Canstruction Toronto challenges design teams to give back to the local community

It started as an innovative food drive with two goals: highlight design skills and collect the items needed to feed people in the local community; it grew to become a long-running, international fundraiser. In 1992, the Society for Design Administration (SDA) founded the concept of Canstruction Toronto based on events held in Seattle and Denver. The event challenged architectural and engineering firms to create a structure using only canned goods that would then be donated to the local food bank.

ENERGIZED to End Hunger by Walsh Canada. Photo by David Crowder Photography. Canstruction
ENERGIZED to End Hunger by Walsh Canada. Photo by David Crowder Photography.

From this humble beginning, Canstruction has grown to become the largest food drive in the world with teams competing in 200 cities and tens of millions of pounds of food donated. It was imported to Toronto in 1999 by Eran Goldenberg, vice president, finance at Scott Associates Architects, and then president of SDA Canada, after he experienced the event in the U.S. It is now celebrating its 18th year in Toronto and has raised almost a million pounds of food.

For nearly two decades, the Canstruction Torontto event has helped Daily Bread Food Bank provide food to tens of thousands of people every year. Last year, Canstruction teams donated 56,739 lbs of shelf-stable food to Daily Bread, which was distributed to its member agencies’ meal programs and community-based food banks, feeding some 120,000 people. Some of the competing firms have gone on to become partners with Daily Bread, holding food drives and supporting special events to raise food, funds and awareness outside of the Canstruction Toronto competition.

“The generosity and creativity and feats of engineering that go into each structure are incredible,” said Gail Nyberg, executive director of Daily Bread Food Bank. “And by situating the competition in the Financial District, it brings an important message about the realities of hunger and poverty right to the centre of wealth in this country – and that’s an important conversation to have.”

We Can Unite by IBI Group. Photo by David Crowder Photography. Canstruction
We Can Unite by IBI Group. Photo by David Crowder Photography

The first year featured eight teams but now the event averages more than 20. Registering in December, teams from across the GTA volunteer their time to be part of Canstruction Toronto and commit their time over a five month period to compete in the final build stage.

Canstruction Toronto offers a unique experience for teams since every build is its own mini-design project that requires project management, design, storytelling, fundraising and administrative skills to be a success. The end goal is to create a design that is stable and imaginative using cans of food. No junk food allowed. Teams are encouraged to use cans from a list of high priority items needed by Daily Bread.

Drawing from architectural, construction and engineering firms as well as local universities, Canstruction Toronto teams usually begin the design process with AutoCAD or Revit but require a trip or two to the grocery store to determine which products will be used in the build. Most of the decisions are based on colour rather than price and teams strive to include a variety of proteins. Teams are not allowed to remove the labels from the products because it means the food bank will not be able to use it. Once the requirements for the design are established, the logistics and fundraising begin.

BeaCAN of Hope by Aercoustics Engineering. Photo by David Crowder Photography.
BeaCAN of Hope by Aercoustics Engineering. Photo by David Crowder Photography.

“Participating in a Canstruction team is a great way to showcase your soft skills such as team work and project management that are easily transferable to your day job,” says Steve Titus, Canstruction Toronto co-chair and president and CEO, Aercoustics Engineering Ltd. “It is a great way to get noticed in your company and work with people you don’t normally get to interact with.”

Christina Facey, an associate at Quadrangle Architects, is very familiar with the benefits of Canstruction Toronto. She became involved in the firm’s team early in her career and ended up leading the company team for four years. Her involvement as a participant grew and she is now an active board member on the Canstruction organizing committee.

Honest Feds by Quadrangle Architects. Photo by David Crowder Photography. Canstruction
Honest Feds by Quadrangle Architects. Photo by David Crowder Photography

“It is beyond fun because it is also applicable to your job,” Facey explains. “You are working for five months to bring an idea from the drawing board to life and it is all the little details that make it an enjoyable challenge. There is a great deal of satisfaction when you finish the build and realize the concept worked.”

Participants are provided with a list of wholesalers and grocery stores that teams can contact to secure their cans as well as a letter from the firm to explain the project. Working with a grocery partner that understands the project is helpful. Previous teams have been stymied by one retailer selling the food they had ordered while another had to wait for 2,000 cans to be scanned individually. All the project cans are delivered to Daily Bread Food Bank who then arranges the delivery to the TD Centre.

The build starts at 6 p.m. and lasts until 1 a.m. The structure must be self-standing and the committee strongly discourages structural supports such as plywood or stands but teams have been known to use a considerable quantity of tape, elastics and Velcro to keep their creations upright.

Even with the most careful planning, there are failures. Teams are notified if their structures collapse overnight or prior to judging and they are given more time to try and right the structure. While most teams can salvage their designs, there are some that cannot be saved.

“The commitment of the teams and the support that they get from their firms is extraordinary,” says Helen Kabriel, principal and comptroller, Diamond Schmitt Architects and Canstruction co-chair. 

Four Pairs of Arms by Diamond Schmitt Architects and Arup Canada. Photo by David Crowder Photography. Canstruction
Four Pairs of Arms by Diamond Schmitt Architects and Arup Canada. Photo by David Crowder Photography.

“We are so grateful and proud that the design industry has stepped up to make a change, using their skills in a unique charity food drive which will have a significant impact within the communities in which we live.”

Final “canstructions” are displayed throughout the TD Centre thanks to the sponsorship of Cadillac Fairview. CF has provided the space from the beginning and Canstruction has now become a featured attraction for tenants and visitors.

The winning entries are recognized in six categories: Best Design, Best Use of Labels, Structural Ingenuity, Best Meal, Honorable Mention and People’s Choice.

The judging panel is different every year so preferences change every year. The entry is judged anonymously with only a description of the entry made available so the firm behind the entry is unknown until winners are announced. Judges come from a variety of disciplines – chefs, architects, engineers, journalists, and artists – and based on experience, the judging panel debates can be lively as the winners are determined.

AvoCANdo by Entuitive and PCL Constructors. Photo by David Crowder Photography. Canstruction
AvoCANdo by Entuitive and PCL Constructors. Photo by David Crowder Photography

The Canstruction Toronto committee of volunteers works year round to coordinate the event, secure corporate sponsors and promote the event which is entirely self-funded. For more information about Canstruction Toronto or to register your team, check out their Facebook page. Or if you have any questions or want to contact the Canstruction Toronto committee, please email [email protected].

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