Building a Geodesic Shade Tent, Part 1

Last year for Burning Man we built a classic ‘Monkey Hut’ shade structure. It worked, but barely. It was imprecise to assemble, didn’t provide much shaded area, and its structural integrity was awful. With winds capable of reaching 100mph, and unforgiving desert sun, I wanted to have something more substantial.

This year I’ve decided to bring a Geodesic Dome. Domes can be tricky because they require precise angles and strut lengths, however, if done properly they are very sturdy and provide a lot of space. Most dome guides suggest building a dome out of electric conduit piping. I don’t like this idea for two reasons: 1) I woke up to a lightning storm last year, so a metal frame seemed suboptimal, and 2) The ‘hubs’ where the pipes come together are secured by a nut through the pipe itself. This means that the dome is restricted to the size it was originally designed at.

An alternative design is to use a specialized hub with pipes inserted into the hubs. The pipes can be replaced, and extended if a larger dome is desired. After a considerable amount of searching I found Natural Frequency who sold exactly what I was looking for: pre-constructed hubs, made from plastic, that can accommodate PVC pipe. The hubs come with either 4, 5, or 6 spokes depending on where they will end up in the dome.

Natural Frequency Dome Hub, 6 Spokes

After I purchased the hubs, my next task was to cut up the PVC pipe in the appropriate lengths. This proved a pain for several reasons. PVC pipe typically comes in either ‘Schedule 40’ or ‘Schedule 80’ variety. Schedule 40 is most common. Schedule 80 is a grey color, and is more sturdy. I decided on Schedule 80, aiming to improve structural integrity. Schedule 80 is pretty uncommon, and I had to go to a pipe specialist yard here in Austin. Unfortunately, they sell the pipe in 20 ft segments, which would not fit into any vehicle I had. I purchased a $120 hand operated ratcheting 2″ PVC pipe cutting tool. I purchased 380 ft of PVC pipe (19 pipes), and cut them into 10 ft segments before loading into my vehicle. Unfortunately, I initially pushed the pipe in too hard and cracked the windshield of the Zipcar I was using. Then I went back with a much bigger truck…

20 ft Schedule 80 PVC Pipe

hand operated ratcheting 2 inch PVC pipe cutting tool

Once I got all the pipe moved to our storage unit, the hard part started. The 38 pipe segments had to be turned into 30 57.5625″, and 35 50.25″ pieces. That turns out to be a total of 84 cuts using the PVC pipe cutter, and now I have forearms of steel. I ended up doing it over a few weekend days, as it was too much to do at once.

Even Gotham was getting bored

Even our dog Gotham was getting pretty bored with this task… Eventually it was finished though, and now the PVC pipe pieces stand in my storage unit, waiting to be assembled into a dome.

Completed struts

Stay tuned for upcoming posts. After I ensure that the dome can actually be put together and will work, I’ll be posting about a dome cover and the work involved with getting the dome to the playa.

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