Everyone looks forward to outdoor music festivals, but most large scale gatherings contribute a staggering amount of waste. That’s why every year Happy Valley, Oregon hosts The Pickathon Music Festival, one of the world’s most sustainable concert events. Pickathon has taken the waste-free concept very seriously; building stages from recycled or recyclable materials, eliminating bottled water and plastic utensils, and providing an EcoShuttle service to and from the grounds. Partnering with The Diversion Design/Build Studio at Portland State University’s School of Architecture, Pickathon’s student-led experiment explores a new wave of sustainable design: Diversion Architecture. The concept shows that collective gatherings need not require an enormous carbon footprint; it just requires thoughtful design.




Grandparents perform Grandparents “Kids In The Alley” on the Pickathon Tree-Line Stage at Pendarvis Farm.

For the past 4 years, Portland State University’s Diversion Design and Build Studio student-led design experiment has partnered with Pickathon, focusing on two core strategies: the diversion of non-typical, re-used materials, and the diversion of non-typical experiences like those embodied in festival gatherings.

RELATED: Portland architecture students build incredible outdoor stage from 520 recycled pallets

The Pickathon story involves a constant re-thinking about the way we use materials and how we might minimize consumption. A telling example of this design process was the move to eliminate bottled water from the weekend festival (likely the highest grossing line-item at a typical summer music festival). In order to eliminate bottled water, Pickathon decided to truck-in drinking water and offer it free of charge to anyone bringing their own cup. Further, in order to eliminate the use of plastic cups, Pickathon designed a special stainless steel pint mug that could be used for water but which would also be the sole vessel allowed for beer purchases; give them your cup, they’ll fill it with beer. This simple design change immediately eliminated both plastic water bottles and plastic cups from the festival, and created a remarkable fully-embraced culture around the thoughtful re-use of everyday items. The stainless steel cups are re-used year after year. Silverware, tableware, and indeed architecture soon followed suit.

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Image © Dylan Vanweelden

It is important to note that the goals of Pickathon should not be primarily understood as the desire to design a sustainable music festival, but as the desire to design a relevant, responsible and thrilling community experience of contemporary music. The founders of Pickathon, now in its 16th year, continue to insist upon a creative agenda in all aspects of the event. As they state:

Since day one, the idea behind Pickathon has always been pretty simple: what does it take to be the best weekend festival of the year for music lovers? …Innovation has always been at the center of this process and through the years many important elements have come together; collaborating widely on yearly, diverse lineups that are built on the idea of great music being the sole criteria; refining six unique performance venues designed to create juxtaposing alternate realities; ….maintaining a low crowd density; becoming the only large music festival to eliminate plastic and minimize single use items; recruiting the finest food and drink purveyors in the land; focusing constantly on eliminating “normal” festival hassles; enabling families to thrive.

This attitude mirrors that of Portland State University with regards to sustainable architecture; sustainable design must be poetically engaged in the material human world or risk being irrelevant to the human dilemma on this planet.

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Image © Tim LaBarge

With these innovations to the typical music festival already churning away, Pickathon approached the PSU School of Architecture with the challenge to design and implement a 1,000-person performance area as an addition to the existing festival infrastructure. This new performance space, named the Tree-Line Stage, had four primary design criteria:

• To continue Pickathon’s philosophy of high-experiential impact coupled with low-environmental impact.
• The site was to be returned to its found condition, an idyllic meadow leaning gently towards the horizon of the Cascades.
• Costs to be kept to an absolute minimum.
• The performance area needed to be a completely new design, every year, in order to keep the concepts of low-impact design at the front of the community’s mind.

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The Diversion Design/Build Studio is currently designing a new Tree-Line Stage for the 2016 Pickathon Festival and will soon be sharing the design process with you. Inhabitat readers will have a special opportunity to vote for the initiating re-used material, design intentions, and experiential effects – stay tuned for this exciting series.

+ The Diversion Design/Build Studio at Portland State University

Travis Bell is Assistant Professor in Ecological Design at Portland State University’s School of Architecture teaching lecture courses, design studios, and design/build courses. Travis’ primary interest lies in making architecture that is in closer alignment with the natural patterns of our environment. This primary interest grounds a research, teaching and design agenda focused on appropriate material choice, the prioritization of authentic craftsmanship, passive systems design, adapted historical technologies, explorations in Critical Regionalism and temporary architectural solutions.