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Shaking in a winter wonderland

Photo by Casey Bayer.

Modern buildings are designed to withstand the forces of earthquakes. But what about gingerbread houses?

That’s what a group of engineering students sought to discover on Wednesday, as they put their holiday structures to the test in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering’s Earthquake Engineering Center.

“It’s just an incredibly nerdy approach to building gingerbread houses,” said Sarah Casey, a junior civil engineering major, who organized the first event of its kind for the Northeastern student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers. The group plans for the event to become an annual tradition.

The friendly competition was just what a few dozen students needed to take a break from their busy academic schedules at the end of the semester. Four teams spent last Friday constructing their gingerbread houses of graham crackers, reinforcing them with ingredients like pretzels, marshmallow fluff and candy.

For the competition, the students used the College of Engineering’s earthquake simulator, a shaker table that mimics seismic forces. The lab is run by Mishac Yegian, a Distinguished Professor in the College of Engineering.

The four houses were judged on creativity, craftsmanship, height and stability. One was subject to jokes almost immediately after it started to collapse prior to the competition.

“Uh-oh — this looks like Frank Gehry architecture,” joked Yegian, referring to the world-renowned architect. “If you don’t know anything about Frank Gehry architecture, Google it! He builds structures that look like they had already collapsed.”

One house, modeled after a clock tower, was pegged early on by the crowd as the most likely to fall first. But for the majority of the competition, it held steady — as did the other three structures.

All four were first subjected to increasing forces modeled after real-life earthquakes. Then, when those forces failed to bring them down, the gingerbread houses were treated to stronger harmonic forces that violently shook the tables until the houses collapsed to the floor of Yegian’s lab.

“Everybody did so well with this,” said Bob Tillman, an associate professor of engineering who attended the competition to root on his students. “We’ll have to make this much harder next year.”