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The Sun Dialer

It is 2 p.m. on a hot June day. The room is cool without benefit of air conditioning. There is an abundance of soft light reflecting from the eggshell-color gypsum walls and from the natural plywood ceiling, yet there is no artificial illumination beyond a few low-wattage desk lamps and the glow of workstation monitors. At the center of the studioliving space, architect Warren W. Wagner is demonstrating the angle at which sun enters the floor-to-ceiling windows.

Think of donning a ball cap and tugging at the brim -- that is, in a sense, what Wagner does with buildings: He aligns dwellings and tugs at second stories. In so doing, he creates surfaces and overhangs that precisely guide the light. The overhang in this studio, which he shares with his wife, artist Blue McRight, blocks all direct sunlight during the longest, hottest days of summer, yet allows warm rays to reach the back of the room in winter. In architects‘ lingo: ”direct-gain, passive-solar buildings“ or, simply, sustainable architecture. And Wagner is one of its greatest local disciples. When speaking on sustainable building his language is lush with terminology held together by the broader concepts of passive systems, recycled materials and mixed-usage spaces. Without condescending, he breaks these ideas down in a way that makes you wonder why they are not more commonplace.

Wagner, who graduated from UCLA’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning, explains that the primary requirement of passive-solar models is thermal mass, which acts as a buffer from extremes in temperature. During the day, as the sun beats down, the building should absorb solar heat, store it, then slowly release it into the dwelling at night when warmth is needed. A glance at his window sills reveals the unusual thickness of the walls. Eight-inch concrete blocks, filled with a more concrete, account for much of that bulk. Further contributing to the overall thermal mass are materials such as gypsum, recycled-rubber roofing and a cement fiberboard called Plycem, which Wagner likes to use on exterior walls.

Peel away the ceilings of one of Wagner‘s structures and you’d likely be buried in an avalanche of blue cotton fiber. He and his firm, W3 Architects, use insulation made from recycled denim. More eco-friendly than traditional materials such as fiberglass, it looks like the soft blue stuff in the lint catch after you‘ve dried a load of jeans. (Wagner, however, is an advocate of line-dried laundry.) Pull up the ground-level concrete floor, and you’d find a hydronic-radiant system of pipes fed by solar-heated water tanks, which provide hot water to the dwelling. The tanks could be an eyesore, but Wagner has deftly recessed them into the roofline.

Years ago, while laboring on experimental solar housing and building solar water heaters to put himself through school, Wagner questioned why eco-friendly had to equal ugly. ”I‘m studying Schindler and studying technology,“ says Wagner, ”and wondering why the two can’t meet.“ Which was the question that ultimately inspired the clean lines and exposed materials of W3‘s architecture, which makes efficient use of resources and the environment with the least amount of harmful impact.

Sustainability is at the heart of Wagner’s recent COLA (City of L.A.) fellowship. He and his students at Woodbury University in Burbank, where he‘s taught for the past two years, created four model livework environments called ”Cardinal Points: Prototypes for Solar Living.“ The architecture of Cardinal Points is decidedly modernist, with drama and function meeting in elements such as the two-and-a-half-story staircaseheat vent and a suspended room atop a dugout carport. Each of the models makes use of passive heating and cooling, recycled materials, gray-water reclamation and photovoltaic panels. Any of the structures would fit on a typical L.A. residential lot. Wagner asserts that these sustainable designs cost no more to build than new middle-class housing in California, around $150 per square foot. When long-term energy and maintenance costs are factored in, the structures become eminently affordable. All of the Cardinal Points houses are designed, like Wagner’s own studio, as flexible, combined-use spaces meant to cut down on commuting and its collateral pollution.

Warren W. Wagner is outdoors. Standing in the bright sunlight beside a cinderblock-and-stone altar, he is talking enthusiastically about a passive solar heating and cooling system, but this time not of his own design. Wagner is standing by a young tree, a Black Forest pansy to be exact. He‘s taken by the branch structure, which is clean and horizontally stressed, as well as by the deep red leaves, which practically glow from beneath. Most important, he notes, this glorious canopy, like all deciduous trees, is in full foliage during the hottest parts of the year and then presciently drops its leaves to permit free passage of the sun’s winter rays. Wonder where it got that idea?

”Cardinal Points: Prototypes for Solar Living“ is on display at the Japanese American National Museum through June 30. Info: (213) 625-0414; janm.org. For more information about W3 Architects Inc., visit w3architects.com.


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