Story at a glance:

  • Solar shades are an important element of daylighting that help buildings reach net zero and other energy goals.
  • By diffusing and blocking direct sunlight, shades reduce heat gain and glare while maintaining natural light and views.
  • Fixed shades ought to be integrated with the architectural design, while dynamic shades should add to the appeal of an interior space.

What is Solar Shading?

Just about everyone loves a big window and a spectacular view. Expanses of glass are common features and focal points of modern design that have significant benefits ranging from wellness to indulging biophilic design. But they also come with some pronounced downsides: glare, heat gain, and lack of insulation.

Daylighting is designing with solutions and technologies that combat heat gain and glare while continuing to invite the natural light and views that windows provide. Daylighting offers the added benefit of significant energy savings due to less artificial lighting, the incorporation of passive heating and cooling technologies, and more.

Innovative solar shading is just one element of daylighting, but one that makes a dramatic impact on the success of the design. Taking many forms, from fixed arbors and overhangs to dynamic screens, solar shading is a solution easily tailored to the project at hand.

Sales Force Office Tower

Salesforce Tower has 10 feet of uninterrupted glass windows on each floor, with metal sunshades on the exterior to reduce solar gain. Photo by Vittoria Zupicich

Benefits of Solar Shading

Solar shading eliminates direct sunlight to help keep a space temperate and energy-efficient, while continuing to reap the rewards of big windows. Solar shading reduces glare and heat gain to help keep a building cool and comfortable.

This means it also reduces energy costs in the building: By providing glare-free natural light, solar shading reduces the amount of artificial light required during the daytime. Lights can be equipped with sensors to turn off or dim when the space is naturally bright.

Plus, by combating heat gain, solar shades diminish the need for air conditioning. In combination with other passive strategies, including night cooling, solar shading has the potential to eradicate the need for air conditioning altogether, depending on the location.

Types of Solar Shading

Solar shades have many different applications and therefore many different forms. Some are fixed to the windows, some to the facade of the building; some stay put day in and day out while others adjust to the sun’s angle. The design of the building, the extent and budget of renovation being done, and the space in need of shading all determine which type of shades is most effective.

Fixed Solar Shading

Fixed solar shades by AGS bring architectural interest to the facade of the NREL building. Photo courtesy of AGS

Fixed solar shades are architectural features that help reflect or block sunlight. With fixed solar shades, it is important to note the direction and path of the sun throughout the day and seasons to optimize the effectiveness of shades. Fixed solar shades impact the facade of buildings and can provide visual appeal and character when thoughtfully incorporated in the design.

Architectural canopies are one form of fixed solar shading that have many applications. From doorways and walkways to windows, these can become an integral part of the building’s design. As architectural features these sunshades are designed to last—often as long as the building itself.

MASA is among those that takes pride in tailoring architectural canopies to suit the design of the building. “We don’t look at our projects as run-of-the-mill. We treat every project as a unique build,” Michael Bradley, founder and CEO, told gb&d.

Other options, from arbors to laddered structures on the building’s exterior, diffuse the light, creating interesting shadows and avoiding the negative effects of direct light.

Custom sunshades by Architectural Grilles & Sunshades [AGS] helped the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Research Support Facility in Golden, Colorado reach LEED Platinum and Net Zero status. “[RNL Design] knew exactly how much shade they needed, but they didn’t know how to make it work. That’s where we came in—we get involved with engineering pre-design. Architects like us because if they can draw it, we’ll build it,” Eric Niemeyer, national director of sales for AGS, told gb&d.

Dynamic Solar Shading

mermet herman miller office perspective

Automated shades by Mermet USA use sun sensor technology to descend and retract with the sun’s movement. Photo by Barry Rustin

On the other hand, dynamic solar shading changes throughout the day and year to respond to the sun’s angle and strength. Dynamic shades are often interior features and offer strong thermal performance.
Particularly when automated, dynamic shades are helpful in shared spaces where individuals are less likely to tend to the environment on behalf of all who use it.

Shade fabrics are a great solution for this variety of solar shading. Because automated shades are an interior feature, the shades and materials should be specified by the interior designer to ensure they have the right functional and visual properties for the space. Color, weave, and style of window are all important considerations.

As Mermet USA’s Colin Blackford told gb&d, black fabrics reduce glare better than lighter fabrics and can be engineered to reflect rather than absorb heat. Depending on the amount of sunlight the window sees, the shades may be made of a tighter woven material to block direct light or a looser one to offer some visibility. Plus, the color of the shade ought to complement the tint of the window’s glass and the other design elements in the space.

Once selected and installed, the dynamic shades may complement the design, make the space feel familiar and pleasant, and result in significant energy savings. Mermet USA and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory calculate that, compared to a low-e double-glazed window without a shade, a light color E Screen shade in a 3% openness factor diminishes the solar heat gain by 59%—it makes a big difference in the amount the air conditioner has to run to keep the building comfortable.