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About this Article
Written by: Lisa Okamoto
Written on: December 14th, 2010
Tags: building & architecture, civil engineering, food & drink
Thumbnail by: Earwicker/SXC.hu
About the Author
Lisa Okamoto was a senior studying civil engineering. She hopes to work for an engineering/construction firm professionally. She loves baking cakes and everything delicious.
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The Naughty JabulaniWritten by: Paul C. Martinez
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Volume XIII Issue I > Edible Structures: The Application of Structural Engineering in Cake Design
Rarely are cakes thought of as miniature buildings, but they are actually governed by the same physics that keep homes and offices upright. As such, multi-layered cakes are subject building like forces and need a support system that will hold the weight of the different layers. They share many structural elements with modern day skyscrapers like foundations and columns. When a cake falls, it resembles the disaster of a building failure, although without the extreme consequences.

Introduction

Many of us can easily claim to be cake demolition experts. We simply see, cut, and eat the sugary confection. Not many people put much thought into what goes into creating the delicious dessert, let alone the structural aspects of it. There may not be too much complexity to the basic homemade one layer cake, but professionally-made cakes can be over four feet high and take the form of anything from Hogwarts Castle to a box of crayons [1]. These complex cake designs require a strong support system to keep them from breaking apart or collapsing. It might sound odd to think of them this way, but cakes can be considered miniature buildings in their structural elements.
If you compare the structures of a multi-tier cake and a building, two important similarities can be seen: the importance of a foundation and the use of columns. Both of these elements are used to help carry the load of the structure and ensure its stability. Another common factor between cakes and buildings is the way they are both vulnerable to structural faults that can cause complete failure.

Foundations

Although virtually impossible to detect in both building and cake design, the foundation is the most important element of a structure. It is the under-layer of the entire project and will ultimately hold the majority of the load. Building a structure without a foundation is like building a house made of cards: the slightest disturbance could cause a complete collapse.
Irivine Geotechnical
Figure 1: Footing foundations are designed to take small loads typically seen in residential construction.
There are three basic types of structural foundations: footings, mats, and piles. Footing foundations (Fig. 1) are sections of concrete that are shallowly embedded into the ground and sit underneath the lowest layer of the building. They are designed for fairly small loads, on the order of a few hundred tons, and are mainly used in residential construction [2]. If the structure is much larger than a house, the foundation must be upgraded to a mat (Fig. 2). This is a shallow foundation that encompasses a large area and is usually made of a rebar skeleton that is filled with concrete. With a mat, the load is distributed over a greater area. Without it, a large, concentrated load will produce a significant amount of settling in the soil underneath, which could make the structure unsound and vulnerable to collapse [3].
The strongest of the three styles is the pile foundation, which can be designed to carry loads upwards of two million pounds [3]. Piles are columns that are either driven or drilled into the ground until they reach bedrock or a stronger soil. They are used for very large total loads, on the order of a few million pounds, or for structures built on soft and easily compressible soil, like clay. Most skyscrapers utilize pile foundations because these structures add extremely large loads over fairly small areas [4]. Piles take the load of the structure off of the top layer of soil and transfer it to the bedrock or stronger soil that can be found many meters beneath the surface. Some of the load is also counteracted by the frictional interaction between the pile and the soil. When the pile is pounded into the ground, an upward frictional force is created, helping to keep the pile in place [5].
Irvine Geotechnical
Figure 2: Mat foundations are used when loads will be much larger than that provided by a house. Unlike the footing foundation, the mat distributes loads over a much greater area.