Build Day Program: Building a Sustainable Community One Day at a Time

Cornell University ESW student chapter working with Ithaca Children’s Garden

Happy New Year, everyone! Though, this post is twenty-four days late, it’s better late than never. Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW) would like to kick of the new year with a shout out to its subsidiary group - Build Day.

Since its launch in 2017, Build Day, a national initiative created by ESW, has executed more than five projects across the country. Build Day involves the cooperation of community members and students who work together to create more sustainable communities with one-day builds. From solar tabletop gardens to rainwater irrigation systems, it’s amazing what the ESW community can accomplish in a little over a year!

How can we accomplish so much from one-day project builds? Build Day has a formidable force of 263 volunteers across the country. These individuals are student engineers and members of the community who help construct designated projects. Students come up with feasible projects that will benefit the community and improve its sustainability and resilience against climate change. Once the students create a blueprint for their ideas, they find suitable partnerships with community members and organizations and kick-start the Build Day project cycle.


Why We Need Programs Like Build Day

Engineers are vital to solving some of today's and tomorrow's biggest engineering challenges, such as climate change and problems with infrastructure. These issues can be addressed by technically-minded groups such as engineers. However, many educational institutions fall short of preparing engineers to solve big, messy problems because the problems often involve ethical, social, and economic realities that can't be replicated in the classroom.

The overall goal of Build Day is to create engineers who are better equipped to tackle large social problems and who understand their ethical responsibilities as technical experts. Designing solutions for complex problems goes beyond the rigid technical framework taught in textbooks or tested in labs. A clear gap exists between designing engineering projects and what communities need.

Any project, no matter how complex the challenge it is designed for, is always deeply rooted in a rich cultural history, political and economic contexts, and intrinsic social and power structures. Our unique approach is to partner student engineering teams with community organizations while inviting the community to participate directly in the design and build process. In doing so, we will train students to consider social justice with every project they design and build, and to consider how these projects can impact marginalized low-socioeconomic communities.

Just as the people who design and build solutions for communities, the people within those communities become equally responsible for the effects of a project—whether those effects are beneficial or disruptive—when they are included in the planning process. Therefore, having student engineers and community leaders work side-by-side is crucial to building a better world that's more sustainable, resilient, and socially equitable and responsible.


What the Build Day Program Achieved in 2019

Project 1)

What: A rainwater collection project that resulted in an irrigation system with a 930-gallon reservoir. The reservoir enables urban farmers at First Market Farm to use rainwater year-round.

Who: Rochester Institute of Technology ESW student chapter working with The First Market Farm. The event was sponsored by the Rochester Area Community Foundation in collaboration with Taproot Collective.

When: April 14, 2019

Where: Rochester, NY

Project 2)

What: Ten eco-friendly planters for the garden for the main entrance and inside Ithaca Children’s Garden. The live demonstrations served as an opportunity to educate and encourage the community to learn more about renewable energy.

Who: Cornell University ESW student chapter working with Ithaca Children’s Garden. The event was sponsored by New Belgium

When: April 27, 2019

Where: Ithaca, NY

Project 3)

What: Multiple rain gardens built in the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation center.

Who: Pittsburgh University ESW student chapter for the community of Oakland. The event was sponsored by New Belgium.

When: September 23, 2019

Where: Pittsburgh, PA


Building Forward in 2020

The Thornton Tomasetti Foundation, which funds undergraduate and graduate studies and provides financial support related to building, engineering, and design, has awarded a grant of $5,000 to the Build Day program. This money will enable students who want to partake in Build Day 2020 to execute their sustainable projects and ideas for their local communities. For more information, please visit


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The students, all members of the RIT chapter of the Engineers for a Sustainable World, built a grid of troughs and pipes leading to a series of drums able to hold 930 gallons of rainwater. The idea of the water reserve system is to reduce reliance on city water as well reduce costs of pumping water to that location.

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