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Our Project

What We Do

The Cornell University EERI Seismic Design Team designs, builds, and tests a scaled multi-story balsa wood tower for an international undergraduate competition hosted every spring at the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute’s (EERI) annual meeting. At competition, the tower is scored on a number of categories including architecture, model predictions, building revenue and costs, team presentations, and most importantly whether or not the structure survives all three ground motions. Our team offers a great opportunity for students interested in all engineering disciplines, especially those focused in construction, structures, architecture, seismology and more, to experience the process of bringing a project from an abstract thought to a tangible product. On our cohesive team, students have ample opportunities to experience hands-on construction, learn several different applicable softwares, use a laser cutter, acquire leadership positions, and above all, make a substantial impact on the final building!

The team was founded in 2013 by Victoria Rhodes ‘13 and has made great strides over the past few years improving its tower each year. We look forward to continuing improvements and successes! If you have any questions or would like more information, please email Thank you!


The design is a crucial aspect of our project and something on which we spend a lot of our time brainstorming and collaborating.

Over the course of the year, team members have the opportunity to learn how to use the different softwares that we incorporate into our project. The three main softwares we use for our project are AutoCAD, SAP2000, and Revit. Team members can choose which software they want to specialize in, and complete a project (unrelated to the building for competition) so that they gain competency in the software.

After learning the software and reading the competition guidelines, the team breaks up into four or five groups that each design their own structure. These groups present their building in front of the team, and then the team pulls the best ideas and designs from each group’s perspective building to come up with a final building design. This process allows our team to draw all the best ideas from every member on the team since every member’s opinions are vital to creating a successful structure. Our buildings vary from year to year, and we are always looking for new creative solutions to make our buildings more resistant!


Construction is one of the most exciting parts of the process for our team since members get to see their detailed planning and preparation in the design process come to life. Before our tower begins to rise, the design team orders sheets of balsa wood and designs several AutoCAD files in preparation for laser cutter process. Using these custom files, we are able to cut out pieces in any desired shape for our tower. Once the pieces are cut, our construction leaders develop a construction shift schedule, assigning each member to at least one shift a week. During the construction shifts, each member is able to gain hands on experience while making a significant impact on our final structure. Depending on the rigor of the construction schedule, there may be anywhere from four to seven shifts a week, with about three to four members per shift. Throughout the construction process, our litigation lead keeps a sharp eye on the progress of the structure to make sure that we abide by the extensive competition guidelines. After several weeks of construction, seeing our completed structure is one of the most gratifying moments for all our members.

Competition Prep

Competition Prep

Once we have completed the construction of our structure, it is time to get ready for competition! First, we make sure our building does not violate any rules in the guidelines provided by the EERI Student Leadership Council. Then it is time to get our building ready for shipment to the competition location, which has been Boston, Anchorage, San Francisco, and other great cities in previous years. We have used Uncle Marty’s Shipping Office every year and are so impressed with their work; our building has never broken!

The team also makes a poster and prepares a presentation to give at competition in front of teammates, colleagues, judges, and professionals. The poster showcases our architectural rendering, another element of our project. The architectural rendering, which we create using the architectural software Revit, is evaluated by judges and will be included in our final score. When the rendering is complete, we incorporate it into our poster which also provides a project overview, and display important values we used to make our calculations. We must also determine a final annual building income, which is calculated using a formula relating the rentable floor space and the expected intensity of shaking from an earthquake. This income is also summarized and explained on our poster.

The presentation is separate from the poster, but summarizes our work over the past year in a similarly clear and concise manner. After selecting presenters and creating the presentation, the two selected team members present to the rest of the team so we can receive feedback early and give the best possible presentation at competition. Once preparations are complete it is time to head to competition!



Whether driving, flying, or taking a bus, we arrive at competition excited and ready to go! The first day involves unpacking our structure from the packaging, and setting up our poster and structure for evaluation the next morning. The schedule changes year to year, but competition always includes a networking event with EERI members attending the annual meeting. Usually the following day includes team presentations, where our team gives a ten minute formal presentation summarizing how and why we designed the structure the way we did, how we predicted the building’s accelerations and expected income, and the architectural aspect of our structure: how our building fits into or stands out from its surroundings.

The last day of competition is shake table testing and the awards banquet. This is by far the most fun and exciting day of competition. Each team’s structure is subjected to three different ground motions. The team with structures that withstand all three ground motions are ranked in a different category than those that collapse during seismic loading. During the 2015, we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to invite two staff members from our main sponsor, Simpson Gumpertz and Heger, Inc. to watch our shake table testing since SGH is headquartered in Boston, the 2015 competition city.

Post Competition

After returning from competition, it’s time to debrief and discuss the past year. Since our inception in 2013, we have been making great strides in expanding and growing our team in every way. One of our major focuses is how to improve our structure for the upcoming year. We review the surviving structure, shake-table videos, and our original design to determine what improvements we can make to reduce the structure’s weight, decrease the maximum displacements and accelerations, and increase the structural resilience to ensure we survive all three ground motions. We also carefully review all off our final scores in all competition categories to make sure we address all the areas of our scoring that can be improved. Finally, we hold elections for leadership positions for the following year and begin early preparation and transition work for another great year!

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