When Biology Inspires Architecture: An Interview with Doris Kim Sung

Material Minds, presented by ArchDaily Materials, is our new series of short interviews with architects, designers, scientists, and others who use architectural materials in innovative ways. Enjoy!

Before attending Columbia University for her Masters in Architecture, Los Angeles-based architect Doris Kim Sung took a fairly non-traditional approach to becoming an architect: she was a biologist. Naturally then, Sung’s architectural work tends to take inspiration from the biological world, particularly in the way she experiments and innovates with materials. Much of her work involves thermal bimetals, a material that expands and contracts with temperature swings; it can even act as a sun shade and ventilation system, without the need for electricity.

So where does a biologist-turned-architect draw inspiration from? We interviewed Ms. Sung to find out for ourselves -- the responses, like her work at dO|Su Architecture, are simply fascinating.

ArchDaily: As a biologist, you’ve compared human skin to building skin. What specifically can architecture take from the human body and how it functions?

Doris Kim Sung: The skin is the first line of defense for the body. It cools by sweating, heats by inflating (goose bumps), resists sun by making melanin, it protects from dirt, water and so many other things. If it works well, the heart and lungs don’t have to work so hard. Building skins can operate the same way and prevent the mechanical system (AC or heating) from overworking and using up huge amounts of unnecessary energy. With “smart” materials like thermobimetals, envelopes can now self-shade, self-ventilate, and self-operate.

Courtesy of dO|Su Studio Architecture

ArchDaily: What role do digital tools play in designing smart components and buildings?

Doris Kim Sung: Digital tools play a HUGE role.  Without them, I don’t think I could do what I do.  We use them to form-find; we use them to generate the fabrication files; we use them to analyze the structures and project the performance; and we use them to test for post-occupancy performance. 

ArchDaily: Other than building skin, are there any other potential uses you see for thermal-bimetals in Architecture?

Courtesy of dO|Su Studio Architecture

Doris Kim Sung: Yes, so many. Currently, they are used as actuating devices in machinery and engines. But, they can be used in clothing, shoes, furniture, lighting, and safety devices.  We are currently using them to ease assembly and make lightweight structural systems (“eXo”).  We are also making self-assembly systems, where we eliminate any labor in the assembly process. When heated, the thing assembles itself!

ArchDaily: Do you see thermal-bimetals more as a custom aspect for individual buildings or a component that can be mass-produced for multiple buildings?

Doris Kim Sung: Both. As a brise-soleil, it can be made very custom so that they perform optimally.  Computer programs can help make this happen in a reasonable amount of time.  As for the window systems and breathable masonry block systems, they are being developed as building components.  Hopefully, they can be available off-the-shelf in the near future.

Courtesy of dO|Su Studio Architecture

ArchDaily: Thermal bimetals have the unique ability to work without electricity. Do you see this technology as a viable replacement for certain electricity intensive building systems?

Doris Kim Sung: Absolutely! The main intent is to find solutions that require no energy and no controls.  The more we do this on different levels, the less dependent we will be on electricity.

ArchDaily:  I know you’re based in Los Angeles; are thermal-bimetals adaptable to multiple climates?

Doris Kim Sung: Although obviously useful for hot, arid climates, bimetals can be calibrated to react to different temperatures for different purposes. Like I mentioned, we are look at using it in colder climates for ease in assemble. It is a completely new way of looking at assembly.   

Courtesy of dO|Su Studio Architecture

ArchDaily:  What are most exciting and disheartening parts of the state of material technology in architecture today?

Doris Kim Sung: It is so exciting to think that “smart” materials can make such a large impact on architecture and building facades, but so few architects are involved with the research and development of these technology.  It is commonly left up to the engineers to develop and architects to specify. If more architects get involved in the development, there is greater potential for thinking holistically about the entire building envelope system. More commonly, its development is limited to a very isolated view of its use.

ArchDaily: With new materials and techniques constantly changing, what do you see as the future of materials in architecture?

Doris Kim Sung: I think “smart” materials and nano-scale materials will be 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!

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About this author
Cite: Andrew Galloway. "When Biology Inspires Architecture: An Interview with Doris Kim Sung " 14 May 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/505016/when-biology-inspires-architecture-an-interview-with-doris-kim-sung> ISSN 0719-8884

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