How Boston’s Architects Are Fighting Hunger Through ‘Canstruction’

Kerry Heckman hurriedly drove to Market Basket in Somerville, where she bought hundreds of cans of black beans—a bit excessive under normal circumstances, but in this case, it was with good reason.

A team of architects was waiting for her to return with cans that had blue labels, which it needed to complete a structure made entirely of canned foods.

Heckman, the chairman of Boston’s Canstruction committee, has been involved with the charity event for years. The basic idea is this—architects and engineers throughout Boston buy thousands of cans in order to build unusual and entertaining structures for a competition and an exhibition. Later, these structures are taken apart and the cans are donated, just before the busy holiday season begins in November.

“We do what it takes,” Heckman said of her mission to secure the cans with a blue label.

This is Canstruction’s 19th year in the city of Boston. Last year alone, 26 firms donated 75,000 pounds of canned food to the Merrimack Valley Food Bank, which serves Lowell, Mass.

“They service one of the most in need communities in Massachusetts,” said Allison Scott, a member of Canstruction’s steering committee.

While Boston’s Canstruction chapter, sponsored annually by the Society for Design Administration, first started working with the Greater Boston Food Bank—back when it was little more than a garage into which trucks could deliver donations—the committee decided to begin working with the Merrimack Valley Food Bank, reasoning that it could make a greater impact at the smaller organization.

The first year that Canstruction donated to the Merrimack Valley Food Bank, Heckman recalled that she took a day off of work to visit the food bank, where she had the chance to see people taking food from the pantry—the direct result of Canstruction’s efforts.

Amy Pessia, the food bank’s executive director, told Heckman to follow her downstairs—she wanted to show her something. Heckman saw that the entire floor that they were on—essentially an open warehouse—was filled with the cans that had been donated by Canstruction.

“I’ve seen what an impact we make on their organization,” Heckman said.

This Saturday, the participating firms will flock to the BSA Space and the Atlantic Wharf Hotel lobby, where teams will start building structures that they have planned potentially for months. After, the structures will serve as an exhibit from Oct. 14 to 31. Although there is no cost of admission to the exhibit, there will be food bins in which attendees can donate canned goods for the food bank.

“Boston has such a huge population of architecture firms and engineering firms and construction management firms,” Scott said. “I was just inspired by all of these great firms who have such a commitment to design … taking all that energy and funneling it toward such good. It’s something that’s so tangible.”

Past designs at the event have included a Slinky, a Green Line trolley, and the Wilson ball from Cast Away. Each year, a new theme is selected—the theme for 2014 is “Pop Culture.” Awards for the various structures include Best Use of Labels, as well as Best Meal—that is, the structure that incorporates the cans that would work most cohesively as a meal. Each structure, Heckman estimated, tends to incorporate between 2,000 and 5,000 cans—all within a space that is 10 feet long, 10 feet wide, and 10 feet tall.

“People get really creative,” Scott said. “That’s what’s so exciting about this. Here you have teams that take time after their day job—they stay late, they work, they design, they model, they have to count the cans, they have to figure out how it’s going to be built … It’s a lot of time that these people put forth.”

This year, Canstruction is partnering with Whole Foods, which will deliver cans purchased by architectural firms to the build site.

“If you consider that cans are about a dollar each, they’re putting a lot of their own money into it,” Heckman said of the architectural firms. “But they understand why they’re doing it and how it will help the communities near them.”

Featured Image Courtesy of Canstruction

October 8, 2014