Sung's installation, "Bloom," at the Materials & Applications gallery in Los Angeles, opens and closes according to environmental conditions. Photo: Brandon Shigeta
To build a smarter building, you could start with making better sensors. Or you could take a cue from biologist-turned-architect Doris Kim Sung and invent building materials that react to the environment on their own, bypassing the on/off switch entirely.
"We can't do net-zero energy just by making mechanical systems more efficient," Sung explained in a TED Talk earlier this year, which was released online Thursday. Instead, Sung takes our natural biological defenses as a model. "What I propose is that our building skins should be more similar to human skin, and by doing so can be much more dynamic and responsive," said the architect, who is principal of dO|Su Studio Architecture and an assistant professor at the University of Southern California.
The interior of "Bloom." Photo: Brandon Shigeta
Sung's no-controls, zero-energy building skin changes shape according to temperature. Her design uses thermo-bimetal, a material made of two thin layers of metal that each have a different coefficient of expansion. When temperatures rise, one side heats faster than the other, causing the entire material to curl. A thermo-bimetal building skin can curl shut in the presence of direct sunlight, or curl in strategic locations to open up vents and release hot air.
A closeup of Sung's thermo-bimetal skin. Photo courtesy of Materials & Applications
For "Bloom," a 20-foot canopy installed at the Materials & Applications gallery in Los Angeles earlier this year, Sung and collaborators Ingalill Wahlroos-Ritter and Matthew Melnyk fashioned more than 14,000 thermo-bimetal pieces, no two of them alike. Given the endless configurations of different thermo-bimetal shapes that are possible, these building skins can be designed to curl according to the path of the sun and the particularities of the climate and the site. "In houses now we don't need drapes or blinds," said Sung.
And when the power goes out, the skin still works. Unlike the office towers of today, with their power-guzzling mechanical systems and sealed windows, a thermo-bimetal building can remain inhabitable even when AC fails. So in the skyscrapers of the future, you may still be stuck at work in a power outage, but hey, you saved all that time not having to open and close blinds.
"Bloom" in full bloom. Photo: Scott Mayoral for Materials & Applications