Experimental Greenhouse Collapses in High Winds at Arcosanti

Sometimes we Gain Wisdom by Learning “How NOT to do Something”

So this was the month in which the ”experimental greenhouse“ (I name it this for lack of a better or more formal name of the project) was supposed to be completed. After two years of looking at a uncompleted hull of a project, many here were expecting and anticipating closure…But not so fast…As we are to see in the story described in the post below.

The 2nd Annual Russell Ferguson KCAI Field Trip
The Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI) students that came 2 years ago – their efforts need to be honored – as do the efforts of the 18 wonderful, creative, visionary and beautiful, people/students coming here in this latest KCAI field trip organized by KCAI Associate Professor and Arco-alum Russell Ferguson.

Building the Structure and Finishing the Work of the 2009 KCAI Group
The students spent several days working to tighten the PVC pipe frame. The frame was originally constructed out of new PVC pipe, which deteriorated rapidly in the hot Arizona sun over the last two years. They also removed all the rocks and stripped the land of any brush that might be an impediment to the firm attaching of the structure to the ground. A trail was made of rock by the rock wall and trail master Mr Ferguson, from the Arcosanti Low Road to the experimental structure.

Once the “pad” for the structure was secured and the structure itself hemmed up to compensate for the warpage of the PVC pipe after sitting in the sun so long, it was placed onto the cleared area/pad and then secured using rebar and metal bars hammered into the rocky ground that were connected to the structure using rope.

Finally, the plastic membrane was added and secure to the membrane and the instrument housings were added to the inside and outside of the structure.

A Sense of Accomplishment and then…
I do feel the students had a real sense of accomplishment. For a lot of us it was reassuring to see the PVC skeleton finally covered and looking completed. However that sense seems to have a bit premature, looking back now to the beginning of this week.

Sometimes things are not permanent and do not last, but what is important is that in the process of creating, WE DO LEARN. Just less than a week after the students left, a fierce wind came up and put the project to a test.

Some of us in the community had concerns about whether this structure would hold up to the high winds we sometimes get in the area. Unfortunately, those concerns were proven correct as the high winds mercilessly and quickly laid the structure to waste, breaking several key hoops and leaving only the middle section partially intact and standing. Now we are left with the question how and when to clean up the mess?

Lessons Learned
While the total budget was not huge for this project, probably around 300 dollars or less, how we can learn from the process to prevent this kind of outcome from happening again, and again and again….? I think this kind of self-critical examination is vital, because we have very limited funding and we can’t afford spend the little money that we have unwisely.

What can be identified as obvious issues is first the allowing of the PVC pipe to be used in the first place. We know that PVC is vulnerable to weakening in the hot sun and we also know that the structure showed signs of severe warping that had to be corrected by using ropes to secure the ends of the hoops together on the ground. There is a belief that painting PVC can help it resist the effects of the sun but I don’t think the PVC was painted to protect it. And while painting may help prevent damage to the PVC from the sum, these materials are not designed for solar exposure. The stop-gap strategy tying the structure together with the rope did not address the core problem – the general tendency of PVC to weaken under high solar heat/radiation conditions.

We also can not be sure whether the structure was properly anchored. However, it seems the problem was that the structural stresses of the wind on the plastic overwhelmed the ability of the PVC to hold the hold and the pipe completely broke in two in several places, leaving the structure in what appears to be in failure state and a resulting significant loss of time and resources.

Salvaging the Project Materials and Effort
In terms of analyzing the project in terms of materials and time we can infer the following:

  1. The broken and weakened pipe could possibly and hopefully be used for another project.
  2. In theory, the project could be rebuilt on the pad that was excavated, but the fact that the wind took this structure down so quickly would make me very skeptical of any further efforts without significant and well thought out design changes.
  3. The students gained a experience in construction, path building and the clearing of the land.
  4. The membrane hopefully suffered minimal damage and can be reused.

Conclusion and Possible Remedies
Forget about the potentially bad PR that we might risk when people walk or drive by such unfinished and collapsed projects, the real lesson here revolves around the need for better accountability. Who can expect those who have a passion for the project and who want to see it move forward in a way that is consistent with its founding, to really make investments in moving the project solidly and decisively forward, until there is a trusted and proven accountability structure in place. Nothing can proceed here in an effective way here, until we develop a better way to build trust, collaboration and accountability amongst ourselves.

The challenge thus is how to improve the accountability structure at Arcosanti so that no matter who you are and how long you’ve been involved with Arcosanti you are still accountable to the project and its
stakeholders in terms of what you do. The main stakeholders are the 7000 or so people who participated in the building of Arcosanti as work-shoppers and in many cases as residents. These are the people we should polling and asking about the future of Arcosanti. They are ones we are ultimately accountable to when we do work at Arcosanti, especially work that involves scarce Cosanti Foundation resources – as they put their blood and sweat into this project.

The main lesson that can be drawn from this project demonstrates the need to be accountable not only to each other as part of a community of people called Arcosanti, the visitors who come to eat, see an event or take a tour and also the alum who gave a part of their life to make Arcosanti what it is today.


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