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An accidental piece of biomimicry

Tonkin Liu
A design challenge for the Shell Lace Structure.
A design challenge for the Shell Lace Structure.

Principles learned from
 seashells – such as curvature, corrugation, and distortion – all lock in strength and stiffness, allowing plate thickness to be reduced to a minimum

Hammered into a thin sheet, 31g of gold can cover an area as large as 16m2. What if architects designed just so with every material, as if it were extremely valuable and scarce? Nature always does. It creates lightweight structures of astonishing diversity and ­beauty – seashells for instance. 

Before we discovered the Shell Lace Structure technique, our projects all led to a different material and technical exploration through our design process, Asking Looking Playing Making. When exploring, with Ed Clark and Alex Reddihough at Arup, a cost-effective way to make strong three-dimensional forms for an RIBA competition for seaside pavilions, we realised we’d invented something by chance. Subsequent projects using the Shell Lace Structure have united story-telling and technical experiments in a single cohesive process. The discovery has given one aspect of our work a new focus, taking on a specifically biomimetic approach. 

Shell Lace Structure is a single surface structural technique inspired by the evolution of seashells and the art of tailoring. The discovery was made possible through computer-aided design and fabrication. Experiments made the most of the available technology but they also used an intuitive hands-on approach, using paper and plasticine study models, establishing a new notion of craft through tailoring and assembling of laser-cut plates. Shell Lace Structure generates ultra-light, single-surface structures. Principles learned from seashells – such as curvature, corrugation, and distortion – all lock in strength and stiffness, allowing plate thickness to be reduced to a minimum. With these principles, the tailored and joined thin cut sheets make incredibly strong, thin structures. Perforations, removing material in areas of low stress, further reduce their deadweight and help to articulate the thinness of the sheets, catching light on the ­surface, adding dynamism and delicacy. 

In practice, Shell Lace Structure has been used to design 10 projects in three structural typologies – vault, beam and column. These range from a shelter built of 3mm thick ­stainless steel spanning 7m, to a competition entry for a ferry terminal with 18m tall columns made in 10mm thick steel plates, and a bridge proposal for China spanning 75m using 16mm thick steel plates. 

Work undertaken through the four years of research is available on our website as an open source resource and could be useful to practising architects, teachers and students. The technique can be developed and modified in numerous ways with different flexible sheet materials, while the work can be seen as a vehicle for the realignment of a practice into an area that brings together a multitude of interests. Shell Lace Structure has made us look beyond the world of architecture both at the source of inspiration and in to an exciting field of collaboration. As teachers we have enjoyed the hands-on research, in the same way we would encourage our students to conduct the exploration. As practitioners we have gained a renewed sense of purpose and been encouraged to develop new skills and tools. The research has also brought us in contact with many like-minded people with a similar interest in structure and nature. 

Our research has been disseminated through lectures, seminars and hands-on workshops in Japan, Taiwan and Britain. The work has appeared in publications and a number of exhibitions and has also brought the practice awards. We are working toward an exhibition and catalogue of the Shell Lace Structure projects, and have just begun conducting an MArch unit at the University of Westminster specifically to expand the evolution of the Shell Lace Structure process. 

Shell Lace Structure research has made the most of the digital tools that have become available in the last decade. Though they are sometimes blamed for wilfully complex ­architecture that does not respond to simple laws of physics and is costly to fabricate, they offer huge potential in design. If we liken the iterative design process, made possible by the speed and power of these tools, to the constant evolutionary process in nature, perhaps we can come closer to designing pure structures in the lightest, most optimum form. 

Our journey has taught us to follow our instincts, looking forward as well as back. Digital and traditional methods need not be contradictory, but can reshape each other. Research is very important in creating space and time to experiment with seemingly unlikely partners, that of tailoring and seashells and of digital and analogue tools. The evolving holistic approach has allowed a great deal of architectural expression, as well as responsiveness to site, structural, climatic, and social parameters. Beauty in nature is closely aligned to effectiveness and economy, to use the least material to make the most ­efficient form, fulfilling the desired fitness for purpose. 

Shell Lace Structure may just be one place on this journey; aided by increasingly sophisticated tools we hope it will lead to a marriage of economy with delight. 

Shell Lace Structure was commended in the President’s Awards for Research


Get the credit

So far, the UK research and development tax credit scheme has largely been overlooked by architects. Why should this be, given that practices undertake much innovative research? There is a misconception across the architectural and construction industries that the R&D tax credit scheme is largely irrelevant to practices, unless undertaken within the boundaries of formal R&D projects and departments. 

Many architects simply may not realise that work that is part of their day-to-day activities could fall under the heading of R&D for tax purposes.  Practices that qualify as small to medium-sized enterprises can expect a return of up to 25% of relevant costs, and larger practices up to 7%. The average claim for SMEs was £40,000 in 2008-9, rising to an average of £82,000 for those who had claimed regularly in the past.

If you pay corporation tax and are involved in innovating, improving performance or adding value to products and processes then it is worth finding out more – whether your research is planned, or designed to solve a problem. You would need to demonstrate how design activities have directly contributed to achieving an advance in science and technology. The main costs that can be claimed, for architectural practices, are those of staff, subcontracted services and materials and software. 

To find out more see the RIBA’s free (and simple) online guide to the UK’s Research and Development Tax Credits scheme A few practices are already claiming the credits, and the guide includes case studies of those who have successfully claimed.




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