The Skinny on Smart Design
Architect Doris Sung’s innovative building surfaces are modeled after human skin. They self-ventilate and self-shade in response to weather changes, and they do this by drawing power from the sun.
Doris Sung is an innovative architect known for her research into smart and sustainable building materials.
Born in 1964 in Hollywood, CA, into a Korean American family, Sung studied architecture at Princeton University and Columbia University. She became a professor of architecture at the University of Colorado in 1997, moved to the Southern California Institute of Architecture in 2001, and to the University of Southern California in 2006. She is now the Director of Undergraduate Programs for USC’s School of Architecture.
Sung founded DOSU Studio Architecture in the late 1990s and converted the firm into a research center for sustainable design in the mid-2000s. Since then, DOSU has developed thermal bimetals combining two metals that expand at different rates when heated. The materials can self-ventilate, self-shade, and make other adaptations in response to changes of temperature, thus reducing the energy needed to heat or cool a building. Sung’s designs have received awards from Architectural Record, Architect Magazine, Ars Electronica, and many other organizations.
When most of us see a building, we see a space separate from the world around. Bubbles built with walls and roofs to escape what’s outside by creating an inside. But Doris Sung imagines something more integrated, and in many ways, more alive.
Doris Sung: I actually never grew up thinking I wanted to be an architect. And so when I finally decided to go to architecture school I had no preconceptions of what architecture should be. And having a biology undergraduate education, my first question is, “Why can’t it be like animal skins, like plant cells?” which seemed to work a lot more efficiently than buildings.
One source of that inefficiency, she believes, is a hallmark of modern architecture: glass.
Sung: When plate glass, and the invention of it came about and that all we wanted as humans was this 180 degree, floor to ceiling views. That, in some ways, was a downfall. The thick walls and small windows was ideal for insulating but once we moved to glass, we let all this heat in through the envelope system, the material, the physics of it, makes it much worse. So now we have to run huge amounts of air conditioning in order for us to keep those things.
AJC: And that’s where we really tend to swing towards at the moment, “Hey, let’s put a whole bunch of solar cells. Let’s cover buildings in solar cells so they can run the air conditioning on the inside.” What’s wrong with that idea?
Sung: Basically what it’s doing is it’s just making more and more technology that’s reliant on energy sources, right? Even though it’s renewable energies it’s still not smart as an envelope system. So my idea is, instead of relying on the heart and the lungs of a building to pump and work really hard, why aren’t we looking at the skin? Which, on a body is the largest organ on the body, that can therefore do and be the first line of protection. By being the first line of protection, it can therefore relieve some of that work on the heart and the lungs, meaning the mechanical system.
Ironically Sung found a solution to redesign the skins of buildings in a key component of the mechanical systems she was trying to escape: thermobimetals. Thermostats and heating and cooling systems have used them to regulate building temperatures for over a century. As the name suggests, bimetals combine two metals that expand at different rates when heated. That difference causes a bimetal strip to bend or straighten depending on the temperature. But instead of using them to trigger HVAC systems, some saw that bimetals could be their own cooling system, automatically adjusting to temperature to let air flow or to block sunlight without computers or electricity. And if protected, they could last a lifetime.
Sung: We put the thermobimetal inside the cavity of this double glazed window. Because it’s sealed inside that cavity, the material actually can last over a hundred years and they can go on and on forever, and operate indefinitely. And they, they operate like I said before, without energy, without controls. So we’re not dependent on batteries and we’re not dependent on manual controls. They’ll work way beyond, probably the lifetime of the building.
Bimetal skins won’t eliminate the need for air conditioning, but Sung says they can reduce it. That’s helpful as the world tries to cut fossil fuel use to combat climate change.
Sung: Buildings use up more energy than transportation or industry. They also are way up there for emissions as well. And we do very little about talking about those changes. Part of it is because the cost is very high, and also for new buildings to go up it’s many, many years, right? For, for a new construction to actually happen. I think we have some really big problems up ahead of us given climate change and how things are changing with that, of how we think of buildings and how buildings need to be adaptable. We need to really start digging in deep on research and development of products for buildings, just as fast as automobiles are changing. Right? So automobiles in the last 10, 20, 50 years have changed dramatically. Whereas our buildings are still basically the same. I mean, we’ve improved some of the technology but our houses are built basically the same. So somewhere, somehow, maybe we should maybe we need some super bowl commercials in there.
Though the buildings that Sung designs are original and beautiful, she says that how they look is primarily a by-product of their function. So she is often pleasantly surprised when she sees what she has created, so to speak, in the flesh.
Sung: Oftentimes the choices that we make in the beginning with the geometries, I think have implications in the end of how it looks. You know, although it takes a long time, there’s a certain amount of surprise element to it for us, even. Even, you know when I see some of the stuff that we produce I’m amazed and it even gives me chills when I look at it thinking, wow, this really is pretty amazing that we use zero energy, zero computer controls, and we basically infuse our designs with behavior systems with a kind of DNA that it just operates by itself. I’m amazed how beautiful these things can be, especially when driven through a much more scientific process of design.
The scientific process of design is at the heart of her firm, DOSU Studio Architecture, which explores ways to make building skins dynamic and responsive with zero energy and no controls. The architectural community has also recognized the power of her ideas. In 2020 Architect magazine named Sung’s self-shading windows as one of its R+D Award-winners for work that is scalable, thought-provoking, and promising in achieving a more equitable and healthy built environment. That same year, the University of Southern California School of Architecture named her Director of Undergraduate Programs. Now Sung is expanding her focus. She sees energy use inside buildings as more than just a problem in need of a solution. Re-imagining our spaces and how we build them can also help solve other problems outside buildings.
Sung: Another project that we’re working on right now with a team of engineers, is trying to figure out how to cool pedestrian areas on the street in areas that the climate is getting hotter, as well as a high level of a smog is happening in these urban canyons. Can we passively move air along the building surface and therefore filter the smog as we’re doing so? So filter both particulate matter as well as gases, and really think about how architecture building facades can contribute to public health, right? To really improve the health of the public, and not only for the interior occupants. I would like to see architecture become a little more altruistic to the public. Architecture, especially the outside surface of it, can be used as infrastructure to a city. It could provide food for farming. It could provide fresh air, fresh water. It could do a lot more than we already have. So I think it’s a whole new surface that we haven’t thought of because maybe that’s the surface that should be the wall of the city and the streets as opposed to the outer wall of a building. It’s a different way of thinking.
And though Sung has a bold and novel vision for the future of architecture, progress must happen, she believes, not through evermore complex technologies, but through design that is smart in the more traditional sense of the word.
Sung: I’d like the meaning of smartness to change a little for architecture at least. The original meaning, many years before in engineering, as it was referred to in materials, it was a material that required zero energy and zero controls. Now it’s changed a lot with smartphones and smart cars and smart things to mean something very different. I feel like a lot of the science and technology should really think about how to make what we have, on a very low tech way, smart just by being what it is. By designing behaviors and DNA into these materials that are all around us.