Imagine Venice, the city of canals, at Christmastime — twinkling with lights and dressed in garlands.

Now translate that into gingerbread and gumdrops.

That's exactly what hundreds of architects, designers and engineers came together to do — build the Italian city made up of more than 100 small islands out of Snickers, Mars bars, Jellybeans, cereal, gummy bears and more. And, of course, sheets and sheets of gingerbread.

The air smells sugary and sweet as the competitors arrive. CannonDesign, a global design firm, is one of 52 teams checking into Gingertown, D.C. — a design-and-build competition created in 2006 by David M. Schwarz Architects here in the nation's capital. And it has since expanded to other cities.

There's a different theme every year. Daniel Olberding and Hunter Young of CannonDesign have competed several times. And this year's theme feels well, topical.

"Now we're dealing with global warming," says Olberding.

"Yes, the global warming element to this, the fact that Venice is currently underwater, is a little troubling," agrees Young.

Troubling, but still leaves room for thinking outside the box.

"So our strategy is to use our creative juices once we get here. We don't really pre-emptively prepare for this, but being builders and architects, we just rise to the occasion when we get here and just wait till you see what we come up with," Olberding says.

Many of the firms are recreating landmarks. "We're trying to make a gingerbread version of Michelangelo's studio out of all edible things," says Lauren Famularo of ZDS Archictecture & Interiors.

Other teams are recreating Saint Mark's Basilica, Doge's Palace and, of course, the tangle of canals.

Oberling has a basic plan in mind, though the details still need to be worked out. "We're going to build a U-shaped building so we can have an inner courtyard. And we have not yet decided how we're going to do the trees and the shrubbery in the courtyard. Or the roof," he says. "We did think it was important on our lot to keep the front open so we could have some waterfront canal space."

But Young is already contemplating details. "We have some green Twizzlers as vines."

When the teams begin to assemble their buildings, the icing, which is key to construction, is never far from reach. Each team is given two kinds of icing — royal and buttercream.

"The royal one is basically like glue," Young says. "So if you get it on your fingers, they're sticky the rest of the night. The buttercream is more like decorative stuff."

The teams have three hours to build and decorate their buildings before showing them to the judges. There are five awards based on the expression of theme, innovation and craftsmanship.

But for Olberding, precision is not a priority tonight. "The thing is, all day, every day, we have to be so precise about our work. The best thing about Gingertown is that ... there are no consequences."

With about an hour left, the candy supply is getting low and the pressure is kicking in.

To qualify, the teams have to pick up their gingerbread creations, transport them in an elevator down to a crowded lobby, and find their plot on a map of Venice.

As soon as CannonDesign's team attempts their lift ... the roof collapses. They quickly shore it up with graham crackers and more icing.

Finally, they make it to the lobby.

Alas, no prize for CannonDesign this year. But, Olberding says that doesn't matter.

"This is the first time that we've ever had a collapse of any sort," he says. "I'm OK with it because we improvised and used a lot of icing."

Good holiday advice — and not just for architects.

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