STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: ETS1.A    

CCSS: Speaking & Listening: 1   

TEKS: 6.2A, 7.2A, 8.2A

Home Sweet Home

How to build a festive gingerbread house that will last the entire holiday season

COURTESY OF SHANNON O’HARA

ESSENTIAL QUESTION: What design criteria and constraints should people consider when building a gingerbread house?

This month, many people will head to their kitchens to do some gingerbread construction work. It’s not easy building a structure from nothing but baked dough, icing, and candies. A slight jolt and these treats can collapse.

For tips on creating a spectacular yet sturdy gingerbread house, Science World spoke with structural engineer Mary Cuthbert. She usually designs hospitals and labs for building firm KPFF in Los Angeles, California. But once a year, Cuthbert and her colleagues build gingerbread houses as part of a company-wide contest. They test them on a shaking table, and the house that remains standing longest wins. “It’s a way to share holiday spirit while geeking out about architecture and engineering,” says Cuthbert.

This month, many people will head to their kitchens for some gingerbread building. They’ll make a structure with only baked dough, icing, and candies. That’s no easy job. These treats can fall apart with a little bump.

Science World wanted tips on making an amazing but strong gingerbread house. We spoke with structural engineer Mary Cuthbert. She usually plans hospitals and labs for building firm KPFF in Los Angeles, California. But once a year, Cuthbert and her co-workers build gingerbread houses. It’s part of a company-wide contest. They test them on a shaking table, and the house that stands the longest wins. “It’s a way to share holiday spirit while geeking out about architecture and engineering,” says Cuthbert.

DURABLE DESIGN

The first step is to draw out a plan. “Consider what you want every piece to look like and how the pieces will fit together,” says Cuthbert.

Keeping the roof light minimizes the structural load, or weight, on the walls. When a heavy roof shifts from side to side, it puts stress on its supports. That’s why an accidental jolt can knock down an unstable house.

Also, builders should think about the distribution of mass, or material, in the house. “Avoid stacking something heavy on top of something skinny,” says Cuthbert. “You want a house that’s wider at the base and narrower toward the top.”

The first step is to draw a plan. “Consider what you want every piece to look like and how the pieces will fit together,” says Cuthbert.

Keep the roof lightweight. That puts less structural load, or weight, on the walls. When a heavy roof shifts from side to side, it puts stress on the walls. That’s why a surprise bump can knock down an unstable house.

Builders should also think about the mass, or material, in the house. They should make sure it’s spread out properly. “Avoid stacking something heavy on top of something skinny,” says Cuthbert. “You want a house that’s wider at the base and narrower toward the top.”

STUCK TOGETHER

Many people use icing to glue a gingerbread house’s pieces together. “Last year, my team made icing using water and powdered sugar,” says Cuthbert. “Our house crumbled after just 10 seconds.” The winning team used egg whites instead of water, creating a cement-like paste. With the right design and materials, you can build a gingerbread house that never topples.

How do you glue a gingerbread house’s pieces together? Many people use icing. “Last year, my team made icing using water and powdered sugar,” says Cuthbert. “Our house crumbled after just 10 seconds.” The winning team used egg whites instead of water. That formed a cement-like paste. With the right plan and materials, you can build a gingerbread house that never tumbles.

CORE QUESTION: What are some similarities between designing a gingerbread house and creating a real building?

Skills Sheets (4)
Skills Sheets (4)
Skills Sheets (4)
Skills Sheets (4)
Lesson Plan (2)
Lesson Plan (2)