoning bylaws, no rules or regulations protecting access to sunlight and not much sympathy from the town council.

The best we were able to do was to work out a compromise.  Instead of building the new house so that the front of it lined up with the Westview home, the new building was set back 18′.  This moved it as close as possible to the back of the lot, within regulations for the building permit.  It mitigated the problem somewhat but still meant that considerable heat and power would be lost due to this unexpected construction project.

Solar Easement – An Issue for Urban Planners

These types of problems are hard to avoid in an urban environment where people live in such close proximity to each other.  Growing awareness of solar design has prompted many cities to design new neighbourhoods with streets oriented east-west so that residents will have unobstructed solar exposure in their front or back yards.  In Saskatoon, the new Evergreen neighbourhood was planned this way.

For existing areas there is not much that can be done, other than legislate restrictions on buildings and landscaping and trying to promote good relations with your neighbours.  In some places it is possible to register a solar easement on the south side of your lot that extends into the neighbouring lot and restricts what can be built there.  To be effective, the easement must be registered before any building takes place on that neighbouring lot and it will be enforced when the neighbour applies for a building permit.

The problem is the passive solar design, a method that has been used for centuries, has been largely forgotten by builders, architects and city planners.  The result is that urban lots are not laid out to take these designs into account.  With the growing interest in renewable technologies such as solar and wind the right to sunshine is finally becoming a factor in urban planning.


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