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Shake it off: grand designs get teens quake-savvy

Cantabrian teenagers have been exploring what it means to be ‘earthquake resilient’ by designing, constructing and then destroying miniature houses.

Students at Oxford Area School in Ōtautahi (Christchurch) have been watching their painstakingly created house designs get obliterated in seconds. But don’t worry – there’s a good reason why.

The teens have been investigating how to create quake-resistant buildings as part of a national project called QuakeCraft, which is run by Brandy Alger at the University of Canterbury’s Quake Centre in partnership with Fab Lab CHCH.

Two boys watch a model house get tested

“How do you teach earthquake resilience to an audience who have already seen and heard so much about earthquakes that they’re ‘saturated’?” Brandy asks.

The purpose of QuakeCraft is to do just that, she says. It gives students the opportunity to come up with their own solutions to how to handle earthquakes, while also getting a taste of architecture and engineering.

Students drawing a design

The students do this by creating a variety of model-sized buildings – from a tower block to a one-room ‘Tiny House’ – and build them out of thin wooden ‘stakes’ or larger pieces of plywood connected with 3D-printed connectors.

“I like the design part of creating the houses before we build them, where we all put our ideas down on paper first,” says Adam 13.

Building materials

The students then place their creations on a vibrating plate that mimics an earthquake. The quake table shakes firstly as a light rattle, but then it grows in intensity to a loud rumble.

At this point, the building will usually collapse or completely fly off the plate – usually leading to surprise and amusement in the students.

“I didn't expect the houses to be so fragile!” says James, 15.

Close-up of a model 'Tiny House'

Aimee, 14, adds, "I liked seeing it get tested on the quake machine, as I didn't know how it was going to fall apart. I could tell it probably would fail the test, but didn't know how!”

For Aimee’s team, they had failed to factor in a solid foundation for the Tiny House they had built. Although the walls and roof all remained intact, the whole house instead detached and moved off the plate entirely – similar to how houses during Christchurch's quakes did indeed shift some distance away from their foundations.

Aimee with her team

It can take the students several attempts for their building to stay secure when the table is at its strongest setting.

“With the multi-storey building, we’re thinking of using the wooden sticks to hold the structure together a bit more, because it’s a bigger house and more fragile", says Jack, 13.

The students' teacher, Justin Thompson, says that the best part for him is seeing how students who are not normally academically-focused have got just as much out of it as those who are:

“This is really encouraging, so we’ll definitely keep doing this each year.”

Two-storey model house with soldiers, tank and trees

Justin says that later this year there will be quake tables with one-click settings that can be selected to replicate specific types of earthquakes. Brandy confirms that the pre-set buttons will mimic the Christchurch and Kaikōura quakes, along with the full magnitude of New Zealand's most dangerous fault, the Alpine Fault.

Justin hopes his students will be among the first to use these new models, so that they get a better idea of what elements of an earthquake - such as depth, shock frequency and intensity - can make a building more unstable in some earthquakes than others.

Dean, 13, says, “This is neat! I find earthquakes really cool because I think how they happen is kind of weird, and I like learning about why they happen.”

Students test their two-storey houses

Photo credits (last two images): Brandy Alger.

About the project

QuakeCraft logoQuakeCraft is run by the University of Canterbury in partnership with Fab Lab CHCH, with support from the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund.

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Unlocking Curious Minds

Unlocking Curious Minds supports projects that excite and engage New Zealanders who have fewer opportunities to experience and connect with science and technology.

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