How the Temple Builders Guild Was Built

We recently sat down with two founding members of the Temple Builders Guild (TBG)—Tree Jay & Nick Morgan—to learn about the group’s origin story, why they do what they do, where they’re headed in the future, and how YOU can get involved!

Launched in 2020 by a team of seasoned Temple builders, the Temple Builders Guild is a collection of craftspeople who apply playa expertise to provide infrastructure and resources to creators of community art projects. Their purpose is to share human resources, accrued knowledge, tools, equipment, and practical solutions to reduce waste, increase efficiency, promote sustainability, and foster joy.

Temple by David Best and the Temple crew, 2016 (Photo by Rand Larson)

When did you first get the idea to start the Temple Builders Guild, and what made you so passionate about getting involved in that kind of undertaking?

TJ: My first Burn was 2007, the year after my father passed. I went there with my brother. When I got there, my brother said, “Hey, I wanna bring you out to this special place.” It was the Temple. So we went. And of course, you know what the Temple means to a lot of people. It was significant at the time. 

Then in 2010, my mother passed and that was a rough year—I realized I was given this amazing gift of life by two incredible people. So, I decided right then and there to honor that. 

The following year, in 2011, I saw someone with a Temple Crew shirt on and I was like, “Hey, wait. You’re part of Temple Crew?” And he was like, “Yeah, man.” I told him, “I thought that was an elite Burning Man thing and they got paid to do it, and something only the select few got to do?”

But he said, “No, dude. Just volunteer and show up!” I was like, “Wow.”

So, it was one of the few times in my life where I set a strong intention: I really wanted to be part of Temple Build. So, in 2012, I made that happen—I joined David Best and Maggie Roth and their crew that year. That was the first Temple project I was a part of. 

I was a somewhat handy, lanky guy—still lanky, I guess. [laughs] You know, showing up scrappy, they were like, “All right, kid.” And the master carpenters and builders there just took me under their wing. I learned so much.

Then I joined again in 2014 and I was the guy on the boom lift, anchoring the big things. And I looked across at the other guy (Chris Waslohn), and I said, “How did we get here?” 

He said, “You know why we’re here; it is because Stephen Crowe is not here, and he’s the guy who we learned from.” So we had the opportunity to level‑up big time over the years. 

This will be my tenth Temple this year. I’m gonna say it’s my last—as far as carpentry and working on it—but I love doing the project, and I’ve learned so much and met so many cool people through it.

Temple of Grace by David Best, 2014 (Photo by Rand Larson)

So, you started on the Temple build crew—how is that different from the Guild, and how did your involvement with the Temple Builders Guild become what it is today?

TJ: David Best’s last Temple was back in 2016. David and Maggie typically provided a lot of the tools and people brought tools to share. There’s been a continuity of about 12 core members from David’s time who have been creating the Temple since then. And there’s a certain institutional knowledge that comes with that, with these people who know how to do these big projects on playa in dynamic situations with volunteer people, right? It’s not a normal job site where you got your crew just showing up, getting paid. 

So in 2019, I got together with the crew there, and I said, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about this idea. What if we, as the legacy builders—the people from the time of David, the people whose hearts and souls are really in building the Temple—what if we own the tools and loan it to each successive Temple artist? That way: 1) It’s easier for that new artist to come in; 2) We’re being way more efficient and sustainable with our resources and our time, and not as wasteful.” So people were like, “Yeah, that’s cool. Let’s do that.”

So, in January or February of 2020, I had a gathering of about 20 people at my house to just brainstorm about it. And we started the paperwork with the state. And in November of last year, we got our 501c3 designation from the IRS. It’s been a learning curve for me with all the forms, the insurance, all this stuff. That’s not my wheelhouse, but I’ve really been learning a lot. We’ve got an excellent board of nine people now, and currently I’m the director. We’ve just been learning about nonprofit structure, how that works and everything.

Whenever I look at the team that is assembled around me to do this, I’m like, “You are all high‑class, high‑caliber people. OK, we got this.” I trust my team, and I’m really honored to be working with the folks I’m working with!

Same question for you, Nick: How did you end up getting involved with creating the Temple Builders Guild, and why is it so important to you?

Nick: We started back in 2000 with the first Temple that David Best built. That’s when our crew started volunteering around building temples and providing support—from building to infrastructure. Over the years, we kept coming back in different guises and in different roles and with all different builders. And just after 2019, we realized that equipment and tools were having to be repurchased for every single Temple. And it just made no sense to us, right?

So we called out among our core team and formed the Temple Builders Guild in February of 2020—we got our employer ID number from the IRS and said, “Let’s get going and create a nonprofit.”

The Guild was ‘born’ in 2020. We’re born of the playa, we’re born of many different teams and many different groups—born of the Temple, of history, and earth, and the need to reclaim equipment and tools and repurpose them year after year.

We really take care of equipment, take care of each other and nourish each other, so we can each build with the best possible tools and the best possible reuse of said tools and skills. We’re a service not just for the Temple but for projects above and beyond and year‑round.

Our first project was the Empyrean Temple build at Paradise Winery last fall (2021). So we really got ourselves started by working up at Paradise Ridge and bringing our first bit of tools up there and working on the smaller build that was there, and now continuing on to the much larger Temple project.

Temple by Marisha Farnsworth and Steven Brummond, 2017 (Photo courtesy of the Temple Builders Guild)

And we’re really open to supporting other groups. Like Black Burner Project and some of the other groups that are coming—we’d be delighted to work with them in any capacity, from scheduling to logistics to planning to implementation to tools… We feel that we’re really a full‑service operation like the craft guilds of the medieval era from the 1100s. We’re a collection of craftspeople that have a broad range of skills. We’ve woven them together. Some of us are experts in tool maintenance. Some are experts in group kitchens. Some, like me, are experts in shade. I’m the shade guru. I love providing massive shade. 

We have this broad set of skills—the purpose is to make building art and immersive experiences more facile for both the builders and to bring expertise that is born of our playa expertise and can be applied anywhere around the world. So, it’s very important for us to collaborate and collaborate with builders, collaborate with designers. We don’t want our fundraising needs to draw away from anyone else who may also be struggling to create their project. We know everyone has to raise enough money to get their projects done.

We’re really not here to distract from artists and the ongoing projects, but we do want to cohabitate the space with them by reusing tools and vital infrastructure equipment and bringing those things back.

For us, we hope that we are a form of building a social fabric for each other. It’s equipment and tools, but it’s also mutual aid, and it’s social engagement. That’s what we’re doing, I feel like we’re a mutual aid society. With the least amount of new equipment possible. When absolutely needed, yes, we’re going to purchase equipment. But we’re going to repurpose everything, as much as possible and recycle and repurpose as much as we can.

We hope we inspire others. I mean, let’s hope that other guilds are formed in the wake of our journey. That’d be so cool! 

Temple of Direction by Geordie Van Der Bosch, 2019 (Photo by Rand Larson)

What is the Temple Builder Guild’s mission, and can you share some examples of that mission coming to life?

Nick: The spiritual quality of what we’re doing is infused in us. That is our mission. The 10 Principles of Burning Man are baked into our consciousness and our actions.

We’re here to help support playa dreams, from dream makers of all scales and of any nature. That’s our utter joy: to be able to do this and gift back tools and skills and community and knowledge. That’s just pure joy to us. 

The beauty of being able to form a guild like this that is rooted in the history of what guilds are just feels really right to us. It’s the weaving together of a lot of different skills. So we welcome people to be part of it and help us year-round. Whether it’s sorting out tools, or testing them, or cataloging them, or using them—there’s a role for everybody in our guild. I mean, you can be great with spreadsheets. You can be great with nail guns. You can even just be great with storytelling. We need storytellers as much as we need cooks and carpenters. 

I’m a founding member of the Temple Builders Guild. I’m a civil engineer who’s learned the joy of building. So, while spreadsheets are my go‑to thing, building is my joy. Everyone has taught me the meaning of intention and wearing a good pair of work gloves and showing up at the crack of dawn.

I mean, if you ever want to learn the meaning of commitment, you go sign up with David Best. Between him and Maggie, you’ll learn what it means to rise at dawn and, and come prepared and count every step with pure intention. That’s what we bring to the Temple Builders Guild—we’ve taken to heart those lessons from the build teams that we’ve been a part of. As a result, the generosity of spirit and of intention and training has been passed on to us. That’s what we choose to pass on. 

Empyrean Temple by Laurence Renzo Verbeck, 2021 (Photo by Rand Larson)

I can share two great examples of that. One was when we were being formed—David Best and Maggie Roth very graciously donated to us the Airstream that they’ve used for many of their builds. And now we’ve repurposed it and rebuilt it and built it from the ground up to be a really modern kitchen trailer and headquarters workspace. It’s already being used at the Empyrean Temple build in Santa Rosa, California. By retrofitting the original Best Temple kitchen trailer, it’s now a full‑purpose kitchen and office space. That’s been a really beautiful gift that we’ve been able to take from prior builds and bring back. And the second major gift that has come to us is the tool trailer from the InnerSun project that was on the playa in 2019.

The tool trailer at the 2017 Temple build (Photos courtesy of the Temple Builders Guild)

That was originally the 48-foot tool trailer that was used for the Temple in 2016, I think. Then in 2019, Nathan Altman (aka Mary Poppins) purchased it and used it for his build, to make the InnerSun. In the downtime between 2019 and now, he gifted the Temple Builders Guild with the keys and a note that said something like, “I trust in your leadership and our Temple crew. I can’t wait to see what you do with this. Please accept this, no strings attached.” So the tool trailer was an act of utter generosity—and now we have that massive, beautiful trailer filled with tools. It’s currently at the Davis, California, build site for the Temple. So it’s already in use. 

Sage and Ryan in the tool trailer (Photo by Tree Jay)

Both of those fabulous gifts are part of this gifting economy. The values of Burning Man are manifested in who we are, the people who collaborate with us, and the gifts that we’ve received. That Mary Poppins tool trailer thing was such a vivid example of that. With that one gift to us, now we can bring it out to the smallest project or the biggest project for temporary use. We’re really excited about that repurposing of equipment.

The repainted 48-foot tool trailer gifted to TBG by Mary Poppins on its way to playa, 2022 (Photo by Larry Mallack)

We encourage anyone who’s building in Black Rock City and beyond to get in touch with us and consider donating their tools, their equipment, anything that they’re not using at the end of their build and their life cycle. Please consider gifting it to us. As an approved non-profit, we can give anyone who donates to us a donation letter for tax purposes. That way, people’s art projects and infrastructure can live on and know that it’s going to go on to many great projects. That act of reciprocity and recycling will help manifest that. I think that’s just such a beautiful thing.

What impact do you see the Temple Builders Guild having on its members and the rest of our community?

TJ: One of the biggest things I think of as the best gift and value of the Temple Builders Guild is this: it allows people—master carpenters and totally new people—to join and all level up. You know, the scaffolding effect. They all level up and walk away that much more confident, capable, and skilled. 

Right now I find myself in the lead carpenter position. So, of course, I really need those good carpenters and people who know what they’re doing, but that’s maybe 25 percent of the crew. I also want new people to come in and new people to join because that continuity of skill share is huge, and I highly value that.

Do you see another push as far as sustainability in the future, and how does that look for you and your team’s resources?

Reusable shower for playa created by the Temple Builders Guild, 2022 (Photo by Tree Jay)

TJ: We always want to make sure that we’re as efficient and economical and sustainable as we can be with our operations. That’s important to us.

Currently we’re building our showers for playa which will be reusable. We’re using IBC totes which will be on a trailer that’s all solar powered. There’s been a lot of discussion about owning, renting, or sourcing our power from solar banks and batteries. That’s a little out of reach this year for us, but in the future we definitely would like to do that—that way we’re not burning so much fuel. To me, it’s mandatory. We’ve got to. So at this point, it’s more a question of how do we get there?

Do you have any favorite temples or moments that stand out from your builds over the years?

TJ: I would say 2016 was my favorite Temple, the last David Best Temple. It looked like it had been there for 900 years. It’s my favorite for a couple reasons. For one, it was kind of known among the team that it would be David’s last build. It’s just always a special, special thing—the people he and Maggie gather around them. My sister and I also burned a memorial and keepsakes of my mother in the Temple that year.

Temple of Grace by David Best, 2014 (Photo by Rand Larson)

I also love the legacy and tradition of a lot of things about the Temple. One thing that’s been really important is making sure that the lamplighter hooks are in the Temple. Ever since I’ve been part of the Temple, I’ve made sure that that’s happened—whether it’s me, physically installing them or gathering a few people around me and saying, “Hey, we’re gonna do this thing.” That connection, with so many different people, after we don’t see each other for a year (or more), it’s magic, but it’s intense.

David Best would say, “Everyone’s entitled to a breakdown. Try and keep it to one.” Because it is intense, what we’re doing. The playa, it’ll push, it’ll push you to the edge and then it’ll push you over, but somehow it’ll catch you right before you hit the ground.

So I’m really excited for when we build this thing again, to give it to the city. We’ve all worked so, so very hard on this and, and giving it to the city is like, “Oh, it’s not our project anymore. It’s the city’s.” That’s why we do this. Because we know what it means.

It’s a really tough project. The Temple is the biggest independent art project out there. And it means so much to so many people. So to facilitate that project in knowledge and in tools and infrastructure, that’s another reason we do what we do.

What are the most valuable skills or knowledge the Temple Builders Guild has to share with others?

TJ: Another aspect of the Guild is the institutional knowledge. And of course, we’re not the only ones who build there. We’re the ones who build the Temple with the most experience—but other people, especially new, incoming artists have never built a project to this scale with this crew in this environment.

In an ideal world, every year or successive years, we would offer our physical infrastructure and tools, but we also want to offer human resources. And that comes in the form of consulting. I don’t really like that word, but at least coaching, maybe.

Temple of Grace by David Best, 2014 (Photo courtesy of the Temple Builders Guild)

When the new artists come in, we can be like, “Hey, here’s what you can expect. Here’s maybe some Do’s and Don’ts, or at least what we recommend. We’re not here to tell you how to do it or what to do, but we’re here to tell you what’s worked and what hasn’t worked in the past.” Still choose your own adventure, but maybe a head start with some information on what really works well for this type of thing or not.

Our primary goal is the Temple this year. But we would like to open that up in the future, especially the human resource element, to other projects. For example: if there’s a group of Burners coming in for the first time this year and they want to build a big project but they don’t really know how that works. We would love to talk with them and, and just share what works, what doesn’t, what they can expect and, and things like that.

So, yeah—a bulk of our resources to the Temple, but we do want to make them available to other projects. ‘Cause you can’t help every project out there, but maybe there’s like a select few? I don’t know that process yet. We’ve already had a 2023 applicant ask, which is great.

How can people get involved directly with the Temple Builders Guild?

TJ:  We’re still forming that process, but we do have a website where people can sign up for our email blast.

Right now, the tool trailer is located in Davis, California, next to one of two Temple build sites. Some people have volunteered to come to work on the Temple, which has been great, but we also need some work done on the trailer—inventorying and fixing things.

There will be events post-Burn where we will need volunteers to come work with us to help clean, sort, and organize all of our tools and equipment.

In the future, one of our goals is to have a smaller trailer that can be moved with a pickup truck versus a semi. That’s a whole multi-thousand dollar operation right there. But a smaller trailer with a pickup truck would allow us to deploy easier, faster, at less cost, to smaller projects happening. We don’t want to just be limited to on‑playa projects, but to be available to different municipal art projects, as well.

We would love to do something like that. That way, our resources could get used year-round, and we can have a broader reach to support projects. We also teach tool safety and proper safety, and then make sure tools come back in, in good and clean working order and, and get archived again for use on the next project.

A few of our goals—to continue supporting the Temple build—for our community include:

  • Developing a library of tools and kitchen to be used for the construction of the Temple and other municipal art project
  • Developing a solar-powered infrastructure—including panels and batteries on the tool trailer—to be utilized during the build and event
  • Maintaining shade structures to protect builders during the heat of the day
  • Offering personal safety gear to the build crew as well as Leave No Trace equipment
  • Maintaining a tool trailer to store and transport all of this infrastructure throughout the year
  • Obtaining a smaller pick-up truck with deployable tool trailer for smaller nimble projects

Come, join us!
The Temple Builders Guild would love for YOU to get involved.

DONATE to the Temple Builders Guild.
(The Temple Builders Guild is funded entirely by donations.)
LEARN MORE about the Temple Builders Guild.

Cover image: Temple of Grace by David Best, 2014 (Photo courtesy of the Temple Builders Guild)

About the author: Brinkley


Kristy Neufeld, aka Brinkley, is the Managing Editor for Burning Man Project. She oversees the Communications team’s various public-facing channels, and can be found at Media Mecca on playa. With degrees in German, Editing & Publishing, and experience as a chalkboard artist, Brinkley is a self-proclaimed word nerd with a creative soul. Her first year experiencing the joy of 'dust in all the wrong places' was 2019. Brinkley currently spends her free-time on the road between California and Colorado, CrossFitting or adventuring in the great outdoors with her dogs—Winnie & Joon—while living in a van called 'Ronda.'