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Canstruction Turns 20
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Hollow red heart, glowing gold from within and balanced precisely on a very small point
A hollow red heart, glowing gold from within and balanced precisely on a very small point, was the 2012 international winner for structural ingenuity, designed by Architectural Edge in Temple, Texas. Design by Architectural Edge/photo courtesy of Canstruction, Inc.

Group that draws attention to hunger through design competitions marks 20 years of light-hearted innovation coupled with charitable donations.

December 4, 2012—This year, hundreds of architecture, engineering, and design firms spent months painstakingly planning 10 ft by 10 ft structures that they fully understood would be dismantled and removed in two weeks. And yet the hours they poured into the stunningly complex projects—built almost exclusively from canned food—were well spent, resulting in 3.4 million pounds of food donated to the nation’s food banks.

The structures are designed each year for Canstruction competitions. Canstruction, which marked its 20th anniversary earlier this year, is the creation of the late Cheri Melillo, a former national public relations chair for the Society of Design Administration. Melillo envisioned a series of friendly competitions that benefited the underprivileged.

The first competition was held in New York City, but Canstruction events have since spread to a total of 225 locations, according to Chakshu Mehta, the director of operations for Canstruction.

 Can portrait of Andy Warhol

NK Architects, Morristown, New Jersey, won the best use of
labels for a 17,441-can portrait of Andy Warhol. Design by NK
Architects/photo courtesy of Canstruction, Inc.

“From the data we have collected, we have raised over 20 million pounds [of food] in 20 years,” Mehta says. “It really makes a big impact. What we like to do is give [the cans] to the Feeding America food bank. They distribute to the pantries and soup kitchens. For instance, in Atlanta ... they distribute to about 30 to 40 food pantries.” 

The 2012 international winner for structural ingenuity was Architectural Edge in Temple, Texas, which designed and built an impressive hollow red heart, glowing gold from within, and balancing precisely on a very small point. Randy Stumberg, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, an owner and architect of the firm, said the structure collapsed several times in practice runs as they honed the extreme design, made utilizing cans of pork and beans.

“We knew that we would either have an impressive sculpture or a huge pile of dented and crushed cans in the middle of the floor at the end of the build,” Stumberg said, in written comments to Civil Engineering online.

“The main structural challenge, after the simple math of the design, was the cantilever of the individual layers of cans,” Stumberg said. “The structure had to be redesigned two different times to lessen the impact of cantilevers that were too deep for an individual layer. We also left the inside of the heart hollow, both to lessen the weight on the lower level and to equalize the numbers of cans around the axis. Opening up the heart to expose the inside created its own challenges in wall thickness and spanning an opening without breaking any of the rules.” 

 Can depiction of cartoon character Marvin the Martian

Fluor Canada, of Calgary, Alberta, won the juror’s favorite for this
8,020-can depiction of cartoon character Marvin the Martian. Design
by Fluor Canada/photo courtesy of Canstruction, Inc.

Canstruction rules specify five-member teams, working with aluminum cans, must complete the structure within 12 hours. The structure is expected to stand for two weeks. Small spacers of hardboard, foam, or plywood, no more than ½ in. thick, may be used as levelers, but not load-bearing elements. Judges prefer those elements to be hidden. Tape, rubber bands, and hook and loop fastener are also permitted, but glue is not.

“Some firms start planning six months in advance,” Mehta says. “Obviously, it’s outside of work time, so day by day they spend a few hours on Canstruction. A lot of firms, especially the firms in New York, have test builds.”

The process typically begins with brainstorming, moves to a 3-D computer model, and a CNC machine to fabricate the spacers and levelers that help form the structure, Mehta says.

“An average structure has about 3,000 to 5,000 cans,” Mehta says. “Most of the ones you see with tuna cans, you’ll want to [almost] double that. Most of the tuna can structures have 4,000 to 6,000 cans.

Tuna cans were featured in the 2012 international honorable mention, designed by New York City engineering firm Gilsanz Murray Steficek (GMS). The ambitious seahorse design—called NepTUNA—was praised by judges for its structural fearlessness.

 Can art which displays an ambitious seahorse design

The 2012 international honorable mention went to New York City
engineering firm Gilsanz Murray Steficek (GMS) for an ambitious
seahorse design—called NepTUNA—praised by judges for its
structural fearlessness. Design by GMS/Courtesy of
Canstruction, Inc.

“We spend months coming up with different ideas,” said Eugene Kim, P.E., an associate at GMS, in written comments to Civil Engineering online. “We try to determine if the idea is feasible, if it will look like what we are trying to build, and if it will be challenging. Many times we find that an idea has been done or it does not look like it was difficult to accomplish. Some years a few ideas will go through this process. Some years it is only one. There was one other idea that came close to beating out the seahorse. We may use it in a future Canstruction.”

Kim said GMS builds a detailed computer-aided design (CAD) model of their plan showing each can. Complex designs are put through a test build, which sometimes dictates modifications.

“The key structural challenge is trying to determine the capacity of your materials,” Kim explained. “We do not use cans as building materials in our daily work. We use engineering judgment and past experience to determine what can and cannot be accomplished. We try to push what we think is possible and hopefully do a test build to validate our judgment.

“During the test build we saw that there was some excessive deflection with the head of the seahorse,” Kim said. “During the actual build we used some shimming and weight/can placement to help overcome this issue.”

Canstruction competitions are usually held in public venues, such as museums or shopping malls. An organizing committee in each city is charged with securing the venue and planning a gala event to recognize the winners for their efforts.

 Can art which displays an innovative handbag

The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandise, of Irvine,
California, won the people’s choice for an innovative handbag.
Design by Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandise /photo
courtesy of Canstruction, Inc.

Winners are recognized in one of several categories: jurors’ favorite, best use of labels, people’s choice, best meal, and structural ingenuity. In addition to Architectural Edge, the 2012 international winners are: Fluor Canada, Calgary, Alberta, for an 8,020-can depiction of cartoon character Marvin the Martian (juror’s favorite); NK Architects, Morristown, New Jersey, for a 17,441-can portrait of Andy Warhol (best use of labels); Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandise, Irvine, California, for an innovative handbag (people’s choice); and Van Sickle Allen and Associates, Plymouth, Minnesota, for a 5,048-can farm and food factory (best meal).

“Once the architects, and engineers, and designers come to the venue, they start building,” Mehta says. “Some builds take as little as four hours, some builds take up to 10 hours, 12 hours. At the end of two weeks, the structure is dismantled by either the team, or the food bank, or the committee and all the food is taken away by the food bank.”

Some of the more inventive designs have become crowd and sponsor favorites, the firms fielding requests to re-create the installation. GMS rebuilt NepTUNA twice in November. And MV+A Architects, of Bethesda, Maryland, re-created their 2010 interpretation of the HSB Turning Torso building in Malmö, Sweden, at the AIA National Convention in Washington D.C. in 2012.

 Can art which displays a 2010 interpretation of the HSB Turning Torso building in Malmö, Sweden

MV+A Architects, of Bethesda, Maryland, re-created their 2010
interpretation of the HSB Turning Torso building in Malmö, Sweden,
at the AIA National Convention in Washington D.C. in 2012.
© MV+A Architects

“Our approach in modeling the skyscraper was to maintain the rhythm and repetition as the tower [comprises] 54 floors divided into 9 blocks of 6 stories each,” said Wayne W. Broadfield III, AIA, LEED-GA, an associate of MV+A.

“The floor plate of the building turns a full 90 degrees through the tower’s height, so we selected small cans that we could use to mimic the scale and repetition that gives this structure its unique style,” Broadfield said in written comments to Civil Engineering online.

Re-creating architect Santiago Calatrava's iconic tower in 864 cans of water chestnuts and 240 cans of black olives began with CAD drawings and the creation of a floor plate template. The biggest glitch in construction came at the beginning. The team ordered cans of water chestnuts with white labels. When they opened the boxes, they found bright green cans.

“We just had to move forward,” Broadfield remembered. “Other than the green labels on our water chestnuts, this project went off rather smoothly. It took us only 3.5 hours to build the tower.

“I wanted to build something that was simple, but yet dramatic in style,” Broadfield said. “The movement of the building is very important to share with visitors. To this day, people still come up to us and ask if that ‘green tower’ fell down and I just say it’s an optical illusion.”

Many teams compete year after year in friendly rivalries that help raise awareness of hunger issues. The competitions are an opportunity for team building in many firms.

“We have participated in almost every year,” Kim said. “I believe we may have only missed one year so far. It is a great feeling to know you are doing something for a good cause. It’s great to see something you worked on be recognized by your peers.”  


 

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