The Next Generation in Storm and Hurricane Protection: Giant Umbrellas


An image by Mauricio Loyola demonstrating the canopy formed by umbrellas via Princeton News.

Kartik Nath, Sci/Tech Contributing Writer

A team of researchers at Princeton University in Princeton, NJ have developed an exploratory design for an innovative solution for coastal community protection. The team of Shengzhe Wang, PhD and students in civil and environmental engineering, constructed a design for “dual-purpose kinetic umbrellas” that function to protect a coastal community from storm surges and dangerous hurricanes. “It’s the first time that anyone has really tried to integrate architecture as an inherent component to a coastal countermeasure”, Wang said in a Princeton interview. 

The umbrellas would be positioned in a row, lining the boardwalk that is adjacent to the beach, similar to a protective barrier. Made from concrete, the oversized umbrellas are dual-purpose, meaning that during fair weather conditions, the umbrellas would provide shade and protect the coastal community from the sun. The umbrellas would be in a canopy position, allowing people to walk down the boardwalk. However, according to Science Daily, when a storm is forecasted, the umbrellas would tilt downward, transforming into a barrier against a storm. The umbrella shield would prevent extreme flooding and storm surges from destroying property and harming civilians. 

The team published their study on March 28th, 2020 in the Journal of Structural Engineering, outlining the computational modeling they used to gather data to test if the umbrellas could withstand a storm surge or hurricane. The modelling showed that umbrellas made of 4-inch thick layers of concrete in the shape of a hyperbolic paraboloid (hypar) could withstand an 18 feet tall storm surge. They collected data from storms from 1899-2012 along the East coast and used the data to model a storm surge. They then determined that their proposed design could remain structurally sound after a surge. 

The inspiration for this project came from Maria Garlock, PhD, a Princeton University professor of civil and architectural engineering, who studied Felíx Candela, a Spanish architect who designed buildings in Mexico in the 1950s and 1960s with hypar roofs. In Fall 2017, Professor Garlock and Professor Branko Glisic, an associate professor of Civil and Environmental engineering, pitched the idea of using the hypar umbrellas as dual-purpose barriers to Project X, a fund at Princeton University that is for the engineering faculty to pursue innovative and unconventional projects. Mr. Wang took the idea and scaled the project, utilizing various modeling software to study the umbrellas as a solution for coastal protection.