From the print edition
Just three years ago, Costa Rica was riding a powerful real estate boom, pulling in foreign investors by the planeload to buy condos, houses and lots as quickly as they could be built or laid out. And in a strong seller’s market, many of these developments were poorly planned and executed. When the bubble burst, the crisis affected Costa Rica’s real estate and construction industries more than any other sector of the local economy. Some developers lost their shirts, and to this day, a number of these boom-time projects remain unfinished.
Some good news is that during the profound lull that followed the crisis, new thinking about the direction of real estate development in Costa Rica – based, fittingly, on the idea of sustainability – has taken root, and is beginning to blossom. While there are many examples of this trend around the country, the EcoVilla, close to Orotina near the Central Pacific Coast, is one of the clearest and most accessible.
A Winning Formula?
Located off a gravel road flanking the lush Río Machuca, just off the old Monte del Aguacate highway to the Pacific coast, the EcoVilla provides an alluring look at how many residents of Costa Rica might live in the not-too-distant future. Although Marcelo Valansi, the project’s low-key Argentinian developer, is careful to say that the form of living in the EcoVilla is not for everyone, he’s also clearly convinced that he and other green-thinking property developers have hit upon a winning formula, both in business terms and by providing an avenue whereby they and their clients can live according to their principles.
As it turns out, the EcoVilla has so far appealed to a highly diverse, eclectic and international clientele. Out of a total of 14 lots sold, 13 countries are represented among the buyers, including Costa Rica, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Canada, England, Holland, Germany, France, Switzerland, Sweden, China and the United States. According to Valansi, most of the members of the EcoVilla are working professionals and businessmen and women, some with children, while retirees are also represented. To date, all consider that the EcoVilla will be their principal residence. To address the needs of the community’s children, the EcoVilla has entered into an agreement with the Tree of Life School of Santa Ana to provide private schooling. The hope, says Valansi, is also to offer this educational opportunity to children of nearby communities on accessible terms.
The total area of the EcoVilla, which is organized as a condominium, is just over 17 hectares, including 14 lots with an average of size of 2,000 sq. meters each. Presently, the first three houses are under construction, while five more have begun the permitting process. The EcoVilla’s common areas are devoted to roads, gardens, a nursery, ponds and forested green areas along the length of the river.
Living off the Land
The EcoVilla, like many other sustainable communities, is dedicated to the ideal of producing as much of its food as possible. The property is liberally planted with over 160 varieties of fruit trees, many of which are already producing, while a nursery provides a wide variety of both common and unusual spices and herbs. The property is also dotted by fish ponds in which Tilapia is being raised. Finally, Valansi mentions plans to plant vegetable gardens in the common areas lining the internal roads of the development.
The EcoVilla has two sources of water: It uses well water for drinking and surface water collected from nearby creeks for other uses. Individual homeowners can collect rainwater and put this to use as well.
Sewage and gray water (from sinks, baths and washing machines) are collected and piped to a biodigestor, which treats the water while producing methane gas. Once the wastewater passes through the treatment plant it is used for irrigation. The community has not yet decided how to use gas produced by the biodigestor, but is considering the options of generating electricity, powering vehicles to be used on the development, or heating water.
A Diversity of Shelter
The EcoVilla’s creators, when facing the issue of regulating the construction of houses, chose to give optimum discretion to the homeowner, using the criteria of energy use as the only limiting factor. This, according to Valansi, was because lot owners and their architects proposed such a wide variety of sustainable building materials and designs, each with valid arguments supporting their cause, that it was too difficult to decide which to adopt.
As a result, the EcoVilla will in all likelihood contain a wide variety of sustainable building types, with the consequence that it will serve as a real world laboratory, where owners can compare (and spend the coming years arguing over) the advantages of different types of houses and materials. Whatever the design, the restriction on energy consumption means that air conditioning will be prohibited, unless the house can generate sufficient energy to power it.
Valansi is especially proud of the fact that the EcoVilla is one of the few developments outside the Central Valley wired with fiber-optics for reliable access to high-speed Internet and other telecommunications services. This is in keeping with the founders’ vision of the EcoVilla as a place where people can be far away from the bustle and noise of the city, but connected to their work, family and friends in other parts of Costa Rica or the world. Telecommuting, in other words, is an element of sustainability that the EcoVilla seeks to promote.
The EcoVilla is on-grid: Its lots are connected to the nationwide electricity service. According to Valansi, the Costa Rican Electricity Institute will install two-way metering at the development, whereby the value of electricity generated by homeowners through solar panels or by other means can be fed into the grid and deducted from their monthly electricity bill.
A Working Model
Unlike many existing real estate developments where the environment is used as a selling point, but precious little is done to actually protect it, the EcoVilla is attempting to take solid steps to ensure environmental sustainablility at almost every turn. And while not everyone can afford to live at the EcoVilla – it’s aimed at the middle class or higher – it provides a working example of many ideas that can be much more widely applied.