I don’t usually use hyperbole, especially not about anything American, but over a week ago I attended what is probably the best event I’ve ever been to.

The setting was straight out of an Eagles album: the Mojave desert, a 2h drive from Los Angeles (thanks to Ben Hammersley for driving me there). Hesperia is the usual car crash of an American city: a Main St with big brands and strip malls, but hidden in a residential area lies a gem. The Cal-Earth Institute.

Founded in 1991 by the late Nader Khalili a Persian architect who grew his architectural practice in the US, the Institute is a plot of land that serves as home to over 30 experimental structures exploiting the characteristics of barb wire, polypropylene mesh bags and earth.

I had learnt about it two years ago as a former flatmate had rented one of these curious structures on Airbnb in the Joshua Tree Park. One of my long-term plans is to build my own (retirement) home and I found out Cal-Earth ran 4 day workshops twice a year. Tempted by Norwegian Airline’s new route between London and L.A. (£300 return!) I booked by tickets on Boxing Day and made my way there with a REI tent, a winter grade sleeping bag, a hot water bottle and Uniqlo Heattech leggings.

I emerged 4 days later absolutely covered in earth (the word dirt is banned on site) with a renewed sense of purpose in my life. That’s not how I feel about most events I attend. So here’s what I think they did right which everyone should try to do in their events:

  • Set expectations clearly. We were sent a month before a clear email to give us some context around the conditions of work: what equipment we should bring, what should we expect from meals, sleeping conditions. This already put us in the mood and mindset of communal living. Even if an event isn’t putting people up or expecting people to stay on site, this email a month before already gets people ready and ready to engage.
  • A strong introduction. On the first morning we were given an introduction to the 4 days, the fact that things kicked off at 7:30am and that we would work until sunset (around 6pm). We were told to wear badges with our first names to help the workshop leaders and to try to keep these on the whole first and second day. We were given a folder with spare paper, a branded pen and our evaluation form which we would need to fill in on the last day and would get a t-shirt for as a reward. We were given a book by Nader Khalili which covered all the technical aspects of what we would be told but we were encouraged to take notes.
  • Group work. There was 27 of us and we were split into two groups which helped us bond, but our evenings allowed us to hang out with others as we made food in the communal kitchen and shared the 3 bathrooms on site. This mix of intense bonding and passive bonding is so often missing in longer conferences. Giving people the time to get to know each other and build strong bonds through actual communal work experience or quiet decompressing time (around food or drink) is important. This is why the ‘corridor track’ is so important in conferences. Over the course of any event, you should have the opportunity to get more than 1h of conversation with one person. You’ve both decided to be there after all, so why rush people in lots of ‘bity’ conversations or too many group conversations. The workshop lasted 4 days and I had long discussions with many of my fellow builders during that time. I learnt about their lives in rural Arizona, rural Colorado, how touristic Aspen is, what kinds of businesses they ran, farming, what kinds of foods they were into (lots of quinoa and coconut oil) the marijuana trade, got recommendations for bands, exhibitions, and learnt about their own building dreams and quests for land to build on.
  • Expressed values Every time you said the word dirt on site, you had to do 5 push-ups. This seems ridiculous but people did stick to that rule/punishment. Changing someone’s relationship to earth/soil was not only through the work they did and the things they learnt but even through language. With many events talking about diversity and rules of engagement, I wondered how Cal-Earth’s approach could be harnessed in a similar way.
  • A good close The team that runs Cal Earth is in mourning of their founder who died in 2008 and are working hard towards their patented Super Adobe structures becoming a recognised building code by the ICC. It’s hard work and you can tell they’re passionate about it. Learning about their work, experiencing it first hand was a privilege and their closing ceremony was almost like a wake. We passed around a book of Rumi’s writings (Khalili had translated his work in English) and either read a passage or shared thoughts with the group. This took over an hour as people talked, shared their feelings, thanked their families, thanked the organisers. Again, something really special, possibly akin to a sect but in a really nice way. And then we hugged and said goodbye to each other on an individual basis as people peeled away back to their cars and lives.
  • The cliff of the end On that last day, we were added to a private Facebook group as alumni of the course. This feels like such a letdown considering the warmth of the event, but every event has to manage that transition in their own way. How do you go back to your life and bring something back of an experience with you? The knowledge is one thing, the connection is another and Facebook (for better or for worse) might help people connect to others once their building plans are taking shape and they might need volunteers. I’d be more likely to volunteer for a build by someone I haven’t met who belonged to that group than a total stranger, so that closed community acts as a tool for validation.

Again, not many events bother with thinking of their event as the start of a conversation, not the end. I’m also now more likely to become a paying member, a supporter and put them in touch with organisations in the UK they should talk to. I care about them in ways I’ve never thought was possible because they gave me reasons to care. I wish we were lucky enough to attend such rich events, we’d get more done together.

Author of 'Smarter Homes: how technology has changed your home life' (Apress, 2018) Writing a book on corporate innovation culture out in 2020. Designer. UK.

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