Deep in the dry, windy desert of Northern Nevada is a great basin filled with playas, hot springs, and lava beds, surrounded by numerous volcanic and geothermal features.

Every year since 1986, right before Labor Day, almost 80,000 people gather to celebrate Burning Man, the legendary assembly of spirited people guided by the founders ten principles: “radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy.”

With the pandemic eliminating the annual bohemian gathering in 2020 and possibly in 2021, a new frontier has started. Without the enormous experimental structures and mutant vehicles reminiscent of “Mad Max,” the now-aging devoted followers of Burning Man are focused on creating something even more dramatic, revolutionary, and above all sustainable. Welcome to Fly Ranch!

Burning Man Project and the Land Art Generator Initiative collaborated to create the LAGI 2020 Fly Ranch design challenge, inviting innovators and creatives to propose regenerative projects for Fly Ranch, an off-grid 3,800-acre ranch in the Great Basin.

According to LAGI, “Teams were asked to integrate sustainable systems for energy, water, food, shelter, and waste management into works of art in the landscape. The objective is to build the foundational infrastructure for Fly Ranch, support Burning Man Project’s 2030 sustainability goals, and engage a global audience to work together towards systemic transformation, and serve as an inspiration for the developing field of regenerative design.”

Proposals for the area include; human habitation spaces, venues for learning and discovery, permaculture systems for food infrastructure for water harvesting and blackwater recycling, zero-emissions construction, and energy infrastructure to generate power from solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass. Who knew living on MARS would become a reality in Nevada?

The LAGI 2020 Fly Ranch design challenge considered hundreds of applicants and narrowed its focus to the top 10 designs and a portfolio of other ambitious projects. Selected teams will be provided an honorarium grant to test on-site installations of functional prototypes.

Among the top ten projects are; Nexus, which explores the design capabilities of Ferrock, a sustainable alternative to concrete that absorbs CO2 through the curing process of building components; SEED symbiotic coevolution, which incorporates a solar chimney, solar PV, geothermal, passive cooling, composting, greenhouses, aquaponics, biodigesters, and greywater recycling.  Solar Mountain, uses solar photovoltaic and recycled materials to contribute 300 MWh of electricity per year and interactive spaces for play and exercise; and Ripple integrates electrochromic glass, a bioceramic dome (Geoship SPC), seed bank, solar photovoltaic, cisterns, drip irrigation, composting toilets, and native restoration plants to provide shelter, food, medicinal herbs and teas, habitat enhancement, water harvesting, 36 MWh/year of electricity, and 40,000 liters/year of harvested water. 

In 2016, the Burning Man Organization acquired the Fly Ranch property, just north of the event site. The goal was to create a year-round rural incubator for Burning Man culture and a catalyst for innovation and creativity in the world. Burning Man Project mobilized the Burning Man community through the Land Art Generator to design and build scalable and sustainable solutions for one of the harshest climates in the world. The goal is to prototype off-grid solutions for a post-carbon world.

I spoke with Elizabeth Monoian and Robert Ferry, LAGI’s founding co-directors, and they explained the project further. “As we implement climate solutions, we should recognize that technology does not live in a vacuum. It is born from human culture, and it thrives when we care for it. There is an inherent beauty in natural systems that reflects the steady-state of their balance, where the life cycles of living things are in harmony with the energy and resources that naturally flow through them—where nothing is wasted, and all that is required to thrive comes from the sun, the wind, and the weather. Could it be that when we are capable of designing such systems, we will find inherent beauty emerging from them as well?

Fly Ranch provides the perfect context in which to begin to answer this question by experimenting with new systems for human thriving—to tackle the hard problem of net-zero sustainable infrastructure with circular design thinking. The outcomes of LAGI 2020 Fly Ranch offer the world a portfolio of solutions for energy, water, food, shelter, and regeneration of waste streams that incorporate the latest technologies available as media for awe-inspiring works of infrastructure art set within the sublime landscape of Northern Nevada.”

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