Leveraging louvres to turn off the sunshine in L.A.
by Sam Bloch
Dec 20, 2022
In June 2020, as record-breaking, triple-digit temperatures roiled California, the state’s energy companies faced a situation that was long feared by architects, engineers, scientists, and federal housing officials: there simply wasn’t enough electricity around to power everybody’s air conditioners, and if their customers kept demanding it anyway, cataclysmic events could ensue.
In a best-case scenario, the demand would overload a substation, already weary from the heat, and shut it down, stranding customers without power at a time when they wanted it most. Worst case, their aging power lines, sagging under the weight of all those electrical currents, would slap against each and release burning rubber onto a field of parched vegetation, creating a conflagration that would incinerate an entire town.
And so, to avoid catastrophe, the energy officials made a desperate plea to their customers, the first of many that summer, which was the hottest in the history of the world. California was under a ‘flex alert,’ and it was imperative that residents take steps to conserve its limited supply of power. Instead of cranking their air conditioners, customers should set their thermostats to 25°C. When leaving a room, make sure to turn off the lights. And to prevent any more heat from entering their homes, they should close their window curtains and blinds.
The Legacy of Louvres
Asking an Angeleno to turn their home into a cool, quiet cave might seem like cultural anathema, a strange directive necessitated by the apocalyptic nightmares of climate change. But in fact, many decades ago, the ability to do just that—to close the blinds when needed, especially in the event of an energy shortage—was a fundamental feature of some of California’s most iconic architecture.
Drive around Los Angeles, and you can still see them: architectural shading devices, rigged to the facades of mid-century buildings in order to limit the amount of heat that enters through windows. In Hollywood, there are the rows of fixed horizontal louvres, rigged over the ribbon window of a hospital building. There are the vertical fins that shade the windows and spandrels of a real estate office in Koreatown, and the rooms of the Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills. On the edge of Macarthur Park, there’s thirteen stories of zig-zagging concrete, shading the windows of factory lofts. Down in Long Beach, delicate sunscreens made of wood and metal float off the balconies of university towers. The best of these sunscreens are operable, and like a deciduous tree, provide shade in the summer, and sunlight in winter.
The 1940s and 1950s were a golden age for these devices, a time when architects were designing buildings with huge amounts of glass, a “proud and lucent element [that] has increased to never-before-known dimensions,” according to the architects Aladar and Victor Olgyay. The problem, they noted, was that glass, unlike brick, did very little to keep the solar radiation out of a building. “An opaque wall panel is about ten times better than a glass pane as a barrier against heat impacts,” they wrote. In order for these new, heavily glazed buildings not to overheat, what was needed was an architectural sunbreaker to “intercept all the direct solar radiation and a considerable amount of the diffused … before it attacks the building.”
Why, exactly, were the Olgyays so concerned with overheating? This was decades before anyone was talking about global warming, and there was no such thing as a flex alert; air conditioning, that amazing new intervention, was there for the taking. But this was a time when Americans weren’t so obese with power; many home builders feared the prohibitive cost of running a machine. And the appeal of energy-saving architecture had been heightened by the recent wartime restrictions on the use of coal and fuel oil. Even after the restrictions were lifted, the threat of another “defense emergency” loomed large, as a Housing and Home Finance Agency official wrote in a 1951 memo about climate and architecture. Under the constant, ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation, it was not hard to imagine that the “conservation of materials, fuel and energy” would soon become essential again.
And so, for at least a decade after the war, the best way to cool and heat buildings remained the subject of vigorous debate, according to environmental historian Adam Rome. Could we design a home or an office that didn’t need so much power? The Olgyays, then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, were at the forefront of those efforts to tout energy-saving designs. The Housing and Home Finance Agency commissioned them to conduct a detailed study of weather data that would help improve house design; later, the Olgyays would develop regional “sunmasks” that could be used to determine the ideal form of a shading device at different latitudes and solar orientations.
One particularly striking shading device is located in downtown L.A., at the Los Angeles County Hall of Records, a “soldierly and stolid” government office, clad in granite and white terracotta. When the building opened in 1962, it housed the bureaucrats who oversaw the banal, if critical, functions of the county’s regional planning, probation, and legal records offices; today, its tenants include the county’s public defenders, district attorneys, and chief executive.
The building was co-designed by Richard Neutra, the Austrian-born architect known for his homes of floor-to-ceiling glass, sheltered by overhanging flat roofs. Neutra was a master of daylighting, and believed it to be critical to humans’ “cognitive, emotional, and sensory systems,” according to historian Barbara Lamprecht. But to provide natural, glare-free light to 1,200 civil servants, stationed at their desks in a 15-storey high-rise, would require a different approach from his low-lying bungalows.
At first glance, the two sets of monumental, 120-foot-tall aluminium vanes, outrigged to float off the massive glass walls on the building’s southwest side, look merely decorative; perhaps a modern homage to classical columns. But they are, in fact, a crucial part of the building’s environmental system, for these massive metal blades are designed to turn on a schedule dictated by the sun’s seasonal skypaths. In the morning, the louvers remain open, perpendicular to the glass, and natural light streams into ten floors of offices. Then, in the afternoon, motorised “arc arms” located at the base of the louvers pull the blades in opposing directions, forcing them to pivot on a central track, and close against the glass, just as the sun begins its westward descent down the back of the building.
“I have been in the building long enough to remember when the louvres worked,” said Mark Harvis, a public defender who’s worked for the county for 35 years. “It was quite a nice feature. They moved with the sun and kept the building cooler.”
In justifying the massive expense of the louvres to the county, Neutra’s argument was not about sustainability; he was not claiming that, without shading, the building would demand more electricity than the power grid could handle. Rather, the need was economic. Neutra calculated that the louvres would save the county well over a million dollars, adjusted for inflation, over five years, compared to an alternative system of air conditioning and Venetian blinds. (Despite what energy officials would have you believe, those blinds don’t do much to cool a room, because the sun’s heat has already passed through the window.)
And it was healthier. By blocking the sun, Neutra told reporters, he was protecting “the 1,200 employees working inside from unfavorable physiological conditions.” The shading devices, and the pleasant, ambient, glare-free light they offered, would eventually prove to be an intelligent investment in the health and productivity of these civil servants. Their “comfort and efficiency, not impaired by fatigue and irritation” would result in a far more productive workforce, and within years would pay back the county for what Neutra called its “millions of dollars investment in psychosomatic health.”
The Resource We Need: Shade
Perhaps, for a time, the louvres did just that, but if the investment was recouped, it’s been years since it’s paid any more dividends. Decades later, as Angelenos everywhere are asked, every summer, to close their blinds, the largest and most public sun-blockers in the city won’t abide; in fact, they’ve been broken for over thirty years, and today are bolted in place, held permanently open. That these shutters are hanging there, while the rest of Los Angeles is asked to close up, is at best an irony, and at worst a flagrant hypocrisy, not least of all because Los Angeles County, like other local governments, has pledged to be carbon-neutral by 2050.
The weather-related disasters over the last few years in both the Southern and Northern Hemispheres hardly need enumeration, but between fires in Australia, heatwaves in the UK and floods in Germany and Pakistan, it’s clear that the world itself is on the precipice of what that federal housing official called a “defense emergency.” If we have any hope of winning the fight against climate change, as is the cliche, we need to reconsider our dependence on fuel, and let shade “assume its proper position as one of our natural resources.”
Of all the energy consumed in the world, about 10 percent is used to air condition buildings every year, while in Australia, heating and cooling homes account for 40 percent of household energy use. In the United States, about 18 percent is used to heat, ventilate, and air condition buildings. Together, these figures represent billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases, released into the atmosphere, every year. The price of comfort indoors is the hellacious weather we now experience outdoors. Shade can break that cycle. Consider that, in California, roughly 40 percent of a commercial building’s cooling need is caused by the heat admitted through the windows; a solar shading device, like a louvre, could cut that number in half.
For starters, it would improve the lives of the civil servants at the Hall of Records. For years, says Harvis and others, the louvres were closed shut, which meant window-washers couldn’t clean the windows nor the years of bird shit that had accumulated on the glass. The workers couldn’t stand the revolting sight, so they left their blinds drawn, every day, as if the wall-to-wall windows never existed at all. More recently, the louvres were opened for a thorough cleaning, and then left in place, permanently open. That’s wreaked havoc on offices, which are in some instances protected only by a single pane of glass.
Recently, I visited the office of another public defender named Dylan Ford. In the morning, he ran a space heater, wedged under his desk, to counteract the building’s excessively strong air conditioning system. But when the sun came out, and poured light into his office, it transformed from an icebox to a hothouse. The building’s system of mechanical cooling and Venetian blinds doesn’t do much to protect him; in the afternoon, he turns off the heaters, and flips on two miniature fans. Anything, he said, just to get some wind, and to carry the heat away. “It’s not a seasonal thing,” he said of his office’s temperature swings. “It’s hour by hour.”
That discomfort surely isn’t helping with Ford’s fatigue, irritation, and psychosomatic health, as Neutra would have said. And his quack remedy of a space heater and fans is pointing to something else: the building’s supreme wastefulness. Rather than an exemplar of environmental design, the Hall of Records is now a massive energetic sinkhole, where even air conditioning cranked to excessive levels still isn’t enough to overcome the heat of an afternoon sun.
Recent developments notwithstanding, there’s great hope that, under the United States’ current Biden administration, federal funds could be used to refurbish aging building stock like the Neutra building. Retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, which would involve replacing their outdated and inefficient heating and cooling systems, and better insulating their walls and windows, would allow them to run a little more lightly, without demanding so much power. Plus, extending their habitable life, rather than throwing them out, is more sustainable, due to all the energy that’s used to tear down the building, throw it out, extract new construction materials, and fit them into a building.
Restoring the louvres would be a significant investment; a county official told me it would cost US$650,000 (nearly AU$1 million), which is a staggering number. But even with today’s rock-bottom electricity prices, the county would likely make back that upfront cost in operational savings within a few years. And, perhaps more importantly, it would give Los Angeles the shady icon it deserves, and a powerful example of sustainability, and environmental responsibility, for all of us. Think of it now: a hot summer day, in the near future, when the call goes out that it’s time to conserve: Angelenos of all stripes, reaching for their blinds and drawing the curtains, doing their part to turn off the sunshine.
Sam Bloch is a contributing writer at The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Bloomberg CityLab, and Art in America, among other publications. He is the author of Shade, a forthcoming book for Random House about climate change and inequality. Bloch lives in New York City.