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Design in the Sand

Notes from Charles Linn, FAIA, Managing Senior Editor


Photography © Charles Linn, FAIA

Whenever Texans take on anything, they do it in a big, big way. The Houston AIA’s sandcastle competition is no exception. It has been taking place annually on the beach in Galveston since 1986. That’s when the economy had gone even farther south than the Gulf Coast, and members needed a morale booster in a bad way.

Now the chapter uses the event as a way to reach out to the local community, and as a fundraiser. It attracts tens of thousands of people. The temporary work shanties stretched along the Gulf for almost three-quarters of a mile as 83 teams competed for the coveted Golden Bucket, and Silver and Bronze Shovel awards.

Architect teams often partner with contractors, who provide the heavy equipment needed to sculpt the gritty objets d’art. No front-loaders are allowed, but the tools of the trade may include water large pumps, heavy plywood forms, and gasoline-powered soil compactors. Sand is loaded into the forms, watered down, and compressed into large blocks and cylinders.

Then, competitors race to mold these basic shapes into elaborate forms. The secret to great sandcastle building is in the sand. There’s a small amount of clay in the sand here. Add just the right amount of water and voila! The particles cling to each other together so tightly the sand even gains some tensile strength. That’s the property you need if you’re going to create shapes that need to cantilever—the nose on a face, for example. Then, contestants race around their statues wetting them with garden sprayers, hoping to stave off collapse at least until the judges arrive for inspection.

Houston architects seem predisposed toward sculpting shapes inspired by atrocious puns. One featured a monster-sized chicken perched on a nest, entitled, “Hatch me if you can.” Get it? Others featured replicas of characters like Homer Simpson; and still others, well-known architectural monuments, like the Parthenon. There were even a few traditional sandcastles.

This year’s Golden Bucket was awarded to EE Reed Construction and Spencer Partnership Architecture for their work, “Pre-Cast-L.” “Lions, Tigers and Sand, Oh My,” won a Silver Shovel for David Suplee Architectural Illustrators, and Ray Hollington Architects picked up the Bronze Shovel for “Full Bleed.”