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The Office Air Con Revolution: WWII

The Office Air Con Revolution: WWII
© Aimee Lee Studios /

The evolution of air con in office buildings after World War II was a rapid one. People keen to put the austerities of the war behind them splashed out on upgrading their premises with the latest technology aimed at improving workplace comfort.

There have been multiple attempts throughout history to help us avoid getting overheated in summer and stay warm during the chilly winter months. These have ranged from the simplicity of shade areas in building design, to architecture that takes advantage of natural ventilation. Only in the past century has machinery been invented that enables us to take advantage of our surroundings to manage temperatures.

Air conditioning has allowed us to artificially manufacture the weather indoors to ensure we can live and work comfortably.


What happened to air-con during WW2?

During WW2, wartime building restrictions meant no new civilian building projects could be started. Many factories converted their production for military use during the conflict. Department stores had their chillers removed so they could be installed in military production plants instead, although they were returned after the war.

Air conditioning manufacturers produced thousands of walk-in coolers for the Navy to keep food fresh during periods at sea. They also made portable air conditioners that could be used by ground personnel who were tasked with maintaining airplanes in hot climates.


How did AC manufacturers plan ahead?

In the absence of new building projects for civilian buildings during the war, the leading architecture magazine, Architectural Forum, devoted a special edition to post-war building trends.

Leading architects of the 1940s, such as Louis Kahn, Mies van der Rohe, William Lescaze and Pietro Belluschi, were invited to design a range of projects suitable for medium-size towns after the wartime austerity ended. They were asked to take a forward-thinking approach, using equipment and technology that was available but not commonly used.

Belluschi designed an office building, based on the assumption of cheap power supplies and an abundance of light metals produced for the war, which would be available for civilian use after the conflict ended.

He planned to use air conditioning throughout the whole office building, using aluminium for cladding, external air inlets, wall-panel frames, internal blinds and as ceiling tiles. He proposed AC units would maintain the internal temperature comfortably for employees. His system included radiator heating panels and individual local air inlets.


What happened to AC production after WW2?

After the war ended in 1939, the production of air conditioning systems turned back to non-military use. Belluschi put his state-of-the-art office design into practice when the Equitable Savings and Loan Association wanted to build new headquarters in Portland.

Belluschi kept the basic design the same, although introduced a number of changes that improved the internal environment. He created a metal and crystal tower, featuring massive areas of sea-green double-glazing. The outer pane was made from heat-absorbing glass, providing a 40% reduction in solar transmission. He was way ahead of his time in terms of energy-saving and creating an environmentally friendly office.

The building’s AC systems were controlled automatically, while local air-handling plants installed on every floor featured separate ducts to serve different parts of the building. It included the option of drawing in 100% outdoor air.

The AC system was installed to counteract the anticipated heat gain from the large sealed windows, which meant there was no need for blinds, creating a more pleasant working environment. There was a reduction in operating costs of between 10% and 25%, thanks to Belluschi’s innovative system.

The building became the prototype for our modern air-conditioned buildings. Today, it is called the Commonwealth Building and has set the standard in terms of energy-saving and preserving the environment. It has been closely monitored since it was completed in 1948 and the AC system is still performing efficiently.


How did this benefit UK office buildings?

While the post-war revolution in office air conditioning undoubtedly began in the United States, thanks to designers such as Belluschi and his ilk, it launched the worldwide trend of bringing air-conditioned comfort into people’s homes and workplaces.

The demand for air conditioning far outstripped supply, as developers sought to take advantage of the post-war boom and feeling of optimism. In 1953, the sales of AC units surpassed one million. The period has been described as a “building revolution”, as architects were free to design premises just as they wanted. They could design sealed, transparent buildings that created a pleasant internal environment, utilising their knowledge of air conditioning to develop Belluschi’s style further.

Air-conditioned offices sprang up in large numbers in London in the 1960s, when there was a massive boom in new buildings. Following the designs developed in the United States, induction unit AC systems were the most commonly used. In addition, dual duct systems were used in a few buildings.

The designers’ experience grew and engineers became aware of how to create systems with a sufficient amount of space to house terminal units and high-velocity ducts at the buildings’ perimeter. They also learned how to counteract any noise from the ejector nozzles or the high-velocity duct connections. Architects overcame any challenges in terms of the design, including mounting the ducts on the outside of the building and creating a more sculpted facade.

Eventually, the popularity of induction units in the UK and the rest of Europe was largely superseded by variable-air-volume (VAV) systems and fan-coil units.

Today, the use of air conditioning in offices across the UK is commonplace and greatly benefits employees, who can work in a comfortable environment all year round.


Lest we forget

On 11th November, GREE UK will be observing the 2-minute silence as a mark of our respect for the brave men and women who fought for our freedom. We will remember them.

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The Office Air Con Revolution: WWII

by GREE UK time to read: 4 min