Scott Whitaker, aka Scotty Soltronic, had a harsh epiphany that changed his life while he was attending the annual Burning Man festival out in the wilds of Nevada in 2006.
He was standing in a group of thousands of spectators, watching a giant wooden art structure burn to the ground, and he was feeling betrayed and appalled at the flagrant waste of new materials by a group of people he had always respected. That defining event filled him with incredible inspiration and motivation: Six years later, Whitaker is running an annual eco-festival on his ranch in Green River, Utah, and is one of the area's leading lights in renewable energy and reclaimed materials construction.
"Everything really came out of that one experience at Burning Man," he says. That year, a collective of 40 Belgians known as the Uchronians built a huge structure, half cathedral and half bird's nest, out of 93 running miles of grade 3 lumber rejects. "There were literally semi-trucks full of new lumber, huge stacks of wood. I thought, this is crazy. Since I did an LDS mission in Amsterdam, I speak Dutch and I could communicate pretty well, I asked them about the project. I got the clear impression that they were going to build this massive structure, and then not burn it, and instead donate the wood somewhere, and I thought that was so awesome."
Uchronia, or the Belgian Waffle as it was affectionately known, was the hit of Burning Man that year. Uchronia went up in flames at the end of the week. "And as it burned, my whole world shifted," Whitaker says. "I was a Burner, through and through, but when I saw that thing go up, it totally flipped things for me."
The Belgian team reportedly reforested an equivalent area in Canada, where the low-grade lumber came from. Others shared Whitaker's dismay and the next year the Burning Man organization began a wood-collecting effort in conjunction with building Habitat for Humanity houses in Reno. The sheer consumptiveness of the Uchronia project also catalyzed a major life change in Whitaker.
"When I came home I was sobbing. I literally couldn't talk to anyone without crying. I understood that the Burners were lost, as lost as anyone else. They're creating their own thing, but they don't have any direction. Burning Man helps you step off the 'program' of the default world but what are you stepping onto?"
Whitaker had worked in Silicon Valley as a computer programmer and professional hacker. Now he had a welding studio in downtown Salt Lake and made curious and beautiful sculptures out of discarded metal. In his mid-30s, divorced and raising a young son, Whitaker was living the life of an artist and inventor.
He came home from the event and started building. Within a few months he had created the Solar Saucer, a reclaimed-materials "flying saucer" art piece mounted on a trailer, integrating 1,000 watts of solar photovoltaic power into its design. "I wanted to start building things that were sustainable," he says.
He didn't want to go back to Burning Man but a friend persuaded him to take the Saucer to the festival in 2007 for the Green Man environmental theme. "I drove around and used it to power other people's camps and sound systems instead of their generators, just generally spreading the word of solar power," he says.
The following year, instead of going to Burning Man he took the Saucer to other events. He integrated a sound system into the design and gathered a small team. They supported various social justice events and local music festivals that needed sound systems. This was the groundwork for the birth of Building Man, which is, as Whitaker says, "about the shift from burning everything to building everything."
He calls Building Man the next version. This year's Building Man workshops include Utah/ desert permacultural gardening, aquaponics, water catchment, composting toilets, Earth Ship™ rammed earth design construction, straw bale construction, adobe brick making, wilderness survival and fire bow workshops, making solar ovens, clean fuel vehicles, crocheting with plastic bags, off-grid solar photovoltaic technology, solar thermal technology, and composting methods and compost tumbler workshops. Presenters are James and Michelle Loomis, Martha Gilbert, Tanner Rosenthal, Jean Bokelmann, Mark Kriner, Galen Schuck, Tai Robinson, Maureen Brannely and Whitaker himself.
Want to learn how to build a solar concentrator? "It takes sunlight and focuses it on a point, so instead of turning sunlight into electricity, you're turning it into heat. You can use it to run a turbine system or some other kind of engine, or to cook something."He will demonstrate how to build three different versions of a solar water heater with reclaimed materials.
"The cost of this solar concentrator technology is next to nothing. For instance, you can take an old standard satellite dish, the small kind you put on your roof—everyone has these, they're everywhere, and they just get thrown away all the time—you line it with mylar and then you can use it to heat water." You may not be able to heat all the water we require in our modern lives, but you will learn concepts and how to apply them.
Whitaker says they are working with algae systems that use water as fuel, and other systems that use biomass as fuel. "I bought a gasifier from these guys in Berkeley that is basically almost the same thing that was on the back of the DeLorean in the second Back To The Future movie," he says. "It takes biomass and turns it into a useable fuel source." Some of the new projects are being developed under patent.
Whitaker says the entire festival is run off wind and solar. "We have 60 batteries that are powering the sound system and the custom-built lights. We took old halogen work lights and replaced the 50-watt bulbs with a 12V HID high-intensity car headlamp, which runs at 35 watts. We're creating these lighting systems with one battery and one of these lights, and we can set them up all over. The old 500-watt lights used over 12 times the amount of power to get the same amount of light!"
Generators don't automatically replace muscle. Whitaker wakes up when the sun comes up and moves the solar panels to capture sunlight, and then moves them again during the day to follow the sun.
In addition to the Solar Saucer, he has a box truck ("Big Blue") with 4,000 watts of solar panels on it. If you have a deep-cycle battery system on a trailer or RV, Whitaker's solar array can charge that up for you as well when you come down to camp there.
Building Man is family friendly and kid friendly, and as Whitaker says, "the people who come are focused on building things. A lot of them are going to bed pretty early. The workshops start at 9 a.m., we do workshops until it gets too hot, and then we go to the beach and we play music and have fun and then do it again the next day." Last year's event had 300 attendees; he anticipates up to 500 this year. It's held at the Jenk Star Ranch in Green River, which is built on a piece of land Whitaker bought many years ago. In June the ranch will host 3,000 visitors for Desert Rocks, a festival held in previous years near Moab.
"The entire Jenk Star Ranch is built out of stuff we found in the garbage," Whitaker says. "I'm an engineer by trade, but I spend my time in dumpsters. I make ridiculous things out of junk, but it makes my day when someone comes up and says 'thank you for doing that!'"
For Whitaker, there is more to successful work than simply creation and inspiration—there has to be a practical and socially responsible side to things as well. "That's part of the process," he says. "Everyone has their realization." He has devoted his efforts to helping foster that realization and a more expansive environmental awareness among the people who attend Building Man. "In my opinion, the event stands to grow bigger and faster, because what we're doing is resonating with more people." The event gives attendees a forum to connect both personally and professionally. "What people really want is to meet a new group of friends and to have an amazing time and to be valued," Whitaker says. Building Man provides just that.
The Building Man eco festival will be held at the Jenk Star Ranch in Green River May 17-May 21. Information, tickets and directions: jenkstar.com.
GETTING TO BUILDING MAN
To buy tickets or to sign up to volunteer, visit jenkstar.com. Tickets to Building Man are $65 online ($75 at the gate). This price includes camping, infrastructure and workshops. You must bring your own water, food and shelter and be ready to withstand the elements, which can range from sunny and hot to cold and wet, though as Whitaker says, ”May tends to be the most beautiful time of year in the desert.” Building Man is a leave-no-trace, pack-it-in, pack-it-out event.