Keeping the Monster at Bay: The RJN-Epstein 2013 CANstruction Chicago Build

This summer, for the seventh time in the seven years of the event’s existence, the RJN Wheaton, IL office participated in CANstruction Chicago, a friendly competition among Chicago-area engineers and architects benefiting the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD). If you live in the Chicago area, the 20 entries from this year’s competition remain on display at the Merchandise Mart until September 9, and the aCANemy Awards Gala (tickets available!) will take place this Thursday, September 5.

For those who have never participated in a CANstruction event or seen their often-stunning products first-hand, the objective of CANstruction is pretty simple: participating teams raise a bunch of money to buy tons (literally) of cans that they form into structures, sculptures, murals, concept pieces, or whatever best describes each massive creation. Then, following the building and judging of the entries, all of the cans used in each build are donated to local food banks. The Chicago competition alone brought in more than 100,000 cans of food in 2012.

In addition to the eye-popping structures, one of the elements of CANstruction that makes the event so unique is the way that architects and engineers approach a project like this. And since people always ask us how our CANstruction builds come together, what follows — reluctant as I am to give away too many trade secrets — is a walk through of our 2013 project. The build itself may only last one night, but the entire process occurs over several months and relies on a collaborative effort of fundraising, marketing, accounting, design, carpentry, muscle, and lots of time, energy, and generosity from all parties involved.

Reaching Out

Without the funds to purchase the food that will be used to build our structure and ultimately feed those who rely on GCFD’s services, there would be no CANstruction, plain and simple. As a team, we set out every year to raise upwards of $5,000, which is no small task in just a few months, and to reach that goal, it takes multiple forms of outreach — phone calls, email, snail mail, word of mouth, and the full gamut of social media platforms.

Some contributors send money; some send prizes for our fundraising raffle; others — like our endlessly generous trucking partner Showmat — donate invaluable resources to the process. In the end, we have a pool of cash, checks, and online donations (still open!) to budget for the purchase of our food. However, since the donations come in as we’re working on the design, we often have to make critical purchasing decisions with only a projected estimate of our total budget, and that’s where a little engineering judgment takes over.

Concept to Can Count

While RJN employs some amazingly talented minds in underground design, hydraulics, data management, and field services, we are admittedly not as strong when it comes to designing intricate, aesthetically pleasing things that are meant to stand up for long periods of time. In fact, as experts in collection systems, we typically prefer when gravity causes things to fall down.  That’s where the also amazingly talented structural engineers and architects at our partnering firm Epstein helped us to bring out the best in each other’s talents.

The design starts with a list of ideas, then a vote, and ultimately a final concept. With the input of the team members, our lead designer, Epstein structural engineer Pete Dombrowski developed a three-dimensional CAD model which is used to establish the number of cans in each color, the build layout, the size and weight of the structure, and also what types of stabilizing elements — such as boards or string — might be needed for the build.

A computer-animated character in can form in CAD form -- kinda blows apart your definition of reality, right?
A Pixar character in can form in CAD form — sorta blows apart your conception of reality, right?

While the official rules of CANstruction prohibit load-bearing, non-food components, boards for leveling the structure and adding stability are acceptable and often necessary.*  This is particularly the case when the design calls for many of the cans to be stacked non-concentrically, so determining the quantity and dimensions of our leveling boards was a key component of this year’s design.

*Leveling boards are also a good safeguard for dealing with “non-nesting” cans that unexpectedly show up during the build. And if you don’t know what I mean by “nesting,” look at the cans in your pantry; if the bottom of one fits comfortably into the top of another, we say that these nest; if the top and bottom seal look identical, this is a non-nesting can. And there you go — now you know some CANstruction insider lingo.

Aisle Browsing

When you’re CANstruction veterans like we are, scouting out labels for the exterior can be a cinch, especially if you keep a running spreadsheet of product names with their label shades and a “color uniformity” rating. Yet, labels change (such as Wal-Mart phasing out their solid white Great Value brand design, why???!!…), and unprecedented color needs emerge, making some grocery aisle browsing necessary every year.

No, really... This is a thing that exists.
No, really… This is a thing that exists.

This year’s challenge was finding a can — any can — that from a distance would look Mike Wazowski green. Eventually we were lucky enough to discover ALDI’s Healthy Harvest green beans, which have a nice, bright picture of the beans taking up nearly half the can. At only $0.49 per, we felt like we’d struck gold… or green. For less green. Something like that. Oh, and we did find a pretty good replacement white.

"Can I help you sir?" "Nope, just snapping photos of your cans. Thanks, though."
“Can I help you sir?”
“Nope, just snapping photos of your cans. Thanks, though.”

The CAN Principle

Because the CANstruction process does require so much time, energy, and effort, we always have to remember that we’re not just in it to have fun or show off but that we have an important duty to make our contribution to the GCFD as valuable and substantial as absolutely possible. On the other hand, our creation does need to look good because the more impressive the entries are, the more successful the event is.

To that end, we make all of our purchasing decisions on a principle that I can conveniently shoehorn into the acronym CAN — that is, Cost, Appearance, Nutrition.

There are many awards given out at each competition, but there’s one that we have our sights set on every year — Most Cans. Obviously, we also love to get awards for popularity and aesthetics, but our first priority has always been providing nutritious food through efficient allocation of our funds and purchasing as many cans as we can possibly use to fill the allotted 10′ x 10′ x 8′ space.

What a five-ton Mike Wazowski looks like in a table.
What a five-ton Mike Wazowski looks like in a table.

For the sake of appearance, we do make selective purchases of higher-cost brand-name or import labels, but like most years, the bulk of our 2013 structure was beans and vegetables. In the end, our design called for 11,040 cans, and we had about $7,000 in funds to work with. Thanks to our grocers, Valli Produce — who have been extremely generous with their cooperation and discounts over the years — and ALDI, we were able to stay on budget.

The color of Mike Wazowsi's iris was a build night decision. You mods would appreciate our choice.
The color of Mike Wazowsi’s iris was never settled until build night. You mods would appreciate our choice.

Point(s) A to B

Every year, event co-sponsor Boyer-Rosene has been generous enough to provide the delivery of each team’s cans to the Merchandise Mart one or two days prior to build night. However, up until then, every team is on its own as far as transporting and storing their food once it leaves the grocery store, and often this can be one of the more difficult phases of the project.

To be sure, there have been some, uh… snags in the process over the years, including one self-inflicted debacle involving a Chevy Suburban packed with over 4,000 tuna cans. Fortunately, nothing like that happened this year, but there are always timing concerns and competing logistics to balance.

For one, we need to pick up our food early enough to have sufficient time for a practice build, but on the other hand, it’s not like we have a big empty warehouse around the corner where we can store thousands of cans indefinitely.

The Showmat truck loaded up before pulling away from the Valli Produce dock.
The Showmat truck loaded up before pulling away from the Valli Produce dock.

We also need to make sure the pickup date and time works both for the grocery store managers and for our friends at Showmat who provide us with a truck and delivery services every year. If not timed properly, this can be a burden on store managers because parts of the order may come in several days earlier than others, but we can only pick up at a single time. Because stockroom floor space is a finite and precious resource in a grocery store, we need to be mindful of this when we time our orders and pickup date.

This year’s temporary destination for our cans was the loading dock at the Epstein offices in the north Loop, where our Epstein teammates unloaded the truck and stored them for our pre-build.


Rarely do we ever construct our entire structure during the pre-build, but we make sure to practice build the most challenging parts and test the appearance of various labels.

This is also when it helps to have a carpenter on the team or at least someone with steady hands and a good saw. While we’ve seen some pretty impressively and intricately cut leveling boards from other teams through the years, ours have always remained relatively simple. That said, measuring and cutting more than forty semi-circular boards of various dimensions proved to be a test of patience, endurance, and the ability to yell over the noise of the power saw.

Anyone need some leftover tempered hardboard?
Anyone need some leftover tempered hardboard?

Once we feel that we’ve sufficiently pre-built our structure, we restock the cans in their boxes and pack them up on large rolling crates provided by Rentacrate, where they remain until build night.

Build Night!

In the two days prior to the build, Boyer-Rosene comes to pick up every team’s crates full of cans from their temporary homes and moves them to the Merchandise Mart. When the teams show up at 6:00 pm on build night, their crates are waiting for them at their designated spots on the lobby floor.

It's a lot of crates.
It’s a lot of crates.

Because most of the charitable work — the fundraising, budgeting, planning, purchasing — is finished at this point, build night is really the time when we get to have fun with the project and enjoy the product of our efforts. It can also be the time when perfectionism and vanity start to creep in, and maintaining a balance between time efficiency and quality is crucial.

The phrase "anatomically correct" was uttered at least once while we debated the best way to construct Mike Wazowski's arms.
The phrase “anatomically correct” was uttered at least once while we debated the best way to construct Mike Wazowski’s arms.

Teams are allowed up to 12 hours to finish, but typically, nearly all of the teams have finished when midnight rolls around. There have been some unfortunate teams through the years who have seen their complete or near-complete structures come crashing down late in the night and have needed the early-morning hours to finish rebuilding — and sometimes redesigning — their structure.

Even when things go according to plan, though, it can be a struggle to maintain focus and enthusiasm later in the night when it’s needed most because that is when the most difficult and tedious parts of the build occur. For us, that usually includes sending people up onto ladders or onto the top of the structure itself to work on its highest layers.

RJN engineers Tom Romza and Kate Buckley are not afraid of heights.
RJN engineers Tom Romza and Kate Buckley are not afraid of heights.

This year, we finished in under five hours — a pace of roughly 40 cans per minute — and were pleased with how it turned out. More telling, though, is that we’ve gotten some positive feedback from the under-12 crowd, whom we expected would be our toughest critics.

...Not that anyone was watching the clock.
…Not that anyone was watching the clock.

One Last Plug…

If you do happen to pass by the Merchandise Mart in the next few days, I encourage you to drop in and take a gander. More importantly, please, please consider making a donation to the Greater Chicago Food Depository — they’re a well-run, highly efficient charity, and like any organization doing valuable and important work, they can never have too many resources.

Those of us fortunate enough not to face food insecurity on a daily basis may often feel unconnected to those that do, but the reality is that almost any of us is at most a few hardships removed from reaching out for the services of an organization like GCFD ourselves. The only real security that any of us has is in maintaining a strong network of support within our communities, and it’s organizations like GCFD that are so invaluable in that regard. We consider ourselves lucky to be able to help with their mission each year.

Vinnie Bergl, P.E. is a project engineer in the RJN Wheaton, IL office and co-captain of the RJN-Epstein CANstruction Chicago team.