Our buildings consume huge amounts of energy – both to heat them and to cool. But what if these static structures were able to transform themselves so that they retain heat in winter and stay cool when it’s hot? Sometimes the most innovative ideas come from what’s right in front of us.

Doris Sung, biologist-turned-architect, was considering new ways to design structures and turned to biology and the human body for inspiration. She believes the buildings we live and work in should mimic lifeforms much more. Walls should emulate skin, responding to changes in the weather conditions around them. Her work on thermo-bimetal has created what she calls a third skin – a moving, adaptive coat around buildings that is closer to clothing or human skin than traditional building materials.

Doris Sung: The Art of Architecture Inspired By Biology


How Biologist Turned Architect

L.A.-born and bred, Doris Kim Sung took a fairly non-traditional approach to becoming an architect: she was a biologist. Sung majored in biology at Princeton University, planning to become a doctor. But in order to make her medical school application stand out, her adviser suggested majoring in a non-science subject. So she studied architecture, showing great results. After graduation, an architectural firm, she worked for as a break before med school,  offered her a prestigious graduate school scholarship.

Only then she recognized her own talent. Architecture combined geometry, art, analytical thinking — basically everything she enjoyed doing. So, she followed her gut and headed to Columbia University to earn a master’s degree in architecture.

Today, Sung owns DO|SU studio architecture and works an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, where she has a corner office scattered with drafts and origami-like paper and plastic models of thermo-bimetal surfaces.

Doris Sung: The Art of Architecture Inspired By Biology


The Reasons Behind Her Work

When Doris Sung was growing up she had several ideas about how architecture was supposed to be. Back then it was static, immovable, and didn’t allow a lot of room for creativity. Everything changed when she starting attending design school, and her ideas towards materials and structures transformed so much she found herself asking, “why can’t architecture accommodate the human?” and not the other way around.

Doris Kim Sung thinks buildings have become only duller 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.

We need fresh air. Surely, we won’t be getting any if we continue to stay jam-packed inside our fully air-conditioned office buildings or homes. Now is the time of sustainable architecture that actually breathes.

Frightened by the global warming consequences, Doris Sung kept asking “As architects, why aren’t we doing more?”. With heating and air conditioning making up about half of home energy usage, there is a need to wise up. Temperature regulation is just the beginning. “If we’re really smart, we’ll design building skin to sweat, to have goosebumps, to be waterproof. It’s a different way to see architecture. We’re on the cusp of something new,” Sung says.

Doris Sung: The Art of Architecture Inspired By Biology


Breathing Architecture

Doris Sung drew from her scientific background to develop a smarter, more eco-friendly alternative to conventional architecture. 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.”

Sung researched building materials and learned about thermo-bimetals, 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 thermo-bimetal 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.

Thermobimetals are often used to make the heat-sensing coils in thermostats — but they’ve never been used in architecture. Now the architecture uses it as a surface material to allow air to pass through a wall when the interior or exterior temperature gets too hot. Simply speaking, as the hot west coast sun starts to make a room unbearable, these “smart walls” allow fresh air to come through via porous surfaces. The brighter the sun shines, the wider the skins open to let colder air through. Special software shapes each panel to maximize the cooling effect, even for very curvy surfaces.

So far Sung designed a thermo-bimetals sunshade, a window panel having an inner layer made of thermo-bimetals, and walls having vents made of thermo-bimetals. Her studio also makes self-assembly systems, eliminating any labor in the assembly process. When heated, the thing assembles itself! The main feature of all her works is that it requires no controls or switches and consumes zero net energy.

Doris Sung: The Art of Architecture Inspired By Biology

Future plans

Doris Sung’s approach hasn’t seen much real-world use so far, but she hopes for energy-efficient buildings that need very little air conditioning to remain comfortable. She believes that there are so many other potential uses for thermo-bimetals in architecture, like clothing, shoes, furniture, lighting, and safety devices.

Thermal bimetals have the unique ability to work without electricity. This technology is a viable replacement for certain electricity intensive building systems. The main intent is to find solutions that require no energy and no controls.  Sung is sure: the more we do this on different levels, the less dependent we will be on electricity.

I think “smart” materials and nanoscale materials will make the biggest changes in building materials. It’ll change our perception of buildings dramatically. No longer will we expect walls to be sealed, floors to be hard and buildings to be static. Buildings will be more like organisms, which we can have relationships with!

Doris Sung: The Art of Architecture Inspired By Biology

Subscribe to WM Daily. Be In Touch With Rebellious Voices