The Poor Man’s Burning Man 4: The Shower of Tower

by Whatsblem the Pro

The weather cowers as the Control Tower rises. Flee, puny humans! PHOTO: Alan Macy

The weather cowers as the Control Tower rises. Flee, puny humans! PHOTO: Alan Macy

The International Arts Megacrew has been out on the playa for over a week now, setting up camp and working on getting their project, the Control Tower, assembled. As you may recall, has been following the construction of the Tower at the Generator, a community industrial arts space in Sparks, Nevada, with regular updates from on site. Whatsblem the Pro reports from the playa:

Since my duties with the International Arts Megacrew have been more oriented toward scrounging up necessary materials and equipment than working on the actual build, I stayed behind when the core builders of the crew headed out from Sparks to Black Rock City to begin construction. I did visit overnight for Early Burn to get my tent and gear set up before making a strategic retreat to Reno, but my Early Arrival pass wasn’t actually good until the 19th.

For the trip out to Early Burn, I traveled with Mr. Auguste Lemaire, President of Sunvelope Solar, a tech start-up based in Sparks. I first met Auguste just a few months ago, and pitched him on the idea of providing one or two of his company’s proprietary solar water heaters to the IAM so that we could rig up some hot showers for the crew. Augie, being as generous a human being as he is a brilliant engineer and inventor, took the idea and ran with it straight into the heart of my wildest dreams: he suggested that Sunvelope build a complete shower trailer for us instead. We kicked some ideas around and came up with a basic concept, which Auguste developed into a self-contained system small enough to fit on a spare trailer he had sitting around at his shop. Meanwhile, I consulted a water treatment engineer to figure out how to filter the graywater, so that Auguste could build a completely closed system capable of safely recirculating 500 gallons without any need for an evaporation pond. Using donated hot and cold water tanks from our friends at Twin City Surplus, a donated swimming pool filter and chlorine supplies courtesy of Patty LaDue at Sun Leisure Pools & Spas, and activated charcoal given to us by Sierra Aquatics, the Sunvelope shower trailer was designed to provide hot water for the entire crew to bathe in out on the playa, twenty-four hours a day, for the duration of the burn. On top of putting many hours and a ton of hard work into designing and building this massive boon to our comfort and sanity, Auguste was kind enough to haul the trailer (and me) out to Black Rock City with his company truck.

We planned to leave the morning of the day before Early Burn, but as we all know, plans are what people make while destiny laughs. All snags proved to be minor, however, and we finally rolled out of the Sunvelope lot in Sparks just before dusk. The final shower booth construction and plumbing would be finished off in camp, by our carpenters and handyfolk, so Auguste and I piled the pre-cut wood of the shower booths and stairs onto the sides of the trailer for the journey.

The delay may have saved us. As we approached Fernley and the turnoff from I-80 to NV-447, I checked the side mirror to see how the trailer was doing, and it was dark enough outside that I noticed a few sparks coming off of the trailer’s deck that I probably wouldn’t have noticed with the Sun still up. Augie pulled to the shoulder and we checked it out; the trailer was rated to carry more than the weight we’d burdened it with, but its leaf springs were sagging slightly with age and use, allowing one of the trailer’s tires to rub on the underside of the deck. The tire was smoking and gooey and trying to catch fire; it had actually burned a hole the size of an eye through the wooden deck above it, which was the source of the sparks I’d noticed. Thinking quickly, Augie opened the drain valve at the bottom of the cold water tank, drenching the trailer’s deck and the fitfully smoldering tire. Before we could roll again, we had to drain out most of the cold water and rearrange the lumber a bit, to reduce and redistribute the weight. “It doesn’t matter,” Augie told me. “The system will run fine with only half the water in it, although it would be best to get it topped off with cold water after we park it.”

The Sunvelope shower trailer -- PHOTO: Alan Macy

The Sunvelope shower trailer — PHOTO: Alan Macy

We took it slow and stopped to check the trailer often. By the time we got to the Miner’s Club in Gerlach, it was late night and we were the only sober heads bellied up to the bar. Augie and I talked it over and decided that we’d be better off spending the night in Gerlach rather than heading out to unknown conditions on the playa while it was dark out. I fortified myself with a modest dose of medicinal grain alcohol, swapped jokes and info with the DPW roughnecks getting their own drink on, and spent a reasonably comfortable night ‘camping,’ with Augie in the cab of his truck, and me cozy and warm under the stars and the branches of trees on a futon mattress thrown across the open section of deck at the front of the shower trailer. At first light we stowed our gear, hit Bruno’s for breakfast, and made the short run from Gerlach out to the playa.

Security seemed unusually tight given that it was still pre-Early Burn. Naked Bob (wearing clothes and looking unhappy about it) and a gang of Gate workers met us on the way in, frowning and fretting over who we were, what we were hauling, and when we would be leaving. After satisfying himself that nothing was too seriously amiss, Bob waved us on through and we started the long slow roll into Black Rock City.

At the Control Tower build site, we found most of the crew attending to two of the Tower’s three rings, which were set up on-end in alignment with each other. It looked like they were building an interdimensional portal for intrepid travelers to step through into some other, more exotic zone of existence. Not far off, the Temple squatted unfinished, a high-tech echo of Khufu’s great tomb in Egypt. The rest of the lots delineated by the newly-marked streets stood mostly empty, dotted only here and there with the advance camps and projects of other crews, and with DPW’s various facilities; we had entered a still-wild and only sparsely-populated frontier town that would soon burgeon and flower into the buzzing hive of happy activity we call Black Rock City.

Ken Rose, the IAM’s resident architect and designer of both the Control Tower and 2011’s Temple of Transition, he is even mentioned in Larry Adkin’s guide! They then directed us to our camp a few blocks away, where Auguste and I positioned the trailer for maximum solar collection, and made a thorough once-over of the shower trailer’s systems. We wouldn’t actually be able to test the thing until the booths were assembled and plumbed, but we were both optimistically hoping for the best as Auguste and I said our goodbyes, and he set off for the long drive home.

I busied myself for the rest of the day with setting my own camp up, helping here and there around the common areas, and visiting the DPW depot to say hello to friends. Both lunch and dinner with the IAM were outstandingly good, considering where we were and how early we were there. Thanks to a generous donation from Sierra Gold Seafood in Sparks, the crew dined abundantly on crab and smoked salmon. The weather was clear and perfect, the playa flat and firm, and I felt that all was well with the world as I bedded down for the night in the comfort of my little tent.

These colors don't run -- PHOTO: Alan Macy

These colors don’t run — PHOTO: Alan Macy

As it turned out, the weather held until after I made it back to the playa the next day. On the build site working with the crew, I noticed spectacular displays of lightning off in the distance, and was alarmed to notice that it was happening on all sides of us. In the middle of our efforts to assemble the Tower, we found ourselves caught in a serious dust storm that rolled across us with great suddenness, heralding the beginning of a brutal night of high winds that snapped one of the main poles of my tent like a toothpick. I spent half the night with my tent alternately collapsing on me to entomb me in nylon, and belling out again to catch more wind. I could have sought shelter in some sturdier structure, like a truck or an RV, but I really wasn’t ruffled and just didn’t feel it necessary to impose on any of my camp mates. In spite of the horrendous flap-flap-flapping of tent fabric snapping in a hurricane breeze all around me, I fell asleep easily with a smile on my face, and slept like a log until dawn.

The completion of the shower trailer was a real cause for celebration; Auguste’s experimental design works flawlessly. The closed loop system means that there’s no real need to conserve water, although we do need to limit use of soap and shampoo to Dr. Bronner’s only. Sunvelope’s solar water heaters crank out hot water at an incredible rate; in hindsight, the three big collector panels on the trailer seem like overkill. By the end of that first evening of hot showers, the entire crew was clean and glowing with the special happiness that comes from enjoying a serious creature comfort in a place where no such thing is ever guaranteed or even likely. The Devil be damned; we had successfully delivered ice cream cones to our friends in Hell.

Another wind storm hit the playa last night, and a little rain, but nothing even close to the three inches of precipitation that was predicted. There was enough warning for us to batten down our camp’s hatches pretty effectively; a few very fat drops here and there was the extent of it, and the squall passed much more quickly than the earlier all-night storm. By the time I was ready to sleep, the weather was once again placid and comfortably cool; rather than rough it in my half-collapsed tent with the broken pole, I grabbed a blanket and pillow and kipped out on a couch in the communal area. . . and lo and behold, the playa has provided: as of this morning, I have a new and much larger tent, courtesy of a camp mate with no need or use for it. Welcome to the Black Rock City Press Club, please remove your shoes at the door. Outside, the city grows by leaps and bounds hourly; friends old and new stop by in the leisurely hours of the day to share gossip and treats; everyone is busy but we all have that certain sense of joy you get when some of your problems are thorny, but all of your problems are worth having. We are beyond the First World here; we have only Zeroth World problems now.

As for the Control Tower, the interruptions in schedule posed by the weather and an initial abortive attempt to assemble the Tower upright are now behind us; architect Ken Rose says that the valiant crew is catching up very handily. They are playa-hardened and morale is high; nothing can stand in the way now that can’t be coped with.

See you soon!

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UPDATE: Reports of heavy police presence on the playa are true. We will have more information on specific law enforcement activities as soon as we have solid facts first-hand from reliable sources. In the meantime, if you’re on the playa, exercise caution at all times and assume you are being watched, particularly while driving a vehicle.

Ensign to the Bridge!

by Whatsblem the Pro

Useful is the new sexy

Useful is the new sexy

We’ve been covering the build of the Control Tower over the last month or two, and today we’ve got an opportunity for YOU to be part of the project on-playa.

Sevenn, the International Arts Megacrew‘s administrative angel, is looking for people to fill slots as “Control Tower Ensigns,” helping the crew keep the Tower manned and operational 24/7. There are a number of four-hour shifts available throughout the week that will give you a chance to get a look at the workings of this massive, amazing art project from an insider’s point of view. There may be swag involved, and you’ll also get to hobnob and generally rub elbows with the legendary builders of the IAM, creators of the Temple of Transition that wowed Black Rock City in 2011, among other major playa art projects.

“The Control Tower Ensigns will help support the crew and systems of the Control Tower during the event, serving as ambassadors and safety personnel,” says Sevenn. “There will be a Control Tower crew member on site at all times to train and help you. Thank you for your assistance and support!”

As a CT Ensign, you’ll be assisting an IAM crew member with duties such as keeping people from climbing the tower, recording any technical issues, acting as a liaison with Rangers and law enforcement personnel, ensuring the generators are running and fueled up, and more.

Sign-up for a CT Ensign shift is quick and easy; just visit the Volunteerspot page for the project and enter your information, then show up for your shift on the playa at the appointed time. You won’t have a hard time finding it – even at Burning Man, a sixty-foot tower loaded with lasers and flamethrowers and other implements of funstruction will be hard to miss – just go to 3:15 and Esplanade, and you’ll see it.

That's a 1:5 scale model of the Tower; crew members are actual size

That’s a 1:5 scale model of the Tower; crew members are actual size

The 1:5 scale model of the Control Tower shows off

The 1:5 scale model of the Control Tower shows off

Mischief Lab's fine work-in-progress on the Tower's flame capability

Mischief Lab’s fine work-in-progress on the Tower’s flame capability

The base of the full-sized Tower taking shape

The base of the full-sized Tower taking shape


The Poor Man’s Burning Man 3: ELECTRIC BAMBOOGALOO

by Whatsblem the Pro

Architect Ken Rose and IAM volunteers hard at work

Architect Ken Rose and IAM volunteers hard at work

[Whatsblem the Pro is embedded in the International Arts Megacrew for the building of THE CONTROL TOWER, a sixty-foot “cargo cult” version of an FAA control tower, equipped with lasers and flame effects and other interactive features. This series of articles begins with The Poor Man’s Burning Man: Part One, and shows you how you can attend Burning Man even if you don’t sleep on a giant pile of money at night.]

Work on the Control Tower continues to go smoothly as the necessary materials and tools show up. This last couple of weeks has seen the real work beginning with the arrival of the actual bamboo members that will make up the load-bearing part of the Tower.

Bamboo is incredibly strong, and can stand in for steel in many applications. It can splinter and break, though, especially at the ends of these long poles the crew is working with. They’ve been busy embedding steel joints into each piece to allow them to be joined together, and cementing them in place with an expanding foam poured into small holes in the shafts. The tendency to splinter is being dealt with by capping the ends of the thirty-foot segments with fiberglass.

Expert help with all of this has arrived in the person of Gerard Minakawa, an artist/designer from Southern California whose company, Bamboo DNA, specializes in sculpture and architecture built from bamboo. I asked Gerard to tell me about building with bamboo.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: So Gerard. . . what’s so great about bamboo?

GERARD MINAKAWA: Where do I start? There are so many amazing things. It’s so versatile, it’s had so many different uses since humans first started working with building materials. People in Asia and South America are pretty familiar with how useful it is.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: I was in China for five years and noticed that even on huge skyscrapers, when there’s a building project, they’re using bamboo scaffolding.

GERARD MINAKAWA: Yeah! It’s just so friendly and easy to work with. There’s so much you can do with it. It’s both very strong, and very flexible, which I’ve always regarded as its two most redeeming characteristics. That combination of strength and flexibility is hard to match.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: And it’s so light!

GERARD MINAKAWA: Yes, it can be very light, too. It’s a good thing these cylinders are hollow, though, because if they were solid they’d be extremely heavy.

The variety we’re using for the Control Tower is called Guadua angustifolia, commonly known as just ‘guadua.’ It’s native to South America, to the Amazon. Most people think that all bamboos of any significance come from Asia, but actually the one I’ve found to be the most useful, the best to work with in construction, art, and design is this species. Brazilians and Colombians work with it a lot; it’s my number-one choice.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: How does it compare with steel, structurally?

GERARD MINAKAWA: The five-inch poles we’re using here are comparable to two and three-eighths inch diameter tube steel, in terms of compression strength, with a lot smaller carbon footprint.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: You’re actually sequestering carbon by using bamboo, rather than releasing a ton of it into the atmosphere by manufacturing steel.

GERARD MINAKAWA: Right. . . and none of these poles are older than six years, from the time that they’re harvested, so from the time they start shooting to the time you turn it into something like a Control Tower, you’re looking at six years.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: These will shoot later?

GERARD MINAKAWA: It grows from a network of roots, called rhizomes, so cutting down a bamboo pole in the forest doesn’t mean you have to reseed it.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: I’ve heard that some species grow so fast you can hear them.

GERARD MINAKAWA: I’ve never heard it, but some species grow as much as a meter per day, so you can definitely watch it grow.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: But only if you’ve got plenty of Whip-Its handy, to get into that jaw-dropped state.

GERARD MINAKAWA: It would take quite a bit of patience. If you filmed a time-lapse, though, it would be really amazing.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: How long have you been doing this?

GERARD MINAKAWA: I’ve been building with bamboo for about twelve years now. It’s a lot of fun to build with. . . never a dull moment!

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: So, today you’re filling it with polyurethane foam to anchor the steel joints inside each piece?

GERARD MINAKAWA: Yes. This is the trickiest part; we need to splice poles together to make sixty-foot members. You can’t import sixty-foot long poles; you just can’t ship them at that length. . . so to get the length we need, we’re putting in a steel ‘bone’ that’s held in place inside each pole with structural foam. The two halves of each resulting sixty-foot pole will come apart, to be locked together again later, so there’s a little bit of modularity in the structure. . . pre-fabrication, for ease of reassembly later on, when the Tower gets to the playa. After Burning Man they want to be able to dissassemble and reassemble this for other events, so we’re making a fairly large compromise by using steel and foam instead of just bamboo alone.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: I guess there must be some challenges whenever you start getting into any kind of composite construction.

GERARD MINAKAWA: Sure. The materials industry has a way to go. On the bright side, when we do the reinforcement lashings for this, we’ll be using a bio-resin that’s linseed based as a replacement for the typical polyester resin. That cures in the sun; it’s a biological resin and non-toxic. The finish will also be an atypically non-toxic finish, so I’m happy about all of that.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: Tell me about Bamboo DNA.

GERARD MINAKAWA: Bamboo DNA is a company I started as an import and wholesale company; I guess I was trying to take the safe route and do what everyone else was doing, but I ended up getting mostly commissions, and asked to do festivals and design stuff. I was trained as a designer; I just wasn’t really seeing how it would be possible to create a business centered solely around bamboo design and building. . . but that’s how it’s ended up! Now that’s what Bamboo DNA does year-round, all the time: design and build bamboo structures. I tried to do something more generic, and a niche customer base found my niche business and turned it into something unique. I couldn’t be happier, and it gives me many chances to help awareness of bamboo and other ecologically-friendly materials grow.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: Thanks, I’ll let you get back to it.

Meanwhile, I’ve been trying not to fall apart while fulfilling all my own commitments, getting some artwork done of my own, and suffering head colds in the recent heatwave. I’ve had a good bit of luck with getting all kinds of donations coming in from supportive local businesses, from a forklift to a fleet of bicycles to lumber to the gourmet beer the crew sold at one of their fundraisers. I feel a little like James Garner in THE GREAT ESCAPE: the Scrounger, pulling necessaries out of thin air so that we can all leave the Nazis and their shitty POW camp behind for a better life on our own. Hopefully the tunnel won’t collapse on us before we all get through!

Morale remains high, especially after hours when the overhead lights go down and the bold shirt-bearers of the IAM rise to meet it.