Thursday Salute to Originals: Spidery Structures

Geometric symmetry in architecture is calculated and created. We as designers employ the strength of geometric shapes in developing everyday structures and systems. We utilize these forms to find strength and balance that will ultimately make or break the feasibility of our designs. But architectural designers are not the only ones who know their geometry, our friendly creatures in nature do too!

Spiders could be considered the natural engineers of the wild – crafty and deliberate. In knowing how to achieve balance and strength within their orbed webs, spiders are also intelligent builders. Form definitely follows function in the spider’s process with the goal of catching prey in its spindly web. So what gives the spider web its strength and what can we learn from it?

The silk that spiders produce is in fact a very strong material; stronger than steel. However, it is not only the strength of the silk that makes a spider’s web so resilient, but the functionality of the silk – the softness and stiffness when pulled. The forces applied to the web as well as their overall shape can also affect the strength of the web. Markus Buehler, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT, analyzed the complex structure of a spider’s silk and applied testing to the structure of the web. In studying the properties of the molecular structure of silk fibers, the findings can help develop more damage-resistant synthetic materials. This could also provide design principles in developing other networked systems, like the internet or an electric grid.

Materials with uniform and linear applications are what engineers like to focus on because of the simplistic calculations. Buehler’s experiment suggests that there can be important advantages to materials with more complex applications. A building structure could have a point of element that breaks but still allows the rest of the structure to survive; much like a damaged portion of a spider’s web. The damaged portion of the building could be repaired as opposed demolishing the entire building completely. This could solve an enormous pain point in structural engineering and renovation work.

This Halloween season, we salute our scary little friends in the wild for producing such materials and making it possible for scientists to study these applications… thus inspiring new and innovative ways for building more efficient and flexible structures! The spider has an impressive resume, being at once a fabricator, engineer, architect, and builder. Today we have a little more respect for these self-sufficient creators with an innate understanding of geometry.

Image Credits: The Guardian, Deviant Art, Creek Ranch, GuineaPig via Flickr