Engineering Department > Structures Group

Teaching Material for use in Schools

Design of Tall Buildings

Lalupu photo This page has been constructed by Heather Lalupu and Chris Burgoyne. The material was produced by Heather as part of her 4th year undergraduate project in 2008. The work was carried out in association with the Institution of Structural Engineers Educational Trust

Suzhou Tower
Not all towers are new - this one is in Suzhou, China

Tall Buildings are all around us; you either love them or loathe them, but you cannot ignore them. The Tall Buildings teaching module contains three cross-curricular activities that tie in with the GCSE syllabus for mathematics, physics and design and technology.  The teaching material has been developed in association with the IStructE Educational Trust and the University of Cambridge, following a study that looked at how to promote physics in schools.

There are three separate activities, which are designed to be taken together but can be done separately. The Maths lesson explores geometry; the Physics lesson involves model-making and shows the way engineers have to design against earthquakes, while the Design and Technology module looks at the way a client may specify to an engineer what is needed in the building.

Each activity is designed to require minimum preparation time from the teacher and should take around an hour to complete. Student worksheets and overhead presention slides are provided for each activity along with supporting teachers' notes with background information and worked solutions. Each module is summarised below, and each includes several files that can be downloaded, some of which are quite large. All materials can be copied and used for educational purposes provided that they are not altered and the source is acknowledged. Any suggestions for improvements to these materials, or feedback on how well the materials work, should be sent to Chris Burgoyne at the University of Cambridge (

Design Specification Activity

The Design Specification activity is aimed at students taking KS4 in Design Technology. The students have to decide how to decide what aspects of the building are important to them, as potential purchasers of the building, so that they can write a specification for the engineer. They have to decide on the purpose of their building, on the restrictions on its use. Why do they want it to be tall? How will it be maintained? Who will use it, and for what purpose?
An 80 Storey Building under construction in Hong Kong.
The same building after completion.

Files to download (as a Zip file):- Teacher's powerpoint presentation; Teacher's Guidance Notes; Student Worksheet

Building Geometry

The building of tall buildings often involves complex questions of geometry, so this exercise has two parts. A short starter lesson recaps basic geometrical shapes and their properties and relates them to a crane structure. They have to decide the geometry of a crane needed to gain access to the upper floors of their building. An extension looks at the geometry of the helicopter landing pad on the Burj al Arab hotel, one of the most complex buildings in the world.
Leeds Gherkin
A tower under construction in Leeds The Gherkin in London - note the gantry near the top for access to clean the windows

Files to download (as a zip file):-

Teacher's powerpoint presentation; Teacher's Guidance Notes; Student Worksheet

Earthquake Resistance

This exercise discusses the effect of earthquakes on the design of tall buildings. There is coverage of the different types of waves that result from earthquakes, and they consider which is the most important for tall buildings. They they build models of tall buildings, using different forms of construction, and the make a simple shaking table (using two pencils rolling on a table-top). Some of the schools that have trialled this module have built a more complex and realistic shaker using clamps and springs.
Buildings for the earthquake test

Files to download:-

Teacher's powerpoint presentation; Teacher's Guidance Notes; Video; Student Worksheet


We would like to thank the Institution of Structural Engineers Educational Trust for their assistance in producing these materials.  We would also like to thank the staff and pupils of St Catherine's School, Twickenham; the Leys School, Cambridge; St Joseph's School, Cornwall; Launceston College, Cornwall and Hedingham School, Essex for trialling these modules and giving valuable feedback or for other assistance. The photographs in the text and in this page are taken by the authors ior are taken from copyright-free web sites.


Other Teaching Materials produced by CUED

Why study Civil Engineering at Cambridge

Admissions Prospectus for Cambridge University Engineering Department

Institution of Structural Engineers Educational Trust