Louis' Design Articles

Doris Sung’s Surly Strongman Robot

If you are one to break into architectural studios in the middle of the night, think twice about breaking into dO|Su in Los Angeles. There, its principal Doris Sung keeps her collection of critters, self-propelled, self-assembling, super-smart thermal bi-metal robots — requiring no batteries, just space enough to perform their backflips, scooches, summersaults and other behaviors that collectively would freak out any intruder at 3 a.m.

But all is not fun and games for these acrobatic inventions.

Architect Doris Kim Sung

Sung has put them to work making self-shading windows, using no energy, wiring, or computer controls, “just geometry.” Sure, you can always close the blinds, or use Low-E film, but things will get darker and you will lose visibility. With Sung’s robots safely sandwiched between double panes of glass, one of the smart bi-metals peels away from the other, curling when the sun hits, blocking heat, while allowing ample ambient light for finding one’s keys and bagels under a stack of old blueprints. Such light is especially critical to the baby boomer pig in the demographic python. “To see well, your eyes need three times as much light when you’re 60 as they did when you were 20,” advises the UK’s National Health Service.

“Besides, working in the semi-dark with the AC at full blast isn’t good for human health or happiness,” says Sung. And humans are getting the message. Sung and dO|Studio have gained support from the AIA Upjohn Initiative, the Architectural Guild, the Arnold W. Brunner, and the Graham Foundation, as well as from USC where she teaches architecture. Her TED Talk about buildings that are more breathable and responsive to the environment as well as physiological needs has already surpassed 1.2 million views.

Setting aside questions of health and happiness, how about mere planetary survival as a worthy goal? Sung has directed the self-activating automata in her windows to address what has become an over-arching question: climate change caused by buildings, which according to the Green Building Council, accounts for 39% of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, exclusive of those caused by construction and demolition, followed by the transport sector at 33% and industry at 29%.

“You have to get your catalytic converter checked on your car every year or two,” says Sung, “but there’s no equivalent regulatory system for ensuring a building’s performance. While performance is one of the first questions we ask a dealer when buying a car, we almost never ask a real estate agent the same question when buying a house. We occasionally admit to looking for an architectural style, a colonial ranch, or a mid-century modern, but that’s about it.”

Though energy monitoring software exists, there needs to be along with consumer demand, a political will, as well as happiness-inducing products like Sung’s smart bi-metal shading windows to make the world’s building envelopes part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Thermal bi-metals have been around at least 100 years, mainly as coils in thermostats, but until now have not been used in larger applications, like in Sung’s windows. “Only until now with programs such as Rhino 3d and Grasshopper 3d have we had the computational ability to cause a huge range of behavior in various materials actually work,” she says. “Our laminated, 4 1/2-inch-wide alloy strips of nickel, manganese, and iron of differing percentages, and resulting coefficients of expansion remain parallel when it’s cool. But when the sun’s rays hit, one side pivots perpendicularly, ingeniously shading the interior from heat but not light.”

How about costs and commercialization? “The alloys are off-the-shelf industrial material, sold by weight—so that’s low. We’re hoping to commercialize the windows in the next six months,” says Sung, “and to sink those funds into further research.” (Sung is already consulting with NASA on using her tiny robots to build in outer space.).

From November 2011 through March 2012, Sung tested fabrication methods for the self-shading window with a dome tilting like a sun-dial to the southwest in an outdoor display entitled ”Bloom” at the Materials and Applications Gallery in Silver Lake, California.

This summer Sung took her windows to see the world. This was part of a road show to New York, Chicago, and LA, sponsored by Toyota Prius, Sung’s team is currently looking for something more permanent. Ideally, this will be a large, downtown office building to show how its skin opens and closes with the sun, one where the public can experience their windows’ effectiveness and clarity. Which is admittedly easier said than done, given corporate security and privacy concerns.

Meanwhile, dO|Su Studio keeps playing with its acrobatic critters. Planetary survival, human health, and happiness may all be in the balance, but at the same time play is play and Sung intends to keep it that way. “Working on self-assembly and self-propulsion is a lot of fun,” says Sung, “We’re very bottom-up, rather than trying to come up with top-down solutions to every problem. You have to develop things to a certain point to really understand their impact. We make a lot of things that are useless. ‘That’s cool’, we say, ‘now let’s try it out!’”

And as these tiny robots perform their tricks, they are perhaps unknowingly changing the language of architecture itself: along with spandrels, Sung has introduced summersaults, along with fascia, there are now flips, and along with hip roofs, hip-hops! Not only do they exhibit behaviors, Sung thinks some may have personalities as well. On close observation, one can picture a host of characters, including some from one’s darkest imagination: a surly strongman, a pugnacious PI, a wild warrior. Indeed, who would dare break into an architectural office not knowing which of these critters lurk behind the door?