Monday, September 20, 2004

Burning Man 2004 3: Work and Weather

By Tuesday evening, we pretty much had the camp together. As some of you may have seen, it was basically a triangle--two 30' geodesic domes, an entry tunnel, and in back, a mylar inflatable room. My contribution to this year's camp, UNI, was a black inflatable cone that turned out to be more trouble than it was worth.

The domes are almost frighteningly easy to put up now--gone are the days when one dome took us several hours. In this iteration, both domes took about an hour and a half, I think, and the covers just sort of FLEW on there. I struggled with the generator shack, which reminded me over and over again of how I can't take ANYTHING for granted around here.

I sent the idiot who gets paid for being "head mechanic" here at work to get me some stuff from Home Depot, specifically wood screws and lumber. I looked directly at the screws when they came back to me, and completely spaced on the fact that they were DRYWALL screws--not the best thing for our purposes.

Then I gave the aforementioned idiot my plans for the genny shack, or rather, Dan's plans with a few alterations, and told him to get to work. This resulted in a fairly well put together series of OMB and 4" x 4", which was great, except that he hadn't drilled the bolt holes we discussed, which was NOT great. Furthermore, the drill bits I had weren't long enough to drill through both OMB (an extremely rough, and cheap, grade of plywood, for those of you who don't hang out in the lumber section of HD very much) and 4" x 4", so I was doing a lot of swearing and double duty. But finally, the sucker was up, and we had power. I made a solemn promise to myself and my campmates to punch Fat Bastard square in the nose when I got back, but I haven't been able to follow through on that yet.

The other big project was the entry tunnel. This tunnel was to be approximately 7' tall, and was made of 1" PVC bent over straight rebar pounded into the ground. A plastic sheet (white) that I had precut was thrown over this skeleton, and lashed very firmly just about every way imaginable. I saw this design for the first time out in Disturbia 2002, and was itching to give it a shot myself. It worked pretty well, except that I'd purchased 20' lengths of PVC, which was great because there was no fitting or anything to worry about in the middle, but sucked because transporting 20' lengths of PVC on a 16' trailer is problematic at best (the door was basically trapped--if you opened it, you got either bopped on the head or kicked in the shin by spring loaded PVC).

The PDX people, specifically Jen, were real troopers on this. I was rapidly running out of energy, after the long ass drive and a couple of days in the desert heat, and I finally gave them free reign to just get the thing done. Which they did, admirably, and twice as fast as I could have done.

This left the inflatables, Prog and UNI 2.0. I'm proud of both of them, although I didn't actually build this incarnation of Prog, it was built off of one of my designs.

The problem with low pressure inflatables is always the doors--keeping air in while people traipse in and out is difficult, as is making doors that will withstand thousands of pairs of hands over the course of the week. Over the years, we've developed a rather vaginal solution: two bungie cords attached to pieces of plastic, strung from apex to base of one of the tall dome triangles. Pull the cords apart, step inside, let them snap shut behind you. Brilliant.

The last Space Station Prog I actually built (which was my first, based loosely on a design by certified madman Troy N) was pretty experimental, or rather, was just sort of DONE. It's made of 10 mil painter's plastic, stapled and taped together at the seams--essentially a giant lung. Since this is ugly, we covered it all with 3 mil mylar, the shiny stuff you see balloons made of these days. The seams in the plastic were offset by the seams in the mylar, so basically the whole shell was covered in mylar tape, making it basically indestructible on the long edges. The whole construct was held down by stakes driven through grommets around the base, which proved to be the weak point in my plan (which has been rectified in UNI, incidentally, as I'll relate to you in a second). The grommets tend to rip out under strain, especially when the structure is only partially inflated.

The folks in NYC, when constructing Prog 4.0, had a bit more of a plan to work with, as well as a ready supply of mylar. So they did what any enterprising group of acidheads would do-stuck the mylar to the INSIDE of the roof, before the roof was attached, so in effect you were inside a MIRRORED lung. Very, very cool, I must say. Throw in some inflatable furniture, and you've got a chill space like no other.

UNI was a different matter. As a complete project, I have to call it a failure, but I learned a hell of a lot during the course of said failure. We had very high hopes for it, but as a result, disregarded some of the true rules of the game in the desert.

First, inflatables are really a bad idea out there. I mean, really--an air supported room in the middle of high desert winds? I compensated for that by minimizing useless space (that is, all space above head height) in Prog 3.0, but was so impressed with the 12' cone UNI turned out to be that I decided we could make it work. No freakin' way. Not in anything over 10mph winds, anyway.

Second, black plastic is ugly. The NYC crew were kind enough to cut out a bunch of interesting shapes from various colors of mylar, but the glue I used to attach them (out in the front yard, roughly 72 hours before leaving for the playa) didn't like mylar, and you can pretty well forget taping or gluing ANYTHING in the dust and wind of the Black Rock Desert. So it was a rather forlorn inflatable that finally rose above the desert floor, however briefly.

Which isn't fair--UNI did perfectly well when the wind was down, and actually had a pretty decent run. It wasn't what we had hoped for, but I was pleased to see my main engineering point was sound.

About a year ago, I woke up in the middle of the night and realized that "lung" designs were really a waste of time and materials--for this application, a floor was superfluous. In Prog, our biggest failures were grommet points, because, well, they're points. Stress points, that is, and my original solution to that was a series of drilled 2 x 4's (or something) to make the stress even along all the edges. When I woke up that October night, I realized that by equalizing the pressure all around the edges, I had made a floor unnecessary. By the time I fell asleep again, I'd figured out a solution.

UNI, then, has a sleeve running around the bottom edge, which contains a ring of PVC. This PVC is staked down, effectively making the desert floor act as the floor of the structure. It worked flawlessly, bubba.

The other problem was Chris's projection screen. Ultimately, I think it's a problem of not being able to lay hands on what you'll be working with on site, but the upshot was our interior projection screen (which was to go from apex to about 2' from the ground) did weigh down the actual skin of the structure, which, combined with some integrity issues of the skin in some areas resulted in a half deflated structure. At one point, I think, the whole thing was being held up by a piece of PVC pipe, which was kind of disheartening.

The projections were beautiful, though, and the environment was superb. The entire floor was piled with sheets of foam, and covered in thick red fur. The only lights, other than the projections, were red ropelight around the perimeter. Certain members of the camp attempted to designate this the "fuck.node (tm)," which kind of creeps me out, really, but the appelation isn't too far off. I found no used condoms in there, though, so I guess it's all good.

The weather was miserable for part of the week and good for the rest. One of the PDX people heard a weather report that talked about 50mph winds headed our way, all night and all the next day. We immediately began to batten down the camp, which probably saved our asses over the next day and a half. The wind beat us six ways from Sunday, making inflatables impossible and being in the corridor a pretty exciting experience. The wind was strong enough to wallow out holes where the PVC met the rebar, resulting in some quick re-rebarring of certain of the stress points. This went pretty well, and all in all we weathered the storm pretty well. Much thanks to the PDX crew and Twin B for their efforts during this time.

I've got pictures of the temple of stars during these storms as well, I'll try and post them somewhere soon, although nothing can convey the sheer power and scope of a dust storm on the playa. Bad. Not 2000 bad, but pretty damn close.


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