The structures were high and expectations even higher as some of the UK’s leading experts in the design and construction of tall buildings gathered for the Jenga Christmas challenge. In an afternoon of flair, passion and beer, only those with nerves of steel and hands of iron could survive. Readers of a nervous disposition should look away now…

This was the year that London became obsessed with tall buildings. There were towers going up, towers coming down so that other, bigger towers could take their place, and towers that were still only vague ideas, but had excellent names. Contractors were battling over the Helter Skelter and the Walkie-Talkie, engineers were working out the finer details of how to build a really big shard of glass, and demolition specialists just wanted to knock stuff down.

To celebrate these collective endeavours, Building has gathered some of the tall buildings experts who work on the London skyline (not to mention several kilometres worth of high-rise madness in Dubai). The scene is Doggett’s bar, a four-storey, sixties-built hymn to the cardboard box at Blackfriars. This is a pub that is standing defiantly in the way of progress, undaunted by the fact that the Beetham Corporation is about to build a 51-storey skyscraper in its back garden. Today it will be home to the greatest building challenge of them all: Jenga.

For the uninitiated, Wikipedia describes Jenga as “a game of physical and mental skill in which players remove blocks from a tower and put them on top”. In construction terms, it’s like being presented with a drab 10-storey office block built from repeat materials with uninspired cladding, and then being asked to transform it into a futuristic 30-storey tower, built with a rakish twist and punctured by exciting holes, using only materials from the lower floors of the same building. Fittingly, when the whole structure comes crashing to the ground, you lose. Apparently, the word jenga is derived from kujenga, the Swahili verb “to build”, jenga being the imperative form. Wikipedia truly is the fount of all knowledge. Some of it is even true.

The rules are simple: only one team member may play each go; they can’t remove blocks from the top three storeys; and the losers restack the tower.

The team news in full …

Davis Langdon

How they line up Martin Jones, Hamish Summers and David Williams Track record The Shard, the Broadgate Tower, and half of Dubai

What the pundits say With budget no object, the money guys can loosen up and unleash their wildest ambitions. But, then again, the instinct to value-engineer does run deep and there’s no point building unnecessarily high, is there?

IstructE, represented by Techniker

How they line up Francesco Ferrari, Nick Hewson and Oliver Tiong

Track record Once engineered a glass box filled with fog for an exhibition by sculptor Antony Gormley

What the pundits say They have the technical expertise and the artistic vision, but may be weighed down by the fact that they carry the hopes of an entire profession on their shoulders


How they line up Mick Kelly, Jim O’Sullivan and Dave Row

Track record If it’s been built, the chances are they’ve tried to knock it down. Currently clearing the way for the Shard

What the pundits say Will want to prove there’s more to demolition than spectacular collapses … won’t they?

Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands

How they line up Danielle Dickinson, Lydia Firminger and Alessia Mosci

Track record Have just designed a 144m tower on Coin Street, down the road from Doggett’s

Hey, we’re in the semis. This is live, Bill, live! He has it, he has the brick… ohhhh… you should come down, you really – hello? Bill?

Wsp’s Pete Townsend calls the office

What the pundits say Knowledge of the local terrain is invaluable. The only architects in the competition, they have the chance to prove that their ideas can stand up without engineers around to do the tricky bits


How they line up Gemma Harding, Matt Massey and Steve Wells

Track record Is building the Walkie-Talkie and has just won the contract to build the Shard

What the pundits say Will be keen to get stuck in after waiting for the Shard to start all autumn


How they line up Carrie Abrahams, Matt Coleman and Pete Townsend

Track record The Beetham Tower in Manchester, the Shard

What the pundits say The early favourites. WSP is even working on a project called the Jenga tower in Chicago, so presumably it got lots of practice in during the planning stage

Building Graduate Advisory Board

How they line up Sophie Campbell of Sheppard Robson and Mark Chamberlain of NG Bailey

Track record None as yet – this could be their big break

What the pundits say They’re young, they’re fearless, anything can happen

Building’s Technical Desk

How they line up Nick Jones, Stephen Kennett and Tom Lane

Track record Stephen has a degree in structural engineering, Tom has a hangover

What the pundits say Not expecting much from this lot, apart from maintaining a superior attitude and criticising everybody else’s attempts

The heats

First up it’s Davis Langdon vs Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands. Well, actually it’s not, because the Lifschutz team’s lunch has just arrived so their hosts gamely swap places in the draw. The Building team is pinning its hopes on technical editor Tom’s extensive knowledge of structural tensions. But Tom has a hangover, and is gingerly sipping orange juice in the corner.

It’s a stupid game anyway

Matt Massey, Mace

For a while, it looks as if the first game will also be the last, as it stretches into an epic 40-minute battle of concentration and nail-biting suspense. For Davis Langdon, a consultant that prizes its reputation as a project manager, the time overrun must be a concern.

Belying his hangover, Tom is quickly in the zone, systematically knocking on each block like a builder who has come round to suck his teeth at the crack in your cavity walling. “It’s pure instinct with Tom,” says team-mate Stephen in awe.

As the tower passes the 1.20m mark, swaying wildly every time anyone so much as glances at it, it seems that each go will be the last. The room holds its breath. It’s incredibly tense. And incredibly, the tower reaches 1.40m before Stephen brings it crashing down and the hosts are out in the first round.

As the inquest begins among the Building team (“Haven’t you got a structural engineering degree, Stephen? Isn’t that like a qualification in Jenga?”), the second heat, between Mace and Building’s graduate advisory board, sets off at a terrific pace, much to the relief of all spectators. “I don’t know what all the fuss is about”, says Mace’s Matt as he plucks out a brick and breezily sets it on top of the tower. But his confidence is misplaced. After just 13 minutes he finds himself standing ankle deep in debris, staring in disbelief at the brick in his hand. “It’s a stupid game anyway,” he grumbles.

Next up are the structural engineers – WSP and Techniker. The guys from Techniker are actually here representing the Institution of Structural Engineers and seem slightly daunted: “We didn’t know we were representing a whole profession,” says Nick.

The pairing brings something new to the tournament: skill. Pete from WSP winkles out a centre block while the one above it is clearly loose. Bizarrely, when Nick comes to remove the loose brick, it is stuck like glue. How? There is clearly an invisible hand helping WSP, and Techniker crash out at 1.35m, taking Nick’s pint of beer with them.

The team from demolition specialist Keltbray have now sat on their hands for three heats. This is like Michelangelo being forced to watch Rolf Harris paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Finally, heat four pits them against Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, and it’s soon evident that their natural instincts are going to be a telling factor: their first moves are to remove two out of three of the blocks from the bottom layer. “It makes every block difficult from the beginning. It’s more fun,” says Dave gleefully.

LDS’ weak point is indecision. “Take that one,” Lydia advises Danielle. “Or maybe not …” But it’s not a great surprise when, at 1.15m, Keltbray swing the metaphorical wrecking ball. They seem happy with the result. “It was clean, controlled,” says Mick. Dave nods: “It was starting to fall, so Mick held it and made sure the area was clear.”

Semi-Final 2

WSP vs Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands

Graduate Mark, still lingering in the arena, has set himself up as the John Motson of Jenga. “There’s some interesting techniques here,” he says, with only a trace of irony. “One hand, two hands…” He even manages to muster up some Mottie-esque indignation on behalf of the paying punter. “They’re just not entertaining the fans,” he grumbles, looking at the bemused bar girl.

As the teams rattle through the early stages of tower extension, discussion turns to the advantages of long fingernails. Mark’s keen to come back next year with a manicure, but given his rather large hands, he’d probably just end up alarming the opponents. “It’s definitely easier with smaller hands,” calls out Lydia, from the Jenga pit. Then she returns to her conversation with the bricks. “How about you?” she coos.

WSP’s Matt, bored with Lydia’s dallying, has wandered off. When he wanders back, Lydia is still on the floor, having finally chosen a brick,

but – “Stop!” shout her team-mates. “I can’t just stop,” she wails, the brick half hanging out. She’s somehow spun the brick around without actually removing it. This is some odd Jenga.

At 118cm, tensions are rising. Then Pete’s phone rings. “Hey Bill, we’re in the semi. Yeah. It’s Matt’s go. Yeah. We are about five pints down the road …” Whoever Bill is, he doesn’t seem impressed, much to Pete’s dismay. “This is live Bill, live! He has it, he has the brick … ohhhhh … you should come down, you really –” But the phone has gone dead.

Lifschutz return to the floor. “Am I taking this one?” asks Lydia hesitantly. “Yeah, we’ll be here all night otherwise,” is Danielle’s response. Lydia does as she is told, but she’s not happy. “I don’t think this is a very good idea… Shall I just –”

WSP are in the final.

Semi-Final 1

Davis Langdon vs the Building Graduate Advisory Board

I feel like Carol Vorderman

Stephen Kennett, Building

With the also-rans out of the way, and the daylight fading, it’s down to the serious business of the semi-finals. As the tower gets rebuilt, the teams are discussing tactics.

The grads want to inject some pace into proceedings, while the more cautious Davis Langdon are planning to press their height – and numeric – advantages. “There’s three of us to two of them,” David whispers, conspiratorially. Nobody like a QS for picking up on the vital stats.

Davis Langdon start but soon hit trouble. While David hesitates over his move, graduate Mark looms over him in an intimidatory fashion. “Is that a legal move?” Mark asks, as David finally takes a brick from suspiciously near the top of the tower (see page 47 for Building’s exhaustive set of rules). “It will be a hollow victory if you win.”

To rub salt in the wound, the fast-moving Sophie then plays her go in a record 10 seconds. “Oh, right,” says David, slightly humiliated. “I probably took some of the weight off.”

Back to Davis Langdon, and Martin’s move causes the tower to lean dramatically to the left. He starts to walk away, but by some miracle the tower stabilises. “It’s amazing how these towers stay up,” muses Dave from Keltbray.

“Before they come down, leaving a nice pile of rubble,” he adds wistfully.

Luck may be with Davis Langdon, but the grads’ controversial “steadying hands” have been keeping them in the game. Until, that is, Sophie takes the floor. Tapping the bricks a little too diligently, the tower lurches. Sophie throws her arms around it, as if slow-dancing with a drunk, but it’s too late.

The QSs are through …

The final

Davis Langdon vs WSP

So here it is. The clash of the titans. The team led by David Williams, the only man to play Jenga in a sharp suit and tie, versus a collection of inebriated structural engineers. Who are outside having a fag. The sledging begins immediately on their return.

What does Matt think of his opponents’ chances? “They’re bean counters!” he says with contempt. “Who give WSP a lot of work,” David reminds him. Matt tries to smooth things over: “Yes! Nice bean counters …”

That should do it.

With the competition already running almost an hour late, there’s a new rule: a limit of one minute a go. Building’s Stephen, the man responsible for the home side’s early exit against Davis Langdon, is in charge of the watch. Davis Langdon are not happy. But Stephen seems to be enjoying himself: “I feel like Carol Vorderman,” he says.

The game begins steadily, but as WSP’s Carrie moves towards a brick, there’s a shattering sound behind us. “The shard of glass!” yell the Keltbray team from the back of the room. Someone is waving the remnants of a pint glass, close to where the Mace team are sitting. “The Shard’s started! It’s the Shard team at work! Go Shard!”

The Keltbray team are naturally still clamouring for demolition, but at 1.15m the tower is holding firm.

“Twist it out, Carrie, twist! Work it, work it,” Pete is yelling, like a crazed gym instructor. Then it’s David’s go, and the pace drops again – dangerously so. “Twenty!” calls Stephen. “Nineteen!”“Come on,” Hamish appeals to Building’s Grim Reaper. “If we win, it means you came second.” It’s appealing logic, but Stephen is unfazed. “Five, four, three…” David removes the brick, and the tower wobbles woozily. But for the second time in a Davis Langdon clash this afternoon, the tower refuses to obey the laws of physics. “These are Davis Langdon blocks!” comes the shout from the back.

It’s back with WSP, and Matt, now almost as unsteady as the tower, is on his knees besides what is now a highly precarious structure. He stares, he prods – and it’s all over. The Jenga falls on Matt, and Matt falls on the floor. The tower – and WSP’s dreams of glory – are in ruins.

Tiny towers

With the Giant Jenga game running way over time and the drinks budget, something had to be done to keep the teams amused while waiting for their heat. Bar billiards and darts are nowhere to be seen, so Building hit on a brilliant idea: more Jenga. Mini Jenga this time in which the teams play on their own and the one with the highest tower wins. Here are the teams’ vital statistics, with expert game analysis.

WSP 44.5cm Carrie’s ambidexterosity is WSP’s secret weapon. But WSP’s five-minute strategy meeting before the start also pays dividends. Pete’s rule that there should be “no running, skipping, jumping or fat people walking near our table” is probably key.

Keltbray 43.5cm At one point they play “blind Jenga”, where Jim and Mick tell Dave (who isn’t looking) where to put his hand. Perhaps there is method in the madness but it’s anyone’s guess what it is.

Techniker 40.5cm The group decide the best technique is to feel around for the “dodgy” blocks and remove those first. It doesn’t seem the most scientific of approaches but produces the most interesting looking tower, with a balcony effect down one side.

LDS 39.5cm A shaky start but it evens up when Alessia decides it is a game of balance; each piece they take out is added to the opposing side. Danielle’s long nails help her tap the blocks out – they call it the “woodpecker approach”.

Building 39.5cm Building’s technical desk begins by quibbling with the manufacturing tolerances of the blocks. They start low, removing the middle pieces first. Before they can enjoy the fruits of this strategy, the building topples over.

Mace 38cm At one point the tower topples and Gemma manages to catch it and prop it back up. The referee feels such athleticism should not go unrewarded and lets them play on. But the “structural integrity” has been compromised and the swaying tower collapses at the next touch.

Davis Langdon 32.5cm DL is hardly at the table long enough to develop a strategy. The winners of Giant Jenga just can’t take the intensity of the mini version. In minutes, it’s over.

The art of destruction

If the Jenga tower has one failing as a standard design, it’s that it can be a little prosaic. While the final was coming to its dramatic climax,
Mace – keen to prove they’ve got what it takes to build the Shard at London Bridge – took a more imaginative approach to the Mini Jenga. Keltbray – keen to prove they’ve got what it takes to clear the site for the Shard – then did what Keltbray do best …