Clad in bright red T-shirts, teetering on stepladders in a cordoned off section of Livingston Mall, a team of designers from Gensler’s Morristown branch work together to build a massive mailbox constructed entirely from canned goods.

It’s “Build Day,” and they’ve been stacking and arranging and lining and readjusting cans of tuna since 7:30 a.m. It’s now nearing 6 p.m., and they’ve only just begun to tackle the hardest part of the project: constructing the curve of the mailbox.

“It’s tricky,” says College of Architecture and Design (CoAD) alum and Gensler job captain Jesus Marmol (B. Arch. ’08) about the more complicated part of the build. “You’ve got to offset the cans. They can’t be stacked.”

For 17 years, the Newark and Suburban section of the New Jersey Chapter of the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA-NJ) has participated in CANstruction, an annual design exhibition to benefit local food bank programs.

“The teams not only put their creativity into designing a sculpture made out of cans and food products, they also go out and raise the money, which, in turn, buys the cans that get donated,” says Ronald Weston, AIA, LEED AP, who chaired this year’s event. “And they’re usually able to raise cash donations and checks that get donated as well.”

Part competition, part fundraising endeavor, CANstruction events held annually in over 150 cities around the world have helped raise nearly 30 million pounds of food in the fight against hunger since 1992.

CoAD alums Jesus Marmol (left) and Monica Gomez (right)

CoAD alumnae Monica Gomez (B. Arch.’99, M.S. Civil Engineering ’01) says she finds great joy in being able to produce something fun and exciting out of cans, knowing the effort will help others in need.

“It brings attention to an important issue in an unconventional way,” says the Gensler job captain and digital design leader, who worked on the Revit model to help develop the design plan of the mailbox. “Building a structure out of cans for an entire day piques the curiosity of those walking by who may not find out about the CANstruction effort to fight hunger otherwise.”

She’s right. Shoppers can’t help but to stop, stare and inquire as Team Gensler, surrounded by 6,085 cans of tuna fish, tomato sauce, peas, beans, chickpeas, chicken and beef broth purchased from and donated by Shoprite, Aldi, Sam’s Club and BJs, takes an abstract approach to this year’s theme: Forms of Communication.

“We thought that had multiple layers to it. Forms of communication could be the physical form—iPhone, old-fashioned telephone—and then forms of communication could also be about the ways in which you communicate,” explains Weston. “With communication changing so rapidly, we thought that would be an interesting topic and allow the designers to tie in older forms of communication with newer, technology-driven forms of communication.”

Team Gensler, in its fifth consecutive year participating in the competition, opted to go old school, fashioning the iconic blue mailbox used to snail mail letters and missives. The attention to detail is impeccable. There’s even a discernable eagle on the side, much like you would find on a real USPS box; they’ve named it “Special Delivery.”

The structure stands 72 tuna cans high (7 foot 6 inches) and 3 feet wide by 3.5 feet deep.

The structure stands 72 tuna cans high (7 foot 6 inches) and 3 feet wide by 3.5 feet deep; larger cans are being used as infill to provide structural support. “It cuts down on time, takes up more mass and costs less money,” says team captain Lauren Scuorzo. “Before the infill, we would have needed nearly 10,000 cans to complete the project. Doing it this way also adds variety; it’s not one big block of tuna.”

After completing the build, the can sculpture, along with sculptures built by three other competing teams, was on display from Oct. 9 through Oct. 18 at Livingston Mall, where it wowed consumers and was critiqued by judges. Then, the build was dismantled by the Community Food Bank of New Jersey (CFBNJ) and shipped to a network of local churches, food kitchens and other vendors in need of food, money and supplies.

CFBNJ distributes 40 million pounds of food and groceries each year, ultimately serving more than 1,000 nonprofit programs, including 400 programs served by its partner distribution organizations. The combined efforts of these nonprofit programs feed more than 900,000 people in 18 New Jersey counties, where 1 in 5 children go hungry each year.

Nearly three weeks after “Build Day,” it was announced that Team Gensler’s “Special Delivery” won jurors’ favorite and best use of labels. Other categories included honorable mention, best meal, structural ingenuity and people’s choice.

Marmol says CANstruction proves that even the smallest gesture can make the biggest impact. As a graduate of NJIT, where faculty and staff take great care to nurture students who are concerned about humanity, he feels it’s his responsibility to use his architecture and design talents to give back to the community.

It’s a legacy of civic engagement and public service Marmol hopes more CoAD students and alums will continue to shape and preserve.

“We have a creative platform to use our unique skillset to shed light on the unheard voices of concern, and solve them through the power of problem-solving design,” he says. “We have the opportunity, so we must take on the challenge.”