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If there's one truth to Burning Man, it's "If you build it, they will come." But how did we build it? As Black Rock City's central meeting place and landmark destination, designing the Center Camp Café was a unique challenge. The structure had to be huge, attractive, and above all, safe. It also had to withstand sustained 80 mph winds, extreme temperature variations, and the dust storms that sweep across the Black Rock Desert. Typical of Burning Man problems, this challenge was soon embraced as an art and engineering project by designer Rod Garrett.

The Café structure was first conceived as a huge circular diaphragm, the internal stresses of the membrane absorbed and equalized by the ridged outer ring it held in compression, sort of like a giant frisbee that would be elevated and connected to the playa floor.

As the design evolved, a high point at a central hub tapered out to the desert floor like a Bedouin tent, causing the wind to push down on the structure, rather than lift it. The central apex was left open as an exit for internal forces, and from a locus within the center ring support posts, radiating pairs of stainless steel cables folded over the elevated inner and outer wooden rings to terminate in ground anchors.

The cables secure the structure, and the wind-porous cloth, to make 38,000 square foot of marvelous shade in the middle of the desert. Its first major test began even before it was completed, during the huge windstorm of 2000. Inside, it was a breeze.

Recipe for building a Café will need:

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  • 108 4x4's of various lengths
  • 1 dozen para glue lam posts
  • 38,000 sq ft of 80% shade cloth
  • 25,000 zip ties
  • 96 ground anchors
  • 96 turnbuckles
  • 1 dozen 20 ft flag poles
  • 14,000 ft steel cable
  • a bobcat, heister, and 2 boom lifts
  • playa dust

Combine the above ingredients on a 250 ft patch of dust and bake at 110 degrees for about 1 week, stirred occasionally by a team of highly skilled lunatics. These lunatics must be willing to work night and day, eat dust on every meal and for snacks in between, and spend days crawling around on their hands and knees. Early in the week, they will plant survey flags, replant survey flags after a mystery visitor spins doughnuts in the center of the Café in the middle of the night, dig 3 ft postholes on a small archeological expedition, and then construct the Café frame. After which, the structure is strung with 48 ft cables and each cable is brought up to a 1000 lbs load. Assuming the numbers are right, the Café is born!

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Located downwind of a major playa road, dust collectors will love Café construction, which features our just-in-time dust delivery system to make sure that more dust arrives as soon as you have wiped off your face. If this description stirs your lunatic soul, we are looking for carpenters, electricians, plumbers, riggers, and heavy machine operators to help build the Café, work hard, and have fun on the unpredictable playa.

To support our desert community by helping to build the Café, please contact DPW Volunteers and express an interest in Café construction. In addition to Café construction, the DPW offers many other opportunities for those with building and trade skills.

If you haven't found what you're looking for, return to Café volunteer opportunities to see other ways to get involved or contact cafe-volunteers(at)burningman(dot)com.