Ice House

How to Crush the Competition in a Sandcastle Contest

Winning big in Galveston's annual competition means going against the grain.

By Katharine Shilcutt May 25, 2017 Published in the June 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Last year's winner, a sand-scene dubbed "Finding Gory."

A regular, old castle made of sand doesn’t cut it these days, not if you’re trying to win one of the sandcastle-building competitions that have become increasingly popular at beaches across the world.

Galveston’s American Institute of Architects (AIA) Sandcastle Competition is now one of the largest and longest-running events of its kind, attracting 20,000 annual spectators each June. Dozens of teams—made up of architects, designers and engineers—descend upon East Beach, where, with each passing year since the event’s founding in 1986, their “castles” get more and more creative. In fact, last year’s winner wasn’t a domicile at all, but a sand-scene dubbed “Finding Gory.”

“It was a scene of the creatures from Finding Nemo’s world going rogue and attacking each other,” laughs Andrew Tyler, an associate at Houston-based architecture firm Kirksey. Together with designers, architects and engineers from Metzger Construction Company, Kimley-Horn and MGC, the 40-person Kirksey+Metzger team took the competition’s top honor, the Golden Bucket, both last year and the year before. Their 2015 entry was equally over-the-top, says Tyler: “the dinosaurs from Lost World attacking a Dr. Seuss village.”

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The Kirksey+Metzger team's 2015 entry: the dinosaurs from Lost World attacking a Dr. Seuss village.

Those back-to-back victories were hard-won: The team had been competing for nearly two decades. In 2014, they were sure their idea was a winner but suffered a setback during construction. “We were trying to do Muppet Rushmore, where we had the Muppet faces on the mountain,” recalls Tyler. “We had a big collapse because it had rained a lot that year, and we couldn’t get the sand to dry out well enough.”

This year, the Kirksey+Metzger team is attempting a three-peat, with yet another cartoon-based design. The characters’ exaggerated features are generally easier to work with, explains Tyler, adding that the team favors simple butter knives for carving and forks for adding texture. As for 2017, what’s the plan so far? “We’re working on a scene involving Smurfs and dragons having a battle.”

The 31st Annual AIA Sandcastle Competition, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, June 3. East Beach, 1923 Boddeker Rd., Galveston. Free; $15

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