Carnegie Mellon University

Group of CivE students in front of the bench they built

October 25, 2019

Using Teamwork, Soil Mechanics in Bench Building Project

CivE undergraduates Tessa Weeden ('20), Jessica Wang ('21), and Skylar McAuliffe ('22) recently participated in an on-campus project that tested their engineering abilities—as well as their teamwork skills. The women worked alongside 40 other students to create a bench, designed by architecture students in the Earthworks Course, out of earthen building materials.

In the course of a weekend, the team formed a mixture of clay, sand, water, and straw into balls called “cobs.” This material was the base for the bench, which was finished off with a wetter clay mixture to smooth the surface.

“The longer we worked and more tired we got, the more fun we had,” said Weeden, who was surprised at the amount of labor involved in the building process. “After working for four hours on the first day, we hadn’t even started to form the backrest to the bench.”

Weeden explained that her knowledge of soil mechanics was beneficial in helping the team to create the cob mixture. “As the professor [leading the project] talked about the properties of clay and how the balance of ingredients changes for different purposes, it made me think of complicated soil mechanics calculations I’d studied previously. It was nice to see this in action and result in real construction.”

Wang added that the project forced her to focus on questions relating to how stress applied to the ground impacted the building process. “I had to really understand the inner workings of building a bench out of clay,” she says.

The teamwork element of the project made a positive impression on McAuliffe, who explained that as the cobs were being built, students would toss them from person to person to get them to the bench’s location. The final weight of the bench was estimated at 11-12 tons—meaning that the students’ ability to work together was essential in completing the project on time.

“It really surprised me that we were all able to move that much material together. It was a very strenuous but a fun and almost therapeutic experience—all at the same time,” she states.

Group photo of participants
Group photo of the workshop participants
Students seated at earthen bench
Students seated at earthen bench
Building the bench
Building the bench
students packing mud
Packing mud on earthen bench
Building material closeup
Close up of building material
Detail of earthen bench
Detail of earthen bench
Finished Bench
Finished bench