Why you should care

Because cooling our cribs and offices while the globe gets warmer makes more than a little good sense.

Doris Kim Sung thinks buildings are dumb — and have gotten only dumber over the years. In the past, buildings had thick, insulating walls and small windows that limited the heat that passed between the interior and exterior, maintaining a comfortable temperature. But the invention of plate glass in the 1930s allowed for huge floor-to-ceiling windows, leading to a heavy reliance on massive, energy-guzzling air conditioning and heating systems.

A biology major turned architect, Sung drew from her scientific background to develop a smarter, more eco-friendly alternative: dynamic, “breathable” exteriors that can regulate the temperature in buildings the way human skin regulates body temperature — consuming zero energy and requiring no switches or other controls.

Why not make building “skin” more like human skin?

Sung builds walls, windows and other building components with thermobimetals, or metals that curl when heated, which have never been used before in architecture. So far, she’s designed a window panel with an inner thermobimetal layer that closes shut in response to sunlight, a thermobimetal sunshade, and walls with thermobimetal vents, inspired by a grasshopper’s breathing system.

Sung is one among a cadre of architects who have begun a paradigm shift from static buildings to smart ones that respond to internal and external environments. New York-based Morphosis Architects, for example, has designed homes for New Orleans and other flood zones that elevate in response to rising water levels.

“I expect that we will see more and more buildings change their appearance dynamically,” says Branko Kolarevic, a professor of environmental design at the University of Calgary. He adds that Sung’s work is “cutting edge.” But whether the energy savings outweigh the financial cost remains to be seen.

Sung usually works in a Rolling Hills, California, studio, but also teaches at the nearby University of Southern California , where she has a corner office scattered with drafts and origami-like paper and plastic renderings of thermobimetal-tiled surfaces. She sports a pixie cut with an impish smile to match, and dresses head to toe in black, from her gauze scarf to her knee-high Chanel boots.

Global warming is frightening. As architects, why aren’t we doing more?

From an early age, Sung showed both analytical and artistic leanings. L.A.-born and bred, she “was the weird kid” who adored geometry problems and devised projects ranging from a potato battery to a Christmas tree made from Hershey’s Kisses glued to a Styrofoam cone — which slid off into a sad heap. “It was through failing and doing these rinky-dink projects that I discovered how to use materials and which ones worked best,” she says.

Sung majored in biology at Princeton University, hoping to become a doctor. But her adviser suggested majoring in a non-science subject to make her medical school application stand out. So she studied architecture, acing all her classes. After graduation, she worked for an architectural firm as a break before med school. Only after the firm offered her a prestigious graduate school scholarship did she recognize her own talent.

“I loved architecture,” she recalls. It combined geometry, art, analytical thinking — everything she enjoyed doing. Although her dad doubted her ability to make a living from her new career, she followed her gut, heading to Columbia University to earn a master’s degree in architecture.

While leafing through The New Yorker in 2005, Sung stumbled on Elizabeth Kolbert’s Climate of Man, which detailed the consequences that global warming had already wrought — from the fall of the Akkadian Empire to rising sea levels. “It’s frightening,” she says. “As architects, why aren’t we doing more?”

She turned her focus toward making the interface between building exteriors and their environments more sustainable. Thinking back to her biology classes, she remembered how skin regulates body temperature. “It has pores, it has sweat glands, it has all these things that work together very dynamically and very efficiently,” she says. Why not make building “skin” more like human skin?

Sung researched building materials and learned about thermobimetals, which are created by laminating together two thin sheets of metal that expand at different temperatures, which causes the material to curl when heated. After she obtained thermobimetal strips from a manufacturer, she laid them beneath the hot summer sun. Sure enough, they curled like snail shells and returned to their original shape when she brought them inside. “Whoa, that’s really cool!” she thought.

Thermobimetals are often used to make the heat-sensing coils in thermostats — but they’ve never been used in architecture.

In 2011, she built Bloom, an orchid-shaped sunshade and ventilation system consisting of 14,000 interlocked thermobimetal tiles. Sung programmed various parameters — such as how much sunlight would hit a certain area — into a special software, which then determined the geometry of each tile, a variation on a basic four-armed cross shape. Tiles that were exposed to lots of sunlight needed long arms that could easily curl, while those in the shade needed only short arms.

As a result, no two Bloom tiles are alike. A time-lapse video captured each one moving individually as the sun moved across Bloom’s surface, causing some to curl shut. At the same time, hot air trapped inside the structure caused some tiles to buckle outward, forming openings for air to escape. Aiming for an even stronger thermobimetal exterior, she built a column using thicker, hookah-pipe-shaped tiles earlier this year, which were on display at Santa Barbara’s Museum of Contemporary Art through mid-April.

Today, Sung is designing a surface that opens and closes in the shape of a sphere as the temperature changes, which will require the thermobimetal tiles to move in more complex ways. She’s also working with manufacturers and R&D companies to develop a window panel sandwiched with a layer of tiles so tiny, all you see is the glass darkening as they curl shut. “It’s close to being on the market in about five years,” she says.

Inspired by how grasshoppers breathe through cavities in their abdomens, Sung has also designed a plastic block with thermobimetal valves that similarly open and close to regulate temperature. These blocks could be 3-D printed into different shapes and sizes, offering a cheaper, more versatile alternative to conventional concrete cinderblocks, although Sung says she’s still optimizing and testing them.

If we’re really smart, we’ll design building skin to sweat, to have goosebumps, to be waterproof.

Since Sung hasn’t tested her creations on actual buildings, she doesn’t have hard data on their energy savings. The San Francisco Federal Building uses a similar system, housing a computer that opens and closes windows, vents and sunscreens in response to temperature, which is expected to use 50 percent less energy than the General Services Administration recommends for its buildings. Sung says she’ll aim for the same level of energy consumption.

With heating and air conditioning making up about half of home energy usage, we need to wise up — and so do our buildings. Temperature regulation is just the beginning. “If we’re really smart, we’ll design building skin to sweat, to have goosebumps, to be waterproof,” Sung says. “It’s a different way to see architecture. We’re on the cusp of something new.”

Move over, Nest Labs. Sung might give buildings an even bigger IQ boost.

This piece was originally published March 28, 2014, and updated as of Nov. 16, 2014.

Comment

OZYRising Stars

People who are accelerating our culture and advancing the conversation – for good or for ill. You may not have heard of them yet – but you'll soon need to know 'em.