Doris Kim Sung is an Architecture Professor at USC with a background in biology. She has been investigating the functions of the human skin and comparing that to the functions of a building skin. In her TED talk in May of 2012 Doris was describing the current problem with building systems which is the amount of energy used to heat/cool our buildings.
Our heating and cooling systems have become so sophisticated that we are no longer thinking about minimizing the amount of heat transfer between exterior and interior. This means that we are using enormous amounts of energy to heat/cool buildings just because we have the ability to do so. In the past, an engine would overheat from the extended use of the air conditioner, but today, you could go on a road trip across the country and run your AC the entire time. Today’s use of HVAC systems and the heat that they emit to the environment is a large contributor to the heat island effects of urban areas.
Traditional building envelopes relied on thermal mass and small openings to limit the amount of heat transfer between the interior and exterior but with the advent of plate glass, rolled steel and mass production that prompted the Modernist movement, the modern building envelope has evolved to floor to floor sheets of glass. Windows are no longer operable: often times in large office buildings when power is lost, the building is not habitable due to the extreme temperatures inside.
Sung explains thermo-bimetal she is developing that changes shape due to temperature differences in an attempt to regulate temperature like the human skin does. This smart material requires no energy or control and just reacts dynamically to the present conditions of the building skin. At frame 4:30 of her TED talk you can see the exploration of BLOOM, a thermo-bimetal canopy that reacts to create shading as well as allows for ventilation.
The link to Sung’s TED talk can be found here where she also discusses other more marketable building components and the inspiration of Grasshopper respiratory systems for ventilation in buildings as well. http://embed.ted.com/talks/doris_kim_sung_metal_that_breathes.html
For other cool heating and cooling techniques check out this TED blog. http://blog.ted.com/2012/06/22/5-amazing-spaces-with-surprising-ways-to-stay-cool/