Dual-Alloy Metal Manages Building Envelope Heat & Cold Innovatively

Originally published by: Spectrum NewsMay 28, 2019

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How can the skin of a building function more like human skin? Doris Sung, Associate Professor of Architecture at USC, is tackling this question by developing some innovative building materials that utilize “thermo bi-metal,” a unique, dual-alloy metal that responds to heat and cold. 

Among her innovations is a double-paned window that contains bi-metal leaves that bend and flip depending on the temperature to help regulate heat intake and output from buildings. One of Sung’s goals is to model building materials more on natural processes, materials that are active and respond to changing environmental conditions.

“Human skin is very smart,” explained Sung at her Rolling Hills workshop. “It does so many different things. It can protect you from disease and heat and cold. So, building skin, if it can do more, then the central mechanical system doesn't have to pump so hard. You don’t have to use so much energy.”

Sung started delving into smart building materials when she saw the shortcomings of the traditional passive materials normally used in architecture. Her designs have an organic, almost sculptural feel, but the principles behind them are simple.

“Using computer programs, we can make things very fluidly change and once you start doing that, [the material] starts to be able to mimic human nature and things that happen in nature a little more,” said Sung.

But when dealing with builders who see cost as a bottom line, innovative materials can seem prohibitively costly and can hamper their adoption.

“Anything new in the building industry is going to be disruptive,” said Sung. “There's also difficulty because it also has to have safety concerns, durability, cost concerns, all these things that make designing a product for the building industry quite difficult to break through.”

One of the advantages of the bi-metal window system is that it's relatively low tech, so Sung says cost is not that much more than traditional windows. 

“We don't use high technology,” Sung explained. “We don't use computer chips and the installation is actually like in a typical windows system. So, I think most people think, 'oh, wow, this is going to really add a huge cost.' But it really isn't.”

Although these materials are still in the developmental stage, Sung says there's already plenty of interest from green builders, and that these materials can be a promising player in the future of architecture.