Life in the canopy: a Costa Rican treehouse community
By Elizabeth Loudon & Andrew Aldrich
Tarzan? Swiss Family Robinson? The immensely popular “Magic Treehouse” book series? It’s no wonder so many kids want treehouses. If you’re an ambitious parent, maybe you’ve tried building one in your backyard. Just a fancy playhouse in a tree right? Think again. Finca Bellavista, a visionary community of full size arboreal homes in the Southern Zone of Costa Rica, takes treehouse living seriously. Finca Bellavista, big-kids are making their childhood dreams come true as they settle in treehouses and begin living off the grid.
Finca Bellavista covers 600 acres in the westernmost portions of the Talamanca Mountains, nestled in a region that is increasingly popular for ecotourism. Surrounded by incredible biodiversity, residents enjoy a unique opportunity to unplug from technology and connect with nature.
While it is true that residents cannot surf the net as they drink their morning coffee, many believe this sacrifice is well worth it. A pleasure such as bird watching, rarely possible for the typical urbanite, is a part of many residents’ daily routines. Living among the trees affords residents a chance to enjoy their morning beverage of choice while listening to a plethora of birds’ songs.
With diverse neighbors such as birds and butterflies, it’s no surprise that residents are concerned about their impact on the environment. As the community matures, residents hope it will one day be completely self-sufficient and sustainable. Closeness with nature tends to augment residents’ passion for conservation. Plus, sustainability is practical when you live in a jungle. According to Finca Bellavista developer Erica Hogan, “Sustainable living is really the only thing that makes sense here…This isn’t the type of place you could build a ‘conventional’ community anyways…You would want the animals to go under the house, and you would want to have trails up to your house instead of a driveway.”
As the world’s largest treehouse community, Finca Bellavista has increasing energy needs with each new development. When the community receives the proper government permits, they will be installing a hydroelectric turbine to power a community grid. Solar energy and biodigesters minimize environmental harms while ensuring that residents don’t have to sacrifice modern comforts such as hot water and electricity.
Many emerging communities worldwide are doing their best to progress towards an eco-friendly future, but Finca Bellavista is unique in that it was initiated with sustainability in mind. Consistent with the green community goals, arboreal houses in Finca Bellavista are required to meet an extensive list of criteria before they are approved for construction. All homes must utilize rainwater or spring water, and incorporate some source of clean electricity. Also, concrete foundations are prohibited so that terrestrial animal migrations remain uninterrupted. A complete set of community guidelines is available here: http://www.fincabellavista.
In the 7 years since its inception, it has gained remarkable fame and international attention. Still, treehouse building is challenging because of its unconventional nature, so construction must progress slowly. Each house is built to last, often incorporating local materials. Unfortunately, challenges involving availability of construction materials that are sturdy and sustainable require that some materials be imported. Costa Rican construction normally utilizes concrete instead of wood, so quality screws are hard to come by. Also, Finca Bellavista architects are still searching for a roofing material that is durable enough to withstand the frequent rains, but lightweight enough to be suitable for treehouses. Many future residents take an active role in designing their homes, ensuring that their final product is just like the vision of their dreams. Developers Matt and Erica Hogan emphasize that they are learning and overcoming challenges as they go. Erica Hogan says, “It’s all about finding better solutions.”
As more lots are sold, income is generated to invest in improving infrastructure and sustainability projects. The gardens that produce many of the vegetables used in meals at the Base Camp will need to be expanded to increase the self-sufficiency of the community. Since Finca Bellavista has become attractive for tourists who wish to spend a few nights experiencing the treehouses, laundry and electricity needs have increased. Due to the delay in installing hydroelectric power, Finca Bellavista must maintain an office in a village 3 km from the property. This location houses meat freezers, laundry machines, and a charging station for the community’s electric maintenance vehicle. Until more clean energy can be generated on property, Finca Bellavista relies on conventional energy to fulfill these functions.
The future sustainability of Finca Bellavista as it expands requires improvements in power generation, which the owners hope can result from hydroelectric power. Finca Bellavista is also in the process of establishing a home owners association that will allow residents to play a more participatory role in the evolution of the community infrastructure and the establishment of public parks and services. Finca Bellavista has potential to expand as an ecotourist destination, which could include less costly overnight options designed to attract backpackers. With continued investment and a wealth of exciting new possibilities, one can hope that Finca Bellavista will grow and become more sustainable over time.