A team of engineers and architects practicing building a gingerbread house for a competition. (Photo Courtesy of John Bwarie)

Structural engineers use their skills to design buildings and bridges to ensure they can withstand the elements and not come crashing down. Starting on Friday, engineers in Southern California will be showcasing their work in a different kind of challenge: building a gingerbread house.

Over the course of three days, the Structural Engineers Association of Southern California (SEAOSC) will be hosting a competition of engineers creating replicas of iconic Los Angeles buildings and whimsical structures out of baked goods and candies at the Burbank Town Center.

Teams of engineers, architects and college students, from universities including USC and Cal State Los Angeles, will construct replicas of buildings including LA Union Station, the Getty Villa, the Hill Valley courthouse from the film “Back to the Future” and the family home from the Disney animated movie “Encanto.” 

Each replica will be built using gingerbread candy and icing. The teams will be provided 14-by-14 inch gingerbread sheets to create their replica — teams can do some additional baking as well. When completed, the replicas are expected to be a couple of feet tall. 

John Bwarie, executive director of SEAOSC, explained that the role of a structural engineer — while essential — is often not known to most people.

The aim of the exhibit is to create a fun, community-focused event that will allow engineers to showcase their skills.

“With all the training and the work that they do every day, this is a way to demonstrate and show the public what they do,” Bwarie said. “This is a great opportunity to manifest the important buildings, the whimsical buildings [and] the iconic buildings that people know and love in gingerbread form by the construction design professionals that do this in real life.”

There are 15 teams participating in the challenge. Although there is no limit to the amount of people that can help design and strategize on each team, there will be a maximum of five builders per team when it comes time to construct the replica.

Although each team has had time beforehand to draw up schematics for their buildings and make practice replicas, they will have just five hours to build their replica at the center the night before the exhibit opens.

The teams will be competing across numerous categories: Tallest Structure, Best Decorated, Best Replica Building, Most Creative Original Structure, “Best in Show,” President’s Choice and People’s Choice.

Each team will also be supporting a different nonprofit organization. Visitors to the center can make a $5 donation to receive five votes that can be allocated to either one or multiple structures. All the funds donated to each structure will go towards the nonprofit the team behind the replica is supporting.

There will be no limits on the amount of votes people can buy. The structure with the most votes will win the People’s Choice award.

“We asked that each team either select a nonprofit that they normally support and work with or pick from a list of folks that are in the area that are doing great work,” Bwarie said. “There are 15 different nonprofits that are being supported.”

The nonprofits being supported include the ACE Mentor Program of America — an afterschool program designed to attract high school students into pursuing engineering careers — the Burbank YMCA and the Westside Food Bank.

Guests who come to the center will also get the opportunity to construct their own buildings using available gingerbread kits for $10. Guests then can have their buildings placed on a shake table to test their structural integrity. Engineers will also be onsite to answer questions and give advice on the principles of design and engineering.

Although Bwarie said it’s too early to tell if the challenge will become a new tradition for SEAOSC, he thinks it will garner interest from other engineers who will be interested enough to participate another time, as well as from the public.

“This is going to be an exciting event to visit that, even if you have no idea what an engineer is, you come to this event and you’ll walk away knowing more about your city, how it’s built and the people responsible for keeping you safe in every building you walk into,” Bwarie said.

“The most exciting part is being able to show what structural engineers do and how their work helps build cities and keeps us all safe in a fun and approachable way.”

The exhibit is open to the public on Dec. 9 – 10 from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Dec. 11 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information about the exhibit and to purchase tickets, go to https://seaosc.org/socalgingerbreadchallenge/.