Static envelope shading is often blamed for blocking both views to the outdoors and  incoming daylight without reducing solar heat gain. To combat that effect, Seattle-based NBBJ announced its development of Sunbreak, a responsive sunshade that swaps window blinds for cantilevered shelves to allow for a graduated degree of visibility while letting building occupants tailor the system to meet their needs. (Full disclosure: I worked as an associate at NBBJ’s Seattle office from 1999 to 2006.)

The prototype derives from the firm's own research as well as feedback from its corporate clients—which include Amazon, Google, and othersthat weren't satisfied with existing shading offerings, NBBJ says. Additionally, the building that NBBJ designed and has occupied in Seattle since 2006 is adorned with external blinds that are raised and lowered by automated digital controls. Although these sunshades have been a popular feature from the start, they block employees’ views when deployed, inspiring the firm to improve them.

Sunbreak creates a dynamic horizontal canopy, the depth of which enables building occupants to maintain views for more hours while being protected from sunlight. The modular shades feature narrow slats that fan out to form elegant curvilinear shapes, enabling fine-tuned adjustments throughout the diurnal cycle.

The system offers two other notable features. One is the ability to track and block infrared-light penetration, which the firm claims is not typical of conventional systems—although days on which infrared light is intense may result in reduced views out. The other is the ability to control the system from a smartphone app, through which authorized users can manage the degree of shading in real time by extending or contracting the shades vertically along a track. The question of who should manage the system is an interesting one. Occupants adjacent to windows could have individual control, although it's more realistic that facilities personnel would have sole responsibility.

Sunbreak will face a few challenges as it develops. Wind is the most significant hurdle: The uplift force from a strong gale, particularly at high elevations, would exert tremendous pressure on the delicately-cantilevered elements. Nevertheless, NBBJ's proposal for a highly-refined solar control system offering welcome improvements over traditional technologies is compelling, particularly since the system is born out of direct experience with automated sunshades.

Watch the prototype sunshades at work.

A rendering of the prototype sunshade system as it would look installed.
NBBJ A rendering of the prototype sunshade system as it would look installed.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.

This article has been updated.