5 Things Jenga Can Teach Us About Structural Engineering


One of the most important principles of structural engineering is loading. Have you heard of a load-bearing wall? It's usually an internal wall (like the one that divides your kitchen and living room) that also serves as a column that holds up the second floor or the roof. If you remove a load-bearing wall, the structure might not be able to support its own weight -- and that spells trouble.

In Jenga, no two wooden blocks are cut to exactly the same dimensions, which means that the blocks rest on each other unevenly [source: Smith]. One of the main tricks of Jenga is locating the "loose" pieces, which are easier to remove without disturbing the integrity of the tower. If a piece is loose, then you know it can't be load-bearing.

So what does this teach us about structural engineering? When designing a building, engineers need to consider the load path from the top of the building to the foundation. Each level of the structure needs to support the forces applied downward from the levels above. There are three kinds of loads that occur in a building:

  • Dead loads -- The forces applied by all of the static components of the structure, like beams, columns, rivets, concrete and dry wall.
  • Live loads -- The forces applied by all of the "moving" elements that can affect a structure, including people, furniture, cars, and normal weather events like rain, snow and wind.
  • Dynamic loads -- Dynamic loads are live loads that occur suddenly with great force. Examples are earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes and airplane crashes [source: Yes Mag].

Engineers need to do careful calculations to ensure that load-bearing walls, ceilings and roofs can support dead, live and even dynamic loads, particularly when building in seismically active zones.

The next important principle that Jenga teaches about structural engineering is the importance of a foundation.

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