Living the high life: a sustainable rainforest community.

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Posted by Herve | Posted in Social organisation | Posted on 25-06-2010

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[singlepic id=11 w=200 float=left]Saving our world’s rainforests and their incredible beauty and diversity is, undoubtedly, one of the most important challenges of our time. The gradual deforestation process around the globe is easily ignored, but is significant enough to trigger the sixth massive extinction of species since the beginning of the world.

Stopping the world’s ecosystem collapse into an irreversible nose-dive requires more than dramatic action: it requires a massive culture shift. It requires us to learn how to live in harmony with and in nature, develop sustainable communities and develop a real sense of care for life in general.

Today I want to give a new community the opportunity to share their fantastic work on building and pioneering a sustainable way of life at the very heart of the . Erica Hogan has kindly answered our questions about her community, Finca Bellavista, in Costa Rica. Here is the transcript of the interview:

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Dear Erica, thank you for joining us today. I would first like to introduce Finca Bellavista to our readers. Can you tell us about your story, how the project came about?
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Thank you for having me. Matt (my husband) went on a surfing trip to Costa Rica with some of his friends in 2006. After falling in love with the beauty and serenity of the Southern Zone, he called me to plan a trip down together. Both of us wanted to explore the option of finding a little getaway in the tropics to escape the doldrums of the Colorado ‘mud seasons’… maybe a fixer-upper surf shack or a bungalow in the rainforest. The idea was to create something simple… nothing too complicated.

After looking through hundreds of listings, we settled on a Top 10 list to explore. We had a good feeling about the last one on the list, and after a long day (my 29th birthday to be exact) of looking at the possibilities, we landed at what would later become Finca Bellavista. At the end of a steep gravel road in the middle of seemingly nowhere, we macheted a tunnel through a tangle of weeds to the edge of Rio Bellavista. We explored about 100 yards of the property’s river frontage before deciding that it was a most surreal setting… nearly like a national park in its grandeur.

That evening, celebrating our find over a celebratory birthday cocktail, we began to brainstorm ways we could afford that (then) 62-acre property, and ways to make it happen. Recalling that the trees on the property were spectacular, I threw the idea of building a treehouse on the table for discussion. Both of us knew that the parcel was far bigger than what we needed or wanted, especially for something simple like a treehouse. I then wondered out loud if friends or other people might be interested in going in on the property cost to make it more financially feasible… and maybe they would like to build a treehouse too… And wouldn’t it be fun cool if the treehouses were connected with ziplines and bridges…

[singlepic id=18 w=220 float=left]The idea sprouted from that small seed, and that’s what Finca Bellavista is becoming today – a fantastic yet real treetop paradise where people can live out their dreams.

The original piece of land was listed as timber harvest site – it said something along the lines of “harvest the timber, convert it into a cattle ranch and recoup your investment”. It has already been harvested before, and many of the trees were replanted in plantations in order to be harvested again at some point. The whole of the property is now over 300 acres, encompassing an entire peninsula of rainforest mountain, frontage on two whitewater rivers, countless big trees, and lots of cool critters like frogs, birds and monkeys. A handful of dedicated employees have each contributed their time, energy, and creativity to make ‘the finca’ what it is today.

In general, Finca Bellavista has been a mix of luck and serendipity. We couldn’t have planned for things to go as well as they have or for the idea to be as well-accepted as it has been so far. We “started” the project in our heads less than 4 years ago, began construction less than 3 years ago, accidentally sold out of Phase 1 in our first year and have sold 45 parcels thus far. Matt and I aren’t developers by schooling or training, we go with our hearts. I think that people can relate to that and appreciate that. We are just two normal 30-somethings that had a crazy idea, followed through with it, and shared it with others. In general, the idea of living in the treetops resonates with people from all walks of life and different corners of the world… whether they are 6 or 60, black or white, from Britain or Borneo. I think that’s most of the reason for our success in creating this community so far. While it might seem unusual to think of at first, there’s really just something very primal, simple and necessary about living in the trees that people want to experience.

That’s a pretty sustained pace, to say the least, considering how novel your concept is. Can you describe what is the state of your community?
[singlepic id=26 w=300 float=right]Because we are still in our beginning stages there is a mix of personal situations going on. A fair amount of our owners want to live and work on-site within the next 5 years or so. As you can imagine, because this is a relatively new frontier in living, a lot of people are waiting to see how things are developed, how they can contribute, and in general are a little hesitant to pick up and move their lives.

Though we consider ourselves to be in the infancy stages of this project, there has been a lot of progress getting the community “off the ground”. Our community center is finished, complete with a large kitchen area and dining hall, an open-air lounge and WIFI zone, a rancho, and a bath house. Nearly one-third of our Sky Trail network is now up and running, offering stunning canopy and pristine river corridor views. Treehomes are starting to speckle the skyline. We have quite a few owners in various stages of creating and building treehomes, bringing lots of new energy and excitement to our growing neighborhood.

Does the Finca Bellavista have or envision having facilities dedicated to catering for tourists?
We have an on-site property management company to manage rentals for our owners and to provide a revenue stream for those who plan on using their homes a portion of the year. Currently our owners can place their home in our rental pool when they aren’t here, so in a way Finca Bellavista functions like a resort community for the time being, but that will change within the next couple of years to more full-time residents, families, and activities.

Also, we are in the planning phases of creating a space that can accommodate larger groups seeking an intimate and truly unique location. We envision weddings, yoga, meditation and relaxation retreats, family reunions or student groups utilizing this area in the years to come. There will be a lot of ways that this community will grow, and we are excited to see the directions it will go!

[singlepic id=10 w=300 float=left]I understand. There must be something magical in seeing all of this taking place and growing in such a surreal setting. But all this activity in the rainforest… what is the effect on the surrounding wildlife?
Right now we are in the infrastructure stages of the project – constructing living and community spaces, building trails, improving the access road, installing hydropower. These are higher-impact activities that obviously have effects to the land and the wildlife. These activities will phase out over time, and it will be a little quieter here overall. It seems a little strange, but when there are more people, more noises, and things like heavy equipment around, we seem to see more wildlife, which is strange to me. We hope to blend in a little better over time, and I think that will be easier to do without so many large distractions.

Maybe the animals are curious of what’s all that noise about. I guess it gives an opportunity for you to interact with them as well… by the way, what is the effect of the wildlife on the community?
So far, it’s been an amazing process to watch. As a little bit of background on our exact piece of land: we are in an area of secondary growth rainforest… the majority of our land has been clear cut before, and many areas were replanted with homogenized, harvestable trees or turned into pasture land. The area where our “base camp” is located is a reclaimed gravel pit. Everything is in various stages of regrowth, and to be honest, it’s not a very healthy piece of forest in the grand scheme of things – lots of introduced species, replanted and homogenous patches of forest, relatively little diversity in the flora sense of things for what the area should have in its natural, unobstructed state, which it hasn’t been in decades.[singlepic id=19 w=300 float=right] But, we are located in an interface zone: everything below us topographically speaking is cultivated and agricultural lands, and the land above us gradually phases into primary rainforest mountains.

This is a critical migration corridor between the Talamanca Mountains and the Osa Peninsula. As such, there are things that we recognize that we need to do in order to improve the connectibility of this corridor and the overall health of the land. For instance, the botanist we work with – Gerardo Rivera – has suggested that we start selectively removing trees that were planted as harvestable timber, and begin the process of replanting them with native and fruiting species to better draw in the wildlife and further the process. To the untrained or innocent eye, this appears to be a healthy patch of forest and is literally crawling with wildlife, yes. But it could be so much more. In fact, we recently began working with a non-profit organisation called ProCAT to begin documenting and inventorying the exact species found here and to contribute to the body of evidence and conservation efforts in the immediate and regional area. I believe this forest will be healthier 50 years from now than when we first bought it.

That’s very interesting. In some way by being there you allow the forest to heal from a previously deeply damaged state. But of course for this way of life to be truly sustainable, I guess you would want to decrease as much as possible getting your resources from elsewhere for fear of just moving issues around. How much self-sufficient can the community be?
We want to do as much as we can to reduce our reliance on the outside world. But, we will always have some reliance on the outside world, whether we want to or not. Some things just make more sense and use fewer resources outside of the Finca – whether that means we buy our rice, beans, chickens and eggs from neighbors (to me it certainly makes more sense to buy locally, and keep our neighbor’s livelihoods healthy than convert more of our land into food production and pay employees to do this separately), or gasoline to run generators during the construction process or having taxis pick up and drop off visitors rather than create reasons to leave and go pick people up from the airport.

[singlepic id=25 w=260 float=left]Are you 100% off-grid?
In keeping with our vision to live sustainably we opted to utilize the natural resources present on site to provide our residents access to carbon-neutral electricity. This decision made better sense to us as the thought of tying into the country’s national, monopolized grid (with its rolling brown and black-outs) seemed reason enough to go with an alternatively sourced power system. However, after more research on the country’s traditional power generation and its underlying social and environmental impacts, alternative energy seemed to be the only way we would bring electricity to Finca Bellavista. We are proud to currently power our community by harnessing the energy of the sun, using a 1200-watt photovoltaic DC power system to operate Finca Bellavista’s “base camp” and community amenities. Our residents future energy needs will be met with a combination of solar and hydro assets, which we are in the process of manifesting. Living within our means on alternative energy sources often means having to make lifestyle adjustments. Though many people are accustomed to using items like televisions, air conditioning, and hairdryers on a daily basis, they aren’t necessities and actually take large amounts of electricity that alternative energy systems cannot provide. Small and large adjustments must be made when considering a move towards using alternative energies and living off the grid. Very small things, such as using a traditional Costa Rican “coffee sock” to make a morning cup of Joe versus a pot of coffee in an electric coffeemaker, hanging laundry out to dry instead of using a dryer, and unplugging lamps, computers, and other appliances while not in use really make a difference in conserving energy, and are “laws of the land” here at the finca.

[singlepic id=27 w=220 float=right]Do you grow your own food? A large portion of it, yes. Gardens take time to grow, and we are phasing into our food production. The number of people on site and eating at any given time varies greatly from day to day, so it’s hard to hit our food production perfectly.

Did you have to do some clear-cutting to dedicate land to food production? No – since a large portion of this property was pasture at some point. There were already many food bearing trees and plants growing. Most of the things that grow here are integrated with the forest and it’s sustenance farming – so there aren’t long rows of corn or rice paddies or anything like that… there’s yucca next to banana plants next to squash next to big trees and trails

Can you give us an idea of what food can people eat at Finca Bellavista?
Our gardens are flourishing here, and there always seems to be a great variety of fruits, vegetables, and herbs available. Selections vary from day to day, but could include fresh spinach, mustard greens, zorrillo or butter lettuce greens, pejibayes, chayote, naranjilla, yucca, limes, tomatoes, plantains, papas de la Montana, bananas, papaya, passion fruit, palmito, cacao, mushrooms, basil, oregano, cilantro, lemon balm, ginger, lemongrass or spicy pepper
Generally people imagine the rainforest as a chunk of inedible forest… you prove here that it doesn’t need to be so. This is really an exciting project overall. Thanks! We agree – it’s been quite a life-changing experience for us. And actually that perception seems to only be a Westernized view of the world’s forests. Remember, the majority of Westernized countries considered forests and the wilderness were places to conquer and subdue… Westerners didn’t understand how to harvest and use the elements found in “The New Worlds” and therefore they were deemed useless.
Can we say this is the pioneering birth of a new type of eco-community, truly in harmony with wildlife? Of course! But I would say it’s in “better harmony”, not perfect harmony. I’m sure the sloths, monkeys, kinkajous, and tamanduas that encounter a treehouse for the first time are a mix of perturbed and excited to have human company.

[singlepic id=16 w=220 float=left]Could the replication of such communities around the globe actually help save the world’s endangered rainforests? We can’t fool ourselves… there are impacts to us living in the rainforest, even if we aren’t cutting it down. We have found a way to keep the trees (by living in them) as one way to help preserve this specific piece of rainforest. If every stretch of rainforest in the world contained treehouses, that could obviously be just as impactful as bulldozing subdivisions all over the place.

We are providing an experience for humans to dwell, interact, and grow within the treetop realm, which also creates the opportunity for people to appreciate these resources and not overlook them in their daily activities. That raises public awareness on some level, which can only serve to better the causes of preservation in at least one way: you can’t live in the trees in a treehouse if you cut down the trees!

We want to catalyze positive changes here… while this will never be a primary rainforest again, we can do things to improve the overall health and function of the land by managing it and working with NGOs and government entities to further research, and conservation efforts.

[singlepic id=14 w=260 float=right]I have seen video on Youtube of people bringing in fridges inside their treehouse. Obviously there is a trade-off between modern comfort and the implication of living in a rainforest. I can think of the difficulties to generate enough electrical power, damp might also be an issue for most soft furniture (mattress, sofa..), there might be a weight limit inside the house, piping work might give you headaches… Can you tell us how you overcame those issues?
Actually, things are simplified significantly living here. Minimizing living spaces (a necessity when considering living in a treehouse) creates smaller amounts of headache. Though the finca is a bit more rustic and simple in nature than most people are used to, there are certain creature comforts to be found here. We believe there is beauty in simplicity. Simplicity also seems to allow people to fully enjoy the wonderful ambiance of what Mother Nature has provided here at Finca Bellavista. [singlepic id=12 w=260 float=left]You want lights or a fridge or a radio: we have treehouses with electricity, and WIFI and other amenities that people choose to have. You can have windows too, or open frames only. I personally choose not to have windows because I don’t want to block out the sounds and smells and ambient temperatures present here. You collect spring or rainwater, gravity feed it downhill and up a tree, turn on the shower or flush a toilet just like a normal house, run wastewater in pipes down the trees and hide them with vines, and process waste through a biodigestor without electricity in the ground. Easier and simpler than what people think. And, come to think of it, why has humankind complicated so many things in the first place? One needn’t be tied to the grid in a city to have electricity or water or food to survive. And why do people create sterilized concrete boxes to live in?

Accessibility, health and safety may be a concern to some member of families who would consider coming to Finca Bellavista. How much child-friendly is it?
I can’t think of a more nurturing environment to raise a child honestly. Of course, everything is dependent on a person’s or parent’s comfort level.
To be honest, I can only think that most children would love to move in a house like that… Can someone come if he is disabled? Base camp is accessible with ramps and more level trails and access points… obviously, there are limitations for the elderly and the severely disabled here. [singlepic id=9 w=260 float=right]But we have many friends that are differently abled and make adjustments to snowboard, ski, rock climb, etc. There’s no reason why they couldn’t do the same here. I worked at a special needs camp in Oklahoma for many years and we are actually in the process of trying to facilitate one of their groups to come here and experience the finca. And, we have a friend that has an amazing non-profit (www.adacs.org) that is going to try and bring a group of adaptive athletes down soon to test our accessibility.

How about the risk of fire? It’s the rainforest… last year was the driest “dry season” on record here at the finca in 40 years, and the spring fed rivers still flow and there is still 100% humidity some days even when it hasn’t rained in a month. Sure, fire could happen anytime anywhere, but we don’t necessarily worry about it as much as I worry about it in the Rocky Mountains during a summer lightning storm.

[singlepic id=31 w=260 float=left]How does strong wind affect people’s life in case of storm? It depends on attachment methods. Our treehouse – Mis Ojos Miran la Catarata is attached to three trees with artificial limbs that allow for the house and its foundation to move about 6 inches in any direction. If there is a wind or an earthquake, it can dance and move with the trees without damaging the foundation. The rainforest and trees in general are very dynamic and there are never any guarantees as to how long a given tree may live. This is why the botanist’s close review and the process that follows is very important. The due diligence process in building a treehouse takes some time and takes many things into consideration in order to design and plan accordingly. There are obviously many adaptations that must be made to build a house in a tree, and luckily there are intelligent engineers out there that have created a variety of tools and attachments to make treetop living not only possible, but safe and secure as well. Even being a very dynamic environment, just like others in the world, the rainforest is no more dangerous than living elsewhere. We do get a lot of rain during certain times of year (though we are outside of the hurricane belt!) and there are sometimes earthquakes in the Southern Zone. Treehomes are often engineered and constructed to move with the winds and with earthquakes so while a conventional structure’s foundation might be damaged after an earthquake, a treehome’s foundation – its root system – has evolved during its entire lifespan to absorb the vibrations far better than a slab of concrete. Isn’t it dangerous to live in Oklahoma where there are tornados, or in Florida where there are floods and hurricanes, or Australia where there are fires or… you get the point?
[singlepic id=29 w=260 float=right]Indeed, and in some aspects, if you live in a highly seismic area it sounds as if a treehouse could actually be a good idea – certainly a cheaper option than an anti-seismic concrete construction. What about snakes, spiders and the like? Sure, there are snakes, spiders, cats and other critters that have a bad reputation in the jungle. Though none are inherently dangerous, a snake that gets stepped on might be tempted to defend itself. Using a flashlight at night, watching where you step, and wearing boots are the best ways to prevent harmful contact with a snake. A small amount of common sense can go a long way here… obviously if people molest or feed the wildlife, things will happen. It goes without saying that poking a snake or throwing a stick at a puma would both qualify as bad ideas. We ask that people observe all wildlife at a safe distance and don’t give them reasons to run off.

Can anyone build his own house there, is the actual work always done by some contractors?
Homes at Finca Bellavista can be designed and built either by the owner, or by one of our preferred builders, who are listed under our Friends link on our webpage. We now have an in-house construction company that can manage and implement construction projects for owners as well. The majority of folks tend to use our company since we have more experience building in this environment. All home plans and designs must go through a review process with our Environmental Review Board, and obtain a municipal permit.
[singlepic id=23 w=260 float=left]Can you describe the process of getting a house at Finca Bellavista?
Once an owner closes on his/her property here at the finca, there are several things to consider before moving forward with building a treehouse. As whimsical as treehouses are, there are many practical considerations to make! Many of those items require the patience, creativity, and desires of the owner. Treehouses are like snowflakes, no two are alike. We have found that the most frustrating phase for our owners of creating a living space here at FBV has been the overwhelming amount of possibilities given starting from scratch. Because this isn’t your typical cookie-cutter subdivision, you can’t really waltz into the office, sign a check and point to design A, B or C. Most people want to be involved in the creative stage of building their dream treehome here, but it does involve a fair amount of forethought, planning and patience. It’s always best to plan ahead, and we have a few suggestions to consider based on several seasons of construction experiences we’ve had here at the finca. Weather and rainfall are factors to take into consideration when scheduling any construction project. We will forever recommend shooting for a dry season start date here at the finca, which begins late November-ish most years. Working during the rainy season has many pitfalls and normally equates to time and money lost. However, construction schedules and timeframes are 100% dependent upon the budget and design of a home.
The processes leading up to treehouse construction take time and planning, and we suggest a staged approach.

[singlepic id=30 w=260 float=right]First we recommend that a botanist inventories the trees on a parcel for suitable host candidates. For inventories, we use Gerardo Rivera, one of the top botanists in the country and a shaman of the rainforest of sorts. During the initial survey, he marks the trees he deems to be the best candidate species on a parcel.

We then recommend that owners visit the parcel and get a feel for the property. Explore and find where each marked tree is on the parcel, and begin the process of deciding where on the parcel their home should be. Each particular lot seems to drive what sort of dwelling it should or could accommodate. Not to sound hokey, but the trees on each lot built on thus far really have “spoken” to their respective owners and usually drive a lot of the planning and design process. The size, type and location of the suitable host trees and their surrounding topography, access, drainage, etc. will dictate the tolerances for the building envelope and design. Think of it as a 3-dimensional, 200-foot tall building envelope, which also has exponential possibilities…

Once the perfect spot is chosen, Gerardo or another botanist can come back to do a full assessment of the exact chosen site and trees. This second assessment helps determine what those exact trees overall health may be if they plan on building in or around them. Things like life expectancy, age, growth pattern, insect damage, drainage/surroundings, limb health and other factors are taken into consideration.

[singlepic id=13 w=260 float=left]After that, it’s time to start designing and really planning a treehouse. We suggest that people interested in building here start looking at treehouse books and designs to begin getting an idea of what types and styles of treehouses they like. See for instance New Treehouses of the World. Other books and literature that are helpful are small house or cottage-style magazines and designs, which are great when brainstorming ideas for the built-ins and space-saving necessities in a treehouse. Also, writing lists and thinking about wants versus needs are important in designing a home.

Once the wheres and whats are decided the design process begins and one has to select who will build the house. There is a preferred builders list on our Friends page, and Finca Bellavista now has its own construction management company as well. We operate like other construction firms in that the first steps would be working with owners to draft a design that works with selected site, design, wish list, budget, etc. A construction contract would follow, then there are material and labor draws for various stages of the project through its completion. All of these things must be considered with seasonal weather patterns in mind and creating a feasible construction calendar.

Once the home’s location is decided, owners must plan for and create an access point for the homesite prior to construction. This is a very important and often overlooked element in the design and building process. We cannot emphasize enough how important a planned, safe access route is to owners, their guests, and any worker involved in the construction process. [singlepic id=32 w=260 float=right]If this entails trailwork or impacting terra firma, a design must be submitted for review to Finca Bellavista’s Environmental Review Board. A solid and well-planned access point to a parcel is far less impactful on the surrounding environment and on a project’s overall budget as well. A building site might also require additional preparation, such as pruning limbs and undergrowth, rigging scaffolding or harnesses, protecting exposed tree roots, etc. Once designs and permits are approved, construction can begin.

All structures at Finca Bellavista must be either stilt-built or arboreal in nature. Poured slab or solid terrestrial foundations are not allowed within the subdivided parcels. This element allows for terrestrial migrations in this critical wildlife corridor and provides the uniqueness of our community.

[singlepic id=35 w=260 float=left]In general, our guidelines allow for and encourage multiple, smaller square footage structures. In other words, clear-cutting a parcel to make way for a treehome is not allowed for obvious reasons. Instead, think Ewok Village or Swiss Family Robinson… treehouse pods or rooms connected via bridges to gain needed space or square footage.

The building process can take varying amounts of time. At the finca, this process has been as short as 2 months and as long as 6 months. Building timeframes are dependent on the size, style and finishes of your treehouse, and depend on variables like weather and materials availability.

That’s rather quick compared to the construction time of a concrete house. How much does it typically cost? Tree and stilt-built houses can vary greatly in price and go as high in price as imagination and budget will allow. Prices of structures certainly depend on the size, type of construction and finishes. We have built homes for as little as $35,000 and as much as $150,000.

You have a nice transportation facility you call Sky Trails. Can you tell us a bit about it? For starters, Finca Bellavista is a pedestrian-access community. Primary means of accessing homes are via the community’s ground or Sky Trails. Construction began in 2007 on the Skytrails, which is simply a network of zip lines and platforms for the exclusive use of residents and their guests (not electric or anything – just put on a harness and pulley and attach to the cables) throughout Finca Bellavista that allows residents and visitors a unique and adventurous view of life in the rainforest. Many areas of the Finca Bellavista community are accessed by these aerial trails and canopy platforms. This network of aerial trails has been designed with a primary focus on the transportation benefits, minimal ecological impacts and the aesthetic values of the surrounding environment. In addition to the great network of ground-level trails around the community, the zip lines provide an exciting and efficient means of accessing the various parts of the unique preserve that is Finca Bellavista.
httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBrbIleQilg

You certainly hear it all the time, but it really recalls the Ewoks tree houses from Star Wars: the return of the Jedi. (That was actually my first thought when I saw it). Was this intentional? Yep… from the very start!
This is great. Finally, how can our readers get in touch with you, should they wish to come to Finca Bellavista? Just send them to our website… www.fincabellavista.net All of our contact information is on there.

Thank you very much for your time. I am aware this is a lot of question, but your community really is right on target for the challenges we have ahead. Thank you Herve! We realize that in the grand scheme of things we are just one project, one community, and a relative few amount of people. But the momentum shifts all across the world start small. If we can show that living off grid is not only possible, but a beautiful way to live and costs people far less in the long-run, it might prove that we aren’t crazy to be doing this… just simplifying our lives and enjoying more of what God and Mother Nature gave us and less of what the modern world has. It’s really not all that different or unusual at all… humans evolved from this in one way or another, and people all over the world could stand to make a few small changes to simplify their lives and therefore lessen our impact.

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