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Canstruction design competition: Creatively feeding the hungry

"Don't Let Hunger DRAG-ON" was created by Lockwood Kessler & Barlett Inc.'s team last year. Phil Plotas, left, stands by as Tim Raichel sees to finishing touches on the "dragon's" head. Credit: Chris Prunty and Maureen Raichel

A charity that started as a way for architects, builders and designers to do a little good while playing to their design strengths has grown into an international competition that benefits food pantries.

Canstruction Long Island, the local chapter, is in its 10th year of sponsoring a competition in which professional and community teams vie for bragging rights as they create elaborate sculptures from cans. This year the structures will be displayed at RXR Plaza in Uniondale, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Oct. 28 to Nov. 13. Visitors can view the displays by bringing canned food to donate. Afterward, the canned goods will be distributed to area food pantries in time for Thanksgiving.

So far, 14 teams have registered for this year’s competition, up from the usual 10 or 11 teams. The displays will be judged by five community representatives and industry professionals, who will award prizes for best design, structural ingenuity, best use of labels, most cans and best meal. A People’s Choice award voted on by the public is given after the competition. Winners in the professional and college groups can submit photos of their sculptures for the international Canstruction competition.

The registration deadline is Aug. 26. The professional teams come from engineering, construction, architectural and design firms, along with several student and community teams mentored by design professionals.

Tracy Lobdell, Canstruction Long Island’s executive director for the past five years, said she is happy with the record turnout this year. In 2015, the Long Island group, which is based in Jericho, placed 21st on the international organization’s list of Top 25 competitions bringing in the most pounds of canned goods. In all, 43,000 cans — weighing 39,075 pounds — were donated to the Interfaith Nutrition Network, Island Harvest and Long Island Cares.

“It’s the first year we made the list,” said Lobdell, of Huntington Station, who has volunteered with the group for 10 years. “We were thrilled to be that high.”

Lobdell, senior marketing coordinator at Greenman-Pedersen Inc., a consulting engineering and construction management firm in Babylon, runs Canstruction Long Island with the help of other volunteers. Ellen Talley-Lotzky has been with Canstruction Long Island for 10 years and serves on the board as director of team recruitment. When she is not helping out the nonprofit, she is principal of Island Rep Group Inc. in Roslyn Heights, a local resource for architectural products.

Christopher Sagistano, an assistant project manager at John W. Baumgarten Architect PC in Jericho, is also on the board of directors and handles communication for the nonprofit, which he joined in 2007. Other board members include Eric Schlameuss, who has been a director since 2011 and is in charge of event logistics — he is an assistant vice president of architecture for RXR Realty, which hosts the competitions — and Corrine Collins, marketing manager for Nelson & Pope, a planning, engineering and surveying firm in Melville. She handles administration and joined the board in 2012.

Canstruction got its start in Manhattan in 1992 with founder Cheri Melillo, an administrator at Butler Rogers Baskett Architects in Manhattan for 24 years who died in December 2009, at age 60, of brain cancer. The nonprofit — which operates in 15 countries — has collected nearly 30 million pounds of food for communities around the world. It drives home its mission to fight hunger with slogans such as “Canstruct a World Without Hunger” and “One Can Make a Difference.”

Canstruction’s profile got a boost in 2010 when the Walt Disney Co. partnered with the nonprofit to build the largest-ever canned food structure at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. The 115,527-can structure — which featured Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters — broke a Guinness World Record and was part of Disney’s “Celebrate Family Volunteers” effort to inspire 1 million people to volunteer a day of service in their communities. When it was taken down, the cans were distributed to food banks in central Florida, Miami and Atlanta.

This year’s donations from the Long Island competition will go to four food banks: Long Island Cares, the Interfaith Nutrition Network, Island Harvest Food Bank and NEST, or Nassau Empowerment and Support for Tomorrow, at Nassau Community College. The national organization directed chapters to support local food banks, and for eight years Canstruction Long Island supported Long Island Cares, a Hauppauge-based food bank. The nonprofit branched out and began providing donations to other groups at the request of participants in the design competition.

The student design team from NCC is now even more pumped to participate in the competition for its fourth year, said Susan Beganskas, an NCC assistant professor and the team’s faculty adviser.

“Now that the food is committed to the NEST, they feel very proud,” she said. “It was very gratifying for them to know they would be helping NCC.”

The student team also gets support from the Interior Design Society of Long Island.

Rules to follow

The organizational and technical skills exhibited by the professional teams reflect their gene pool of architects, engineers and construction and design firms. Spreadsheets, templates and deadlines abound, and there are strict structural rules that apply to the sculptures the groups build. Community groups without a strong design background are given mentors or sometimes join with a smaller professional team to learn by doing, competing for fun and to benefit the food pantries.

Professional and college teams build self-supporting structures that fit inside a 10-square-foot footprint with a height of up to 10 feet, while school and community groups work within a 7-square-foot footprint with a 5-foot height requirement so students don’t have to climb a ladder. Five team members at a time may work stacking cans to build their structures, which are designed ahead of time, and teams often have 10 members who rotate through jobs. Teams pay an entry fee — $250 for professional and business teams, $150 for community and student teams — and also cover the cost of cans for their structures.

Canstruction prefers the sculptures are made just from cans, although teams can use some plastic containers that can hold weight when stacked. Can labels must remain intact. Cardboard, Masonite or ¼-inch-thick layers of foam core, plywood or Plexiglas can be used for leveling or balancing, and Velcro, cable ties, nylon string, high-tension rubber bands and clear or double-faced tape also are allowed, as long as the tape doesn’t attach to can labels.

This fall will be the fifth year of competition for a youth group from Temple Sinai in Roslyn, where mentor and retired architect Larry Krasnoff, 73, of Roslyn, helps the group design and build their structures. Canstruction’s goal fits perfectly with the Jewish precept of tzedakah, charitable giving that fulfills a moral obligation among Jews, Krasnoff said.

“It’s a wonderful program, and teaches a tangible reflection of that philosophy,” he said.

Participating students range in age from 14 to 18. The group’s entries have included “Chicken soup for the hungry soul” and a hand holding a pencil eraser that was dubbed “Erasing hunger.” Last year’s project, a representation of Hoover Dam, used 2,211 cans in conveying its message to “Give a dam, end hunger.” It was the favorite sculpture for Daniel Golden, 17, of Roslyn, a youth group member and a Roslyn High School graduate who will attend Hofstra University in the fall.

“That one was the most complex, but the most fun to build,” he said. “I was a little nervous because we had to make sure the cans didn’t fall or bend.”

Golden has participated in the competition for four years, from helping “spitball ideas” for structures that fit Canstruction’s goal of ending hunger to building and then “decanstructing” the sculptures.

The Canstruction program complements temple youth group discussions about food security in America, and Golden said he also likes that their work helps further tikkun olam, another concept they’ve studied, which he said translates as “repairing the world.”

The temple group uses the High Holy Days to collect the cans needed for the build, handing out paper bags to congregation members on Rosh Hashanah and collecting the donations on Yom Kippur. The students then add the cans received to a spreadsheet to make sure they’ve got what they need to build the design.

“Whatever we don’t get, then we go out and purchase what we need,” Golden said.

A congregation member who owns a grocery also contributes cans needed to help complete the designs, Krasnoff added.

Thinking big

The event brings out the competitor in Ed Zawasky, 42, of Levittown, senior computer-aided design technician and team captain at consulting engineers Lockwood, Kessler & Bartlett Inc. in Syosset. He shoots for making the biggest sculpture, looks for a design challenge and aspires to make something that hasn’t been done often.

“It’s all about ‘go big or go home,’ ” he said with a laugh. “It’s for a good cause, so we try hard.”

Zawasky takes advantage of his CAD skills and organizes the team early to kick around ideas, then develop sketches and do test builds, a key element in making sure the design is stable and works as intended. “It’s an ever-evolving process, as I call it, a work in progress,” Zawasky said.

Between coordinating raffles for fundraising, design and test builds, he estimates that the project takes from 100 to 200 hours. The team does it over lunch hours, on breaks and after hours. Before the competition, Zawasky said he takes a vacation day and cuts the templates his team uses.

Zawasky estimates the team’s average structure costs between $5,000 and $7,000 to build.

“It’s not easy to raise that kind of money,” he said, but they hold raffles and solicit donations, and his company kicks in some funding too. Last year, for example, Del Monte Foods donated 4,000 cans to meet a specific size and color requirement for Lockwood, Kessler & Bartlett’s “Don’t Let Hunger DRAG ON” sculpture, which took the shape of a dragon.

1,528 meals in the fridge

To help groups figure budgets, Lobdell said Canstruction estimates each can used in a build costs around $1, although that varies depending on sale prices and what products are used. Teams submit can manifests that list type and weight of cans used to help the group figure overall weight of donations and the number of meals that can be made from the cans.

Students in the science and research team at Sacred Heart Academy in Hempstead have embraced the competition. Bruce Mawhirter, 59, of Malverne, an engineer with Hirani Group in Jericho, is mentoring the school team for the fourth year. His daughter, Nicole, 18, graduated from Sacred Heart this year and is heading to Quinnipiac University, but he plans to keep working with the team.

“It’s a project that’s near and dear to our hearts,” he said.

Nicole Mawhirter learned about the competition when her dad competed when she was younger, and she wanted to bring it to her school. She presented the service project idea when she was in ninth grade, and after it was approved served as team captain for the past three years.

The students use their math and physics skills working out design plans, make a blueprint to figure out how many cans of each color label they need, and then get the school involved by organizing homerooms to donate specific canned items. Plus, Adelphi University’s nursing honor society, Sigma Theta Tau, donates $500 each year to help buy the cans.

Along the way, students’ organizational and management skills get put into play with can manifest spreadsheets, blueprints and timetables. The group’s refrigerator sculpture in 2013 used 2,262 cans, the equivalent of 1,528 meals, Nicole Mawhirter said. The Rubik’s cube sculpture in 2014 used 1,980 cans, for 1,470 meals, and last year’s globe and rainbow used 3,234 cans, the equivalent of 2,359 meals.

Her favorite was the Rubik’s cube project, titled “Solve World Hunger.”

“It was a fun structure to figure out how to make it interesting,” she said. The judges recognized the team’s efforts with awards for best use of labels and best meal.

At a recent organizing meeting for this fall’s event at RXR Plaza, Lobdell and Ellen Talley-Lotzky ran through deadlines and competition requirements. Talley-Lotzky, a resident of Roslyn Heights who is director of team recruitment, serves as liaison with the team captains so that all messages are consistent, answering questions and helping match mentors with teams. Not much is left to chance with the competition, and there is lots of support for teams just getting started.

Lobdell estimates that more than 200 volunteers are involved each year, including community volunteers who help the teams during the Buildout and Decanstruction. With 14 teams this year, she estimates that more than 300 volunteers will help Canstruction Long Island collect more than 70,000 cans to donate to feed the area’s hungry.

“It’s an incredibly original concept,” said Dorian Stern, director of development at the Interfaith Nutrition Network, which last year received a cash donation and almost 15,000 cans of food. “It was a monumental amount of stuff that we received. We got tuna, salmon, sardines, beans — it was food that was very valuable. It’s a beautiful thing. It helped jump-start us to being able to fulfill guests’ needs at the start of the holiday season.”


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