SandFest 2022 – The Challenge of a Big Pile of Sand

By: Eric Miller
– March 30, 2022
Categories: ,

What would five engineers do with a giant pile of sand, a bucket full of tools, five hours? Why build the mystical island of Paadet, of course!

And, along the way learn a new aphorism, the power of practice, and what to do when your well-thought-out plan doesn’t, well, go to plan.

It all started when the Children’s Museum of Phoenix asked our engineering consulting team if we wanted to participate in a fundraising event called SandFest. The point of the event is to get kids and adults to have fun playing with sand. It consisted of two days of outdoor activities including a giant sandpile for anyone to play in, a team competition (that was what we did), two parties, and a signature sculpture from the world-renowned experts, the SAND GUYS from Travel Channel’s “Sand Masters” TV Show.

Proceeds from the event support the Every Child Program – providing free and reduced admission to over 50,000 children and families.

As a sponsor, PADT was eligible to compete in the building competition. Five of us showed up for training Friday afternoon, drawings for our giant sandcastle in hand, eager and confident. After the training, we had a few hours to experiment and prepare our giant pile. Most of the other teams had participated before and they were packing their sand in giant wooden forms. We packed our foundation and used an old trash can to make our first tower.

After two attempts, we figured out how to do it and went home with our plan, and confidence intact. Knowing that we literally had a strong foundation to work with in the morning.

Lesson 1: Be good at Adjusting to Circumstances

Knowing it was going to be a hot day, with temperatures in the mid 90’s, we started early. And then we learned our first lesson. Our plan for how we were going to build to our drawing was not going to work. The sand was not sticky enough and well, we just didn’t have the skills. Without missing a beat we pivoted and started improvising. We used an old plastic tote to mold a building. We turned the collapsed tower into “the old tower” and put a wall from the old tower to the building to the tower that was standing. And when that wall collapsed in a spot, we built a new ramp up and over the breach.

The sun rose, we kept drinking water, and time began to disappear as we let our creativity guide us.

Looking at the big pile of sand that remained behind our new structure, we decided that we would turn that into a mountain range, sort of Four Peaks’ish. We built more walls and added a small village. Walls got brickwork, towers got windows, roads got cobblestones, and a gate was made. Our treasure chest with the PADT login stamped (yes we 3D Printed the stamp) in the middle came together. Stairsteps started to appear and a toat was turned into a lake, a garbage bag into a pond. When we heard that “30 minutes left” warning, we added a few more trees, an amphitheater, and a “sculpture” of a lion.

Stepping back, we were pretty amazed at what the five of us had accomplished. All but those first two towers were improvised on the spot, working together as a team.

Lesson 2: Start at the Top and Work Down

If you take a look at the picture above, that is what our build looked like when they called time. And you may notice those steps down near the front middle. We had to redo those steps four times because we didn’t follow the one rule that the experts from SAND GUYS told us: start at the top and work down. When building a sand “island” like we were, the validity of this rule was obvious. We kept dropping tools and stepping on features that we made lower than we are working on. We decided to add the cobblestone treatment to the road into the gate at the last minute, as well as the “lion” statue. And after each feature was finished, we added the stairs back.

This aphorism, and maybe this was the celebratory drinks we enjoyed at the party that night, can be extended to so many other activities. When “top” and “down” are less literal and more figurative, the saying still holds true.

Lesson 3: You can get good at anything if you spend enough time at it.

At some point, we decided that our walls needed crenelations. We learned in the training that you don’t carve them out of the wall, you make a blob of wet sand and cut it into squares with a trowel, and drop them on the wall. After about five minutes of trying, I had one good one on my wall. Seeing my distress, one of the SAND GUY experts came over and showed me how it was done. In about thirty seconds he cut and placed a row of blocks, perfectly. Then he smoothed the surface of the wall with one stroke of his trowel. I sat back in the sand and could only say “wow.”

He said, “When you do something for 20 years, you get good at it.”

The image on the right are my crenelations, the right are his. He did the stairs.

More deep philosophy from the sand pile. It seemed very profound at the time, but that could have been the sun.

Spending a Day Playing in a Sand Pile is Fun

One of the cooler parts of this project was the PADT logo we 3D Printed. The SAND GUYS thought we carved it… we finally showed them tool we made. Then they showed us how to use it properly. One change we will make for next time, is add more draft to the tool.

Once time was called, the judging began. Mayor Kate Gallego, a huge supporter of the Children’s Museum of Phoenix, was the judge, along with input from the SAND GUYS team. We got compliments on our mountains, our trees, and how we used the entire space to create things. They didn’t laugh too loud at the “lion” statue.

They were also kind enough to pose with us for this picture:

From Left to Right, PADT’s Tyler Shaw, SAND GUY Rusty Croft, Mayor Kate Gallego, PADT’s Eric Miller, Jeff Wells, Lauren Hoffman, Katrina Detmer, and SAND GUY Abe Waterman

And, we are proud to announce: PADT came in 3rd overall. Granted there were five teams but two were very experienced. So we are happy with our finish.

Here are some more pictures.

If this looked like fun, watch the Museums news feed for next year’s event. Maybe we will see you in a neighboring pile.


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