MDC Exclusive Series: Architect Interviews The Sustainable Smart Skins of Doris Sung
If ambitious firms covet tower commissions, the progressive work of 2015 Emerging Talent speaker Doris Sung [http://dosu-arch.com/] provides promise that ultra-high, glass-skinned structures can be more sustainable. Specifically, through the intervention of thermobimetals which Sung crafts as smart skins. These temperature-sensitive, dual-layer alloys flatten when heated and curl when cooled; self-managing temperature control for the building as they close and open, shade a structure or allow light based on external conditions. When we spoke to her, by phone, Sung had not yet finalized her MDC presentation, but undoubtedly it will touch on how close these interventions are to being off-the-shelf products.—Tibby Rothman
MDC: You’ve centered your work around the question of: why can’t architecture accommodate the human. But, reading about your investigations with materials, it seems that you’re interested in architecture that responds like the human.
Doris Sung: Building skins have been static barriers for too long. It’s time that we think of the skin as part of a larger ecology, something that is responsive to both the human and the outside environment. If somehow we can program building skins to have intelligence of its own, we can move away from making buildings as hermetically-sealed capsules and consider them to be more like organism, living amongst a complex ecosystem. And, if we find ways to make buildings or building skins more responsive with smart materials like thermobimetal, than that once protective shell can be a better, more responsive mediator between the inner and outer environments…like the human skin.
MDC: Biology was an original influencer of your work. Do you follow current advances? If so, are there particular scientists or journals that you track and what’s on the periphery of biology in terms of advances in understanding that you haven’t begun to use or implement yet.
DKS: That’s many questions! [laughs] I started as a biology major in college. I was very interested in it in throughout my early education. But when I went into architecture, I actually didn’t consciously look for biological connections. It was just the way that I naturally thought. Throughout my life I have, in addition to architecture journals and magazines, kept up with science magazines and even Popular Mechanics because I thought they were interesting—never thinking that they would actually influence, directly, the way I work.
Now that I’m in my area of work, I seem to notice what’s occurring in the field of biology more and more. I start to see biological elements as part of the material for buildings. There are amazing studies out there that figure out how bacteria can help with cleansing or how algae can help filter water—so many types of things, which bring a completely new function and functionality to building facades and building skins. Maybe I will tackle living organisms next and not just mimic them.
MDC: Was your discovery of the two-layered system, comprised of two different alloys that curl, intentional or an accident? Were you intentionally investigating a query? For instance were you looking for a skin that changed, or did you happen to be working with a material and then see its application?
DS: I was looking for a smart material for a building facade that would naturally respond to elements in our environment—something that would change as the climate changed. Then I realized that laminations of two different materials with different coefficients of expansion are one of those types of materials. They curl automatically when heated. It can be any two different materials, not just metal, but metal happened to be the one I was interested in. More specifically, it is called thermobimetal. I did not invent it. It has been used for various purposes for the last 100 years and most commonly as the coil in a thermostat.
The beauty about thermobimetal for architecture is it actually is a material that is not uncommon to architecture, functionally and aesthetically, AND is already manufactured. So I didn’t have to spend a huge amount of time developing a manufacturing process for the material. It is just an old material used in a completely different way with the aid of digital technology, complex geometries and newer fabrication tools.
MDC: I’m particularly interested in your window systems, how far away is manufacture of bimetal window systems for the mass market? And what are the manufacturing and fabrication challenges that you’re working through?
DS: I’ve talked to several different manufacturers about the window systems. American companies seem to be less interested in early R&D projects like this one than the European companies. They seem to want something more ready for the market. I don’t know how representative it is of the American market system or what. So sadly, even though I hoped to develop it as an American product, it looks like it’s going to be developed in Europe.
Right now, I’m working on a window system that is, kind of, a shutter, but it shutters by itself. I’ve been trying to retain as much visibility through the window as possible while controlling the amount of the shade and heat gain. I recently have come up with a proposal that actually can do that. It’s in it very early stages of development and is a completely different kind of shuttering system that is hard to explain without pictures. I’ll probably show that in my presentation at Monterey.
MDC: Why did you become an architect instead of pursuing pure biology?
DS: That’s a funny story. I was headed to medical school and my college advisor told me that I should consider a different major to look better on my med school applications. I thought was a good idea, so with no preconceived idea of what architecture was supposed to be, I started my architectural education asking, “why can’t architecture be the human body’s third skin?” and that has dogged me since.
This interview has been edited for brevity and cohesiveness.