The 58 teams that competed in the 31st Annual AIA Sandcastle Competition could not have been more pleased with the weather conditions last month in Galveston. The sun shone overhead. The temperatures stayed in the 80s. And a cool breeze blew off the Gulf of Mexico. “It could not have been more beautiful,” says Rusty Bienvenue, executive director of AIA Houston.
The great weather also brought out a large crowd. Bienvenue says the city of Galveston estimated that more than 25,000 people visited the sandcastle competition this year. They got to see what more than 4,500 competition participants could make out of sand.
The annual event displays the talents of local architecture firms, and they are all eyeing the coveted Golden Bucket, seen here. It is awarded to the competition winner. Second- and third-place creations respectively receive the Silver Shovel and the Bronze Shovel, shown next to the Golden Bucket.
The AIA Houston-affiliated judges also award honorable mentions and winners for other categories, such as “Houston-centric” and “best architectural icon.”
For the third year in a row, team Kirksey + Metzger took home the Golden Bucket, with its creation titled Smurf and Turf. This team included members from Kirksey Architecture and Metzger Construction Co.
Besides winning the Golden Bucket, the sand sculpture won “best traditional sandcastle” and “tallest standing structure.” The traditional-looking sandcastle standing in the back reached 12 feet high, a contest record, Bienvenue says.
“This was a big team, and they put them all to work to make this entry possible,” he says. “It was an impressive castle, and then in addition, they had all the different characters to go along with it.”
Second place went to a team that has participated every year since the event’s beginning 31 years ago: Gensler + Harvey for Return of the Crawfish!
This team, which includes members from Gensler and David E. Harvey Builders, began the design process three months ago. The group decided on a design that let them compete in the “Houston-centric” category, but also have a traditional sandcastle element.
“We were inspired by Houston’s street art scene, and how this new form of urban art has influenced the fabric and flair of our city,” says Edgar Rodriguez, a team lead for the event and a technical designer at Gensler’s Houston office. “The city of Houston also has heavy influences from the bayou and a little flavor from Louisiana, so we wanted to bring those elements into the design through the Buffalo Bayou and crawfish.”
The group also went for the tallest sandcastle, but missed out on the height needed when a claw on top of the castle took a small tumble. “Once our claw crashed, we all just took a breath and then kept going,” Rodriguez says.
The building process lasts five hours, but for him, the best part is the “time’s up” call, when he gets to step back and look at the culmination of three months of work. “Much like any other design project,” he says, “it’s very rewarding to see your vision and your hard work come to life.”
And regardless of results, Gensler employees just enjoy participating, which is the main reason the firm continues to enter every year. It’s also the kickoff event for the company’s summer interns, which Rodriguez says, “makes for a fun first day and immediately embeds them in our culture.”
Rounding out the top three, the Ziegler Cooper Architects team took home the third-place honor for Quest for the Holy Pail. This entry featured traditional castle elements but in Lego fashion.
“The top three were all fairly traditional sandcastles with a twist,” Bienvenue says. “That’s not usually the case.”
To create the Lego look, team members used small cups to form the bumps on top of the sand “bricks.”
Then they carefully removed each one.
“I watched this group all day,” Bienvenue says. “It was an ambitious design.”
Other award winners. As previously mentioned, entries could win in other categories. This entry by Freese and Nichols, titled Mayan Pyramids, won “best architectural icon.”
The full list of winners is on AIA Houston’s website.
Competition day. Now that we’ve seen the winners, let’s take a look at the events leading up to the final designs.
Teams spent months preparing, but everything came down to five hours of building, using wooden forms and plastic molds to sculpt the final designs.
“But at the end of the day, the only things the sandcastles can include are sand and water,” Bienvenue says.
The team members work together to wet the sand and pack it into the wooden frames. This involves a lot of physical labor, and less precision, which gives everyone a chance to help.
Teams use water from the Gulf to wet the sand. Some teams have even created a system that uses a bicycle pedaler to pull water up from the shore and into a tank near the team tent.
Participants pack the sand into the frames with tampers to ensure that the sand forms stand once the wooden frames are removed.
During the building process, team members continually scoop, pack and wet the sand until it hardens.
Participants use shovels, trowels and their hands to scrap away sand and carve it into the final shapes.
Each team also finished off its design with words or a message.
“Professional associations can be seen as not having much fun,” Bienvenue says. “We try to bring in the fun through this event while also continuing education about what architects do.”