Our Mission

Team leads direct the work of each “concentration” of Cornell Seismic Design: design, architecture, and seismology. The collaborative work of these groups makes the final product possible, and has made CSD an award winning team.


In order to perform well in competitions the building must be designed to survive a scaled earthquake ground motion, maximize floor area, and minimize the structure’s self-weight and interstory drift. During the design process our members get to apply all of the structural design principles learned in classes to the creation of an efficient and stable structure. This team is unique in that we place a heavy emphasis on seismic and gravitational loads.

We utilize software such as AutoCAD to design the building elements, and SAP2000 to model the structure and predict the design’s performance under different earthquake load cases. The design phase spans from the time the year’s competition rules are released to when the building is shipped. The design is highly iterative and variable, drawing ideas from every team member resulting in many revisions before a final cost-effective design is chosen.


The construction process is extremely interactive and a great learning opportunity for all team members. Balsa wood construction pieces are created by laser-cutting out of a balsa wood sheet, and then glued to the tower by hand. Construction leads are responsible for designing the print files, and often recruit team members to explore this technology with them.

Every team member is required to attend one of our daily two hour construction shifts every week. Team members must be careful and precise during construction, since any errors in construction or violations to the rules can result in deductions at competition. Construction shifts are also a great place to bond with other team members; listening to music, building, talking, and learning is all part of the fun of the construction process. Team members are encouraged to think of ways to improve construction efficiency by designing different support mechanisms, scaffolding, or anything out of the box.


The architecture component provides team members with the opportunity to explore architecture and design with few constraints. While the building’s structural design is limited by a long list of competition rules, as well as the unvarying laws of physics, architecture is limited purely by taste. Team members are encouraged to think creatively and unconventionally, and decisions are primarily based upon aesthetic appeal.

The year-long process moves from considering the urban setting of our assigned city, to more specific features such as the form of the building’s green spaces. The architectural design considers themes such as sustainability, human centered design, and space and form. Members get to explore softwares such as Revit, Rhino, and AutoCad, to make detailed models of the building’s facade, floor plans, and interior. Architecture is an opportunity for team members to be creative without bounds, and to explore the broad discipline of architecture.


The seismology aspect of the team allows the team members to explore cutting-edge seismic research and to apply it to our competition designs. Throughout the year, team members read about and research key topics within seismic engineering, including dampers, ground motion modeling, post-earthquake reconnaissance, and seismic wave theory. Members get to generate their own ground motion files and work on creating a full suite of code to pre-process new ground motion data for the shake table.

After construction is finished, one of the most exciting moments for the team is testing. The team tests the structural models in order to see how they would perform in a real earthquake, which allows members to learn and improve upon the designs. The process of testing and learning from the data is one of the most enjoyable parts about being on Cornell Seismic Design.


At the competition, a portion of the team has the privilege of not only representing Cornell University, but also networking with professionals in the interdisciplinary involvement of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute. The Seismic Design Competition is the main focus and involvement of the team, but there are also a wide range of workshops occurring simultaneously with the competition. The topics of workshops can cover many things from seismic research initiatives to initiatives toward designing resilient structures. The competition is a great opportunity to travel, learn more about a career in seismic design, and spend time with team members in a fun setting.

During the Seismic Design Competition, the building will be placed under three different ground motions based on records from past earthquakes. After withstanding the tests, buildings are ranked based on revenue generated by rent-able space in the building. The team also creates a poster and gives a ten minute presentation at the meeting to other student teams, judges, and professionals. All of these parts are scored individually, which together determine the final ranking among the over 30 teams that attend.