Costa Rica is showing the rest of the world how to work with nature for the economic and cultural good through ecologically minded tourism and architecture
As one of the most biodiverse and eco-friendly countries on the planet, Costa Rica stands out. At the end of the 1940s, the government disbanded their entire army following a bloody military coup. Funds formerly dedicated to the military were now instead moved towards education, which slowly solidified Costa Rica as the safest and best-educated country in Central America. With a deep-rooted determination towards environmentalism and strong democratic principles, the nation is now continuously scoring top rankings on lists for the happiest, most sustainable and most ethical places in the world. Eco-tourism is the fastest growing sector of the tourism industry, with Costa Rica has been a popular travel destination for nature-loving tourists since the 70s. This adds further incentives for the protection of the country’s natural resources, as Costa Rican tourism employs approximately 200,000 people and directly and indirectly accounts for 8% of GDP. The number of eco-lodges and hotels has exploded over the past few decades, with 60% of all visitors reportedly choosing the country’s natural wonders as the number one reason for their visit.
Eco-architecture is a prominent feature of eco-tourism, intended to minimise the environmental impact of construction, by using locally harvested materials and solar energy, cutting down on water use, and integrating structures into their surroundings, rather than destroying them. As with many other sustainability initiatives, integrating architectural planning with nature is far from a novel idea, from the cave dwellers of our prehistoric past to the Cambodian temple of Angkor Wat, still standing today since its construction during the 12th century CE. Angkor Wat was built using entirely local materials and the surrounding streams were utilised to power irrigation systems and hydraulic engines in one of the most advanced water management systems of its time. The complex network of channels and reservoirs helped to reserve water for dry periods, to water crops and even to heat or cool areas when needed.
Costa Rican-based architecture firm Saxe Studios is located in the nation’s capital, San José. The studio has made a name for itself through its beautifully designed and nature-friendly developments that can be found all over the country. Projects include hotels, lodges, apartment buildings and offices. Founder and design director Benjamin G Saxe explains that his architectural vision is one of integrating the development with its surroundings and thus minimising its impact on nature: “Since I was at university, I have had an interest in the relationship between architecture and the natural world. How can they be together and act together? We need to protect ourselves from the elements but we also need to be part of the natural world.”
This is evident in many of the projects by Studio Saxe, one of which is located in the quaint surfing village of Nosara, sitting on the Pacific coast of north-western Costa Rica. The development, with an athletic center, with gyms and fitness shops, could all fit into one building but is instead spread out like a small village, where each unit, built from glass, metal and wood, is carefully constructed to fit naturally among the trees. The design allows for the trees to keep growing freely among the units and thus has less of an impact on the local flora and fauna. Features such as long roof overhangs also act as sun cover as well as collecting rainwater, which minimises cooling costs and water usage.
Integration is one key aspect of sustainable architecture. The location, placement and execution of a project can have a major effect on its ecological footprint. But complete sustainability must incorporate all aspects, including meeting social targets. On the other side of Costa Rica lies Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast. Here, local construction company CR Eco is currently working on another Studio Saxe development. This residential building consists of smaller units surrounding an extensive outdoor area and swimming pool. The builders are all hired locally, which creates jobs in the community while minimising transportation costs and emissions, and local materials from renewable sources using ethical labor are used to the largest extent possible. Materials used in the structure include teak, bamboo and the lava stone Piedra Sanchez, all chosen based on variables such as cost, properties and environmental impact.
Benjamin predicts that in the future, “we will probably be better at understanding what humans already understood thousands of years ago and return to a primal understanding of the world, utilising the elements such as wind, sun and topography. Through modern technology, we will also be able to solve other issues of design in smarter ways.” As people are becoming more aware of the consequences of their actions, many travelers now opt for more eco-friendly vacationing to satisfy their consciences. In a globalised economy, putting a halt to traveling would have disastrous effects, especially in poorer nations where tourism supplies countless job opportunities and accounts for a major proportion of GDP. As in most other sectors, it will not be a question of altogether abandoning it, but instead adapting to a more sustainable world. Costa Rica is one of the bright examples of how eco-tourism should be conducted. Benjamin explains how eco-tourism initially started as a way to bridge the gap between the economic good that tourism could bring while minimising the impact on the natural world: “I believe it will continue growing, and Costa Rica will remain at the forefront of it in the future.”
The motto of Costa Rica is ‘pura vida’, meaning pure life. It is used as a greeting, a goodbye, and at any time you wish to let someone know that everything is okay. It means to slow down and focus on what’s important, including an appreciation of the natural elements upon which we all depend. This love for nature is reflected almost everywhere in Costa Rican culture, even in the paper currency, which features illustrations of various ecosystems and species that can be found throughout the country, from the sharks of the country’s coastal waters in the east and west to the sloths of the cloud forests.
The interplay between nature and humans is not taken for granted in Costa Rica; instead, it is celebrated and carefully nurtured. Benjamin explains how growing up in Costa Rica has shaped his view of the natural world: “Costa Ricans understand that without the nature which surrounds us, we have nothing. It is the biggest asset we have and we must protect it. This has become ingrained in Costa Rican minds for many generations and continues to be the foundation of our country.”
Words by CHARLES WESTERBERG
SIRENA HOUSE, designed by STUDIO SAXE, is a series of pavilions by the pacific coast at Saint Theresa in Costa Rica. NAIA I, one of two beachfront houses by STUDIO SAXE, also at Saint Teresa. CASA BELL-LLOC, a concrete house designed by STUDIO SAXE, in Santa Teresa, a small town in Costa Rica’s Puntarenas province