Duke attempts to break the cardboard fort world record

Sep. 20, 2013 @ 05:41 PM

With gritted teeth and worried, concentrated looks, a handful of Duke students lifted a cardboard box wall using wooden beams in the middle of the West Campus chapel quad.

Inch by inch, the wall closed in on the dignified statue of James B. Duke.

The boxes quivered as the first side of the cardboard fortress was erected. Student volunteers carrying tape and flattened boxes stopped to cheer.

It was 2 p.m. Friday, and they had seven hours to go to break the record for world’s largest cardboard fort using 3,500 boxes. The project, organized by multiple Duke disciplines, to include art, architecture and sustainability, trudged on that rainy afternoon, even as fat raindrops splat against the soggy structure, making the tops of boxes buckle.

As a group of students worked on the Duke Chapel-like center of the structure, others worked on a labyrinth constructed of Home Depot, microwave and memory foam mattress boxes. Two-thirds of the boxes were gathered from student move-in, and the remaining third were shipment boxes sent to campus buildings.

“First and foremost, it’s, dude, look at all the cardboard we brought in,” said Arwen Buchholz, Duke’s sanitation and recycling program manager. “How much are we consuming? How much are we recycling or throwing away?”

Besides spreading a message of sustainability, Buchholz said they were confident about breaking the cardboard fort world record, which is held by the city of Naperville, Ill., who used 3,204 boxes.

Buchholz said she heard Naperville constructed their fort inside and with new, donated boxes, so it isn’t a comparable challenge.

Cardboard continued to stack up as students walked out of classes or got off the bus. They walked past the frenzied scene in the grass, carrying backpacks, and decided to chip in on a whim.

Ryan Edwardson, who’s going after his master’s degree in divinity at Duke, said he was planning to ride his bike home from the Divinity School when he came across the massive project.

“I have no better way to spend my Friday afternoon,” Edwardson said, sorting through stacks of flattened cardboard. “This is the highlight of my week, helping to build a giant box fort.

“When they put that wall up,” he added, pointing to the side of the fort, “I was very happy. This is a delightful Friday afternoon. I’m kind of like a kid, and I will always be a kid.”

Environmental artist and Durham resident Bryant Holsenbeck and three volunteers strung plastic bottles, cut into curls, on zip ties. They were then woven together to form a plastic cape for the Duke statue. The plastic cascaded down his shoulders in waves, parts of Dr. Pepper and Dasani labels adding splashes of red and blue.

The fort construction also promoted the Duke Arts Festival coming up in October. The theme will be sustainability, and Holsenbeck will have more of her plastic bottle art on display in her “Falling Water: Plastic Sea” exhibition in the Bryan Center starting Oct. 18.

So why choose to put a cape on Duke University’s founder? “Well, why not?” Holsenbeck asked. “They said, ‘Put him in a dress,’ and I said, ‘Why not a cape?’”

She calls James B. Duke the Caped Crusader of the cardboard fort. By mid-afternoon, his cape was constructed of 3,000 plastic bottles and counting, gathered from as far as Appalachian State University and the Cary Fire Department, as well as straight from Duke’s recycling program.

The students had until 9 p.m. to technically break the record and then break down their creation. White moving vans were on standby, to lug the cardboard there and then lug it back for recycling.

Tahsin Zaman, a 20-year-old Duke neuroscience sophomore, said he was moving from job to job at the construction site, first making adhesive strips to hold the boxes together, then helping to construct the first fort wall.

He said he agrees with other students. They’re living out a childhood dream by building this huge fort.

“I think that’s why everyone’s here,” Zaman said. “As a kid, you want to make out of giant cardboard boxes a giant castle.”

Nineteen-year-old Noura von Briesen, a civil engineering sophomore, walked by with a floor lamp box in her hands, hoping to add it to the labyrinth. She compared putting the pieces together to playing Tetris.

“It’s a not-so-common way to apply my limited, right now, engineering skills and figure out how it’s going to hold up,” von Briesen said.

The lead architect of the fortress was Todd Berreth, a research programmer and architecture instructor at Duke. He came up with the detailed blueprints before Friday, which included measurements and box renderings around the Duke statue.

He zipped through the piles of boxes and dismantled wooden beams that afternoon with bloodied fingers that suffered close encounters with a packaging tape gun. By 3 p.m., the group had used 1,600 boxes and had signed in about 200 volunteers throughout the day.

He said he decided to create a labyrinth because of its message.

“There’s just something poetic about this long journey of taking care of our environment,” Berreth said. “… It’s just being part of a community, chipping in with whatever you can bring to it.”

And underneath the gray clouds, Berreth, who’s used to building with concrete, said they hope it will remain intact.

“You just cross your fingers that it will stand.”