Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Legacy Department

Civil Engineering

Committee Member

Dr. Brandon Ross, Committee Co-Chair

Committee Member

Dr. Leidy Klotz, Committee Co-Chair

Committee Member

Dr. Qiushi Chen

Committee Member

Dr. Michael Carlos Barrios Kleiss


Our current design philosophy in the creation and planning of our country’s infrastructure exudes an attitude of nonchalance that is incongruous with the significant impact the built infrastructure has on the natural environment. We are living through an era of obsolescence, in which structures are demolished thoughtlessly as they outgrow their ability to meet human demands. Obsolescence can be viewed as a “hazard” in the sense that this phenomenon is leaving swaths of buildings in unusable and undesirable conditions, lessening the quality of host locales, and polluting the environment with demolitions and the need for more construction resources. Designing our buildings to be adaptable to changing needs, rather than sufficient for predicted loads and functions, may help mitigate the amount of unnecessary demolitions. However, designing adaptably is not something we know how to do well; luckily, Nature has billions of years of experience that we can turn to. Biomimicry is a design approach that emulates Nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies for sustainable solutions to human challenges. While biomimicry has been used in many fields, applications in the built environment at the structures scale are scarce. Moreover, the examples that we do see are largely concerning thermal regulation. Even more troubling is how the popularization of biomimicry has led to frequent and misleading claims that qualitative, conceptual inspiration is inherently sustainable, given mere references of Nature. This project pairs infra/structural problems with natural solutions to bring these issues to attention in the civil engineering discipline. The spiraled shell of the Turritella terebra, a marine snail, is studied in this research to provide engineers with an example of how to use biomimicry in a comprehensive way. The spiraled gastropod shell demonstrates a simple form of adaptable growth, in which it is able to change its form through time to meet increases in its own performance demands. This project discusses how the snail’s environmental conditions influence its evolutionary traits through one of Nature’s principles (form follows function). The shell is mathematically characterized and structurally modeled to identify the functional roots responsible for its interesting resulting form. By pinpointing the emergent properties leading to adaptable growth, we create an opportunity to extract fundamental lessons of adaptability for application to the built environment. Shell samples of the T. terebra are experimentally tested with a structural engineering lens, and a finite element (FE) model of the shell is validated with these results. The FE model is then used to study parametric effects of ecological constraints—such as drag on the shell, fracture due to predators, and living space—to identify how adjustments to Nature’s design compare to reality. Many interesting findings about shell growth are discussed; however, comparisons to human structures are generalized into three main notions. The shell optimizes living convenience as it ages; the shell increases its external load capacity with age/length; and the data suggests that the snail undergoes a change in motivation for survival, or that its vulnerability to certain hazards changes with growth— none of which human structures demonstrate a capability of. Implications and future work of this project include drawing adaptability connections for use in structural design, designing for adaptability at city and regional scales, educating both practicing and student engineers about the opportunities of adaptability and biomimicry, perhaps incrementally improving 3D printing to include time as a fourth dimension, and grounding this work in the field of complexity science. This project aims to cultivate interest in biomimicry within the civil engineering community. This discussion of how to further develop biomimicry into a quantitative tool is provided with the hopes that engineers are convinced to consider adaptable lessons from Nature for sustainable solutions.



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