When Sichuan province was devastated by a magnitude 8 earthquake in May last year, Gao Jianhang was busy preparing for a trip to the United States to study urban design at Harvard University. The 24-year-old Beijinger said many fellow students from Tsinghua University's architecture department went to the quake zone to help as volunteers, but he was not able to join them. 'However, at the bottom of my heart, I always wanted to do something for Sichuan,' he said. That dream bore fruit last month when Gao and two other mainland students at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, Xiong Xing and Lu Xiaoxuan, won the top prize in a competition to design quake-resistant housing. Their 'shaking houses' design beat 184 other entries in the Greenville Student Design Competition, organised by architectural firm Aedas and the South China Morning Post's Homes for Hope project. Gao, who represented the trio at last week's award presentation ceremony in Hong Kong, was proud that their efforts had won recognition. 'This is what we can contribute to Sichuan,' he said. 'It's the realisation of a long-time dream.' Gao learned about the Greenville competition in August and decided to design low-density community housing for Sichuan, inviting Xiong and Lu to join him. From initial brainstorming sessions to heated discussion over several possible ideas, the trio finally settled on 'one solution that could cover everyone's ideas'. They put a steel supporting structure outside the houses and connected all the housing units with it. The houses hang above ground and can counter the stress and movement caused by a quake. The design also leaves sufficient open space to build a vibrant community and is easy to adapt to individual needs. The design received high marks from all the judges, including Tsinghua architecture professor Wu Huanjia . 'It's a unique design,' Wu said. 'It provides an effective and innovative way to settle the quake-resistance problem with its fishing-net-like structure.' The Harvard students were excited when they learned they had won the competition. 'We spent most of our weekends on this project over two months, thinking hard over the design and sometimes even staying up all night to make the models,' Gao said. 'Now it's proved that our idea really makes sense.' He expects to graduate from Harvard next summer and plans to return to China. 'China is developing so fast that it's likely to make some mistakes in the urbanisation process,' he said. 'I hope to do more research in this area in future and help my country avoid such mistakes.' A team of three graduate students from Tsinghua University, Yi Nianzu, Liu Lizao and Cao Yu, won the second prize with an 'overlap' design. Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture students Kong Di and Duan Xuexin won the third prize with a 'hanging house' design.