April Fools

Green Building “unFestival” Ends in Lawsuits

How the highest-profile event in sustainable design went terribly, terribly wrong

April 1, 2019

green building unfestival tents

Though promised a Bucky-Fuller-inspired “Tensegrity” housing package, festival-goers found only a tent city upon arrival.

Photo: Art Schlubb, AIA
It started with a kombucha-fueled bacchanal on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest. It ended in a prison cell.

The Green Building unFestival was billed as a more exclusive and more entertainment-centered version of the unConference sponsored annually by the International Living Future Institute. ILFI is one of many entities now suing young entrepreneur and unFestival mastermind Billy McFarland. A new HGTV documentary, unFestival: The Biggest Conclave That Never Happened, details how McFarland created buzz around the event and how it ultimately, spectacularly failed.

“Your average loser”

According to the documentary, to advertise the unFestival, organizers first staged a multi-day pre-festival bash on Reef Island, a pristine location off the coast of Washington, and commissioned an advertising agency to take extensive footage.

Leading lights and social media “influencers” of the sustainable design world—such as Rick Fedrizzi, Mary Ann Lazarus, Lloyd Alter, Anne Hicks Harney, and Mara Baum—were invited to the affair and encouraged to post photos and videos using the hashtag #unfestival. (Editor’s Note: BuildingGreen’s Alex Wilson and Nadav Malin also attended the bash; none of the influencers were able to comment due to pending litigation.) The party featured an excess of superfoods, hot yoga sprees, a reflexology orgy, a pecha kucha blowout, and radiant architectural interns in hempen shifts feeding each other goji berries and slathering one another with CBD oil.

“We’re selling a pipe dream to your average LEED AP loser,” McFarland can be overheard saying in the footage.

green building unfestival with kombucha

This screen capture from the unFestival documentary depicts a pre-festival party that took place on Reef Island off the coast of Washington.

Screen capture: HGTV
In addition to direct exposure to elite sustainable design pacesetters, meditation events, shamanic energy cleansing, and “a 100% gluten-free experience,” the festival promised musical acts, with such headliners as Enya and the Alash Ensemble.

Too many people

But as the unFestival date got closer, it became clear to organizers that Reef Island would simply not support the mass of humanity expected to attend. The only sign of development or infrastructure was an original hand-carved Haida cabin built by renowned artist Dudley Carter. Getting housing, food, and composting toilets for a thousand people to the island in time proved next to impossible.

Yet McFarland insisted that advertising and social media marketing continue apace. Packages like “The Tensegrity”—which promised attendees luxury accommodation in Buckminster Fuller-inspired dome homes—sold for upwards of $7,500.

“We were supposed to get luxury geodesic homes to stay in, which are prized for their light weight and resilient design,” complained Art Schlubb, AIA, one of the attendees. “But what we got were these horrible tents that were not even truly geodesic. And they were made of PVC!” Schlubb then gagged and made the universal sign for choking.

When participants realized that they would be staying in a “tent city” and that there weren’t even enough mattresses for everyone, “a sort of looting mentality set in,” Schlubb told filmmakers. “There was a run on a whole truckload of kimchee … my God, the smell.” Schlubb said he is being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder due to the riots.

According to the documentary, McFarland has been sentenced to six years in federal prison for charges that included defrauding venture capital investors. But it won’t end there. As mentioned, ILFI is suing him for trademark infringement, and there is also a class action lawsuit moving forward in the courts. “I never got my money back,” said Schlubb, weeping into the camera. “And I never got my coffee enema, either.”

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April 18, 2019 - 11:49 pm

This is the best unArticle I've read in some time. Well done, Opal Muntela. This piece is so sarcastic, in fact, that you're not even entirely sure whether or not my compliment is indeed, actually genuine, and that in and of itself is a truly outstanding literary achievement. Good form.