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.
- [Jim] 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] 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.
- [Jim] One source of that inefficiency
she believes is a hallmark of modern architecture, glass.
- [Doris] 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
um, 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.
- And that's where we really tend to, 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?
- 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 ideas, 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 give me-, 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 and a key component of the mechanical systems
she was trying to escape. Thermal bimetals, thermostats
and heating and cooling systems have used them to
regulate building temperatures for over a century.
As the name suggests bimetals combined, 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.
- [Doris] We put the thermal bimetal 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, you know
manual controls they'll work way beyond probably the
the lifetime of the building.
- [Jim] Bimetal skins won't eliminate the need
for air conditioning, but Sung says they can reduce it.
as the world tries to
cut fossil fuel use to combat climate change.
- [Doris] Buildings use up more energy than transportation
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' scope 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
- [Jim] Though. The buildings that sung designs are original
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.
- [Doris] 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
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.
- [Jim] 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 and 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.
- [Doris] 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 filtered both particulate matter as well as gases, and
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 um, 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.
- [Jim] 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.
- I'd like the meaning
of smartness to change a little for architecture
at least. The original meaning many years before
in engineering, as, as, as it was referred to in materials
it was a material that required zero energy
and zero controls.
Now has changed a lot with smartphones and smart cars
and smart things to mean something very different.
I feel like um, 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.
(calming music plays)
(violin music plays)
Articulate with Jim Cotter is made possible
with generous funding from the Neubauer Family Foundation.