Burning Man mixes environmentally sustainable design with do-it-yourself ingenuity
Burning Man is going green this year. Greener, anyway. No doubt thousands of one-time-use plastic glow sticks will still end up in landfills, and emissions from transporting 40,000 people to the Black Rock Desert—even if some of them are arriving in veggie-oil-fueled buses—are going to make a noticeable impact on the air color north of Gerlach. But the official policy is an effort toward minimizing the event’s environmental impact, and the unofficial policy has always been to take whatever you learn at Burning Man home with you.
Some architects and designers are working on both of those goals, using the temporary Black Rock City as a place to experiment with construction designs aimed at solving real-world environmental-impact problems. Some of these innovations are things you could build yourself after a little research and a trip to the hardware store.
At last year’s event, one of the most prominent structures was the Sugar Cube, a 20-foot white plywood cube with open sides, designed by North Berkeley architect and structural engineer David Wilson. It was built by scores of volunteers and open to the Burning Man public as an art canvas and viewing platform. The idea was to test a “Cradle-to-Cradle” building design, intended to leave no waste during building or deconstruction.
Why do it at Burning Man?
“To demonstrate that the structure could be built in a very short period by unskilled and untrained labor,” says Wilson, who formed a company around the idea, AVAVA Systems.
Heather Lyn Scotland, an AVAVA rep, adds, “Burning Man was a great place to get a lot of wear and tear on the structure, all at once.”
This year, the Sugar Cubers are taking a break from building demos, but expect to see examples of the gleaming Hexayurt. It looks like a cross between a solar oven and a space-age yurt. It’s designed by a Scottish-Indian-Icelandic architect named Vinya Gupta and made of insulated silver panels and tape. It’s light enough to be carried by two people but sturdy and efficient enough that it’s being taken seriously by the American Red Cross and the Department of Defense as a form of emergency shelter.
Closer to home, Mike Brisbin will be experimenting with a system he designed to filter, chlorinate and de-chlorinate gray water from showers and dish sinks at Burning Man to cool his RV with a swamp cooler. Brisbin’s got an edge over the average Joe in terms of water-management design; he’s the Water Quality coordinator for the Truckee Meadows Water Reclamation Facility. But he says anybody could make a device that would allow them to convert gray water to usable water and truck less of each to and from the desert.
This is his first year experimenting with the design, so he isn’t selling plans on the Internet yet. At this stage, he’s more concerned with comfortable camping than with the larger worldwide implications. But tonight, when watching the dishwater go down the sink as the sprinkler runs fresh water to your lawn, consider the possibilities.
As Hexayurt designer Gupta told online environmental magazine Treehugger.com, “Designing like you give a damn can help.”