Faculty Spotlight: Doris Sung

School News

Faculty Spotlight: Doris Sung

April 03, 2017

Doris Sung was awarded the 2016-17 Journal of Architectural Education Best Article Award for her article, Smart Geometries for Smart Materials: Taming Thermobiometals to Behave. Below is from an interview with her about her interest in thermobiometals and where she hopes this work to lead to in the future. For more on this topic, you can also view her TED Talk, Metal That Breaths.


Most recently, Sung is the recipient of a Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society Faculty Recognition Awards for her work, Bloom, and was just awarded tenure.


First, congratulations on winning the JAE Best Article Award. How did the article come about?

Thanks! It was published in JAE through an open call. I don’t really think of myself as a writer so I was surprised when it won the award. Basically, the article is about how I use geometries to control thermobiometals. I can control the behavior of the material by the geometry I cut in it. Depending on what I want it to do, how much I want it to curl, what direction I want the curl, I use that relative to gravity to get certain kinds of movement out of it. So the article talks about the variations in that kind of movement, whether it’s a cantilever type, whether it’s a beam type movement, or whether it’s combined with some pivoting like a pin connection.


When did you first get interested in thermobiometals?

It goes pretty far back but basically it comes from trying to make building envelopes more responsive to human occupants on the inside. Probably about ten years ago, because of the climate change issue, I became more interested in making them respond to the environment. The best way to do this seemed to be smart materials and this is how I came upon thermobiometals. They aren’t completely foreign to architecture, but they usually aren’t used in very obvious and visible ways like on a façade. Typically, it’s used as actuators in thermostats and also in automobile engines as actuators for when systems get too hot. The coil will expand and shut the system down. I’m interested in controlling the material’s natural properties to enhance building performance.


How do you go about studying a material like this and what tools do you use?

Well, it’s difficult because no one ever uses this in architecture. When I first got the material I had no idea what we could do with it, how we could cut it or if we could use parametric and computational tools as part of the fabrication process. So the beginning stage was very experimental and taking huge leaps of faith. That was probably about ten years ago and since then we’ve obviously mastered a certain method of using the material and that’s basically through laser cutting. We’ve gone through different kinds of software programs, and fortunately Grasshopper has gotten to the point where it’s probably the easiest one to use right now.


What kinds of applications are you investigating?

We’re using it for many different kinds of applications. We’re using it for self-shading, self-ventilating, self-assembly, and self-propulsion. It’s one of those materials where as long as we can get the temperature change to go up and down, we can get it to curl and uncurl and use that behavior in a very dynamic way.


Is most of your time outside of teaching spent on this work?

Yes. Outside of teaching, the majority of my time is spent trying to use thermobiometals and considering different applications for architecture. I have several projects going on. Some of them are much more developed than others. Some are on very basic, elementary levels. It’s mostly trying to look at how this material can develop into components and have a greater impact when used on buildings. So, for example, one of the projects we’re working on now is trying to use the biometal in a window system so that the window itself is self-shading. So when the sun hits the glazing and heats the cavity the pieces will flip so they block the sun and thereby control the amount of solar heat gain in the building and ultimately reduce energy costs.


Does your research rely mostly on grants or do you also partner with industry?

Both, actually. We do anything we can to find funding. Some comes through grants. Other funding comes through art foundations. So when I do projects for exhibits I try to do it in a way that forwards the research. And then there are private commissions. Most of the funding comes from non-profits including the AIA and the Graham Foundation.


What is the ultimate goal for you related to this work and how far away are we from seeing this applied on a wider scale?

My goal is to get it truly applied on a building. The ultimate test is how we can implement at an architectural scale. That’s easier said than done because I’ve learned through this process that it requires a huge amount of testing, certification, approvals, you name it. Every hurdle you can think of. These aren’t impossible hurdles. They just take a lot of time and money. I think it will eventually happen. I’m hoping that we’ll have a marketable window product by the end of this year. So it’s moving along.


Any advice for students?

The beautiful thing about the times we live in is that the business and professional models that we used to rely on are no longer necessarily stable. This is a time where we have so many different types of start-up companies and really alternative types of jobs and majors in the midst of an ever-evolving culture. Given this, I don’t know what the standard is going to be anymore. This environment is very supportive of alternative types of practice—much more than ever before. I think it’s actually very healthy. The old models don’t necessarily work anymore. I think that’s why you see more hybridization within architecture firms themselves. You see firms developing their own merchandise and side businesses, for example. I actually think some of the older firms should rethink their internal structure, as well. A lot of these bigger firms are also starting to hire PhDs and different types of people who are not architects, like people in public health or anthropology. And I’m sure that there are non-architecture firms out there hiring architects, too. I think it’s a great time for doing things in alternative ways. It’s a good time to be bold. ■