Published: Oct. 7, 2014

July 2014 was the 50th anniversary of one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded in Anchorage, Alaska. But when a team of CU-Boulder students visited the city, they were concerned with ground motions on a somewhat smaller scale. The student chapter of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) was chosen to compete at the 2014 Undergraduate Seismic Design Competition, held in conjunction with the 10th U.S National Conference on Earthquake Engineering and the 66th EERI Annual Meeting in July 21-25, in Anchorage.

EERI team captain Ata Etazazian (far right) watches as the team's building is put to the test.


The competition requires teams to design and build balsa wood models that are then put to the test on a shake table, a device for testing structural models or building components with simulated ground motions. In honor of the Anchorage quake anniversary, this year’s teams were challenged to create a building for the city that was designed for seismic loading and maximized the percentage of window area to “capitalize on the beauty of the natural environment.”

EERI team captain Ata Etazazian, a senior structural engineering major, said the team spent six months building the 50-inch-tall model, which included everything from submitting and voting on designs to building a 3D computer model and choosing the building materials they would use.

“The biggest challenge was building the structure and doing the software analysis to try to predict how the building would perform,” he said.

When they arrived at the competition, they displayed the building for conference attendees and presented their shake-table performance predictions to the judges. The team’s highest scores were for their presentation, where they placed fifth out of 30 teams.

Then came the most fun part – the earthquake simulations. Their building survived the first two ground motions, which simulated historic earthquakes, but failed on the final lab-created motion.

“The actual shake competition was most fun because you got to see everyone in action,” Etazazian said. “At the end, they ask if you want to wreck it instead of shipping it home, and they’ll shake it until it breaks.”

But the competition wasn’t all about destruction. Etazazian said the competition also gave the team a chance to mingle with professional engineers who were attending the conference.

“Overall, it’s a great experience because you get to meet a lot of professional people and companies in the field,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for anyone who wants to make some connections.”

The group plans to compete in next summer’s competition, and is currently looking for new undergraduate members. If you want to get involved, please email

The 2014 EERI team members were Ruben Saucedo, Jared Leventhal, Amin Mazdeh, Tiago DeOliveira and Tyler Leigh. Team sponsors were JVA Inc., Martin/Martin, the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Mary and Dave Lewis, and Kathleen Tierney of the Natural Hazards Center CU-Boulder.  

Photo caption: EERI team captain Ata Etazazian (far right) watches as the team's building is put to the test.