Reporting by Veronica French
At a place called Playa Viva near Juluchuca,Guerrero, about thirty minutes south of Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo international Airport,a new resort has opened that takes sustainable development seriously. The Playa Viva project is the brainchild of husband and wife team David Leventhal and Sandra Kahn, who purchased eighty hectares of land, including a 1.2 kilometer beach, and began planning a resort community with a different business model.
They were inspired by a talk given by Bill Reed of the Regenesis Group, a Santa Fe, New Mexico based consultancy that specializes in “Regenerative Development.” According to Leventhal, “Building green is doing less damage; building sustainable is net neutral, building in a regenerative manner is making [your environment] better.”
This philosophy has prompted Playa Viva to work to revive coastal forests and wetlands on their property; preserve and restore a nearby archeological site along with INAH (Mexico’s national anthropology and history institute); and work with the local community to try to spread sustainable practices (see Permaculture sidebar).
Challenges and Advantages of Building and Developing Green By Jonathan Jucker with reporting by Veronica French
An early challenge Leventhal and Kahn faced was how to build on beaches and dunes without destroying the ubterranean plants that hold the sand in place and prevent catastrophic erosion.Together with master designer Ayrie Cunliffe, they settled on a solution that is at once radical and simple: mature living palms were ransplanted into position on the beach to serve as structural anchors,and the development’s casita residences were built treehouse-style among them. The trees’ root system shores up the sand against erosion, and as a building
material they are entirely renewable.
Treehouse expert Michael Garnier of Oregon was brought in to help with the design of the units—floors are a few feet above ground level, and the structures have been successfully tested to support nearly five tons of weight, more than enough for even the large three-bedroom units. The palapastyle cabins are well ventilated by ocean breezes, eliminating the need for air conditioning.
But don’t get the wrong impression: these aren’t rustic accommodations for backpackers looking to hang out on the cheap. Playa Viva is riding out real estate troubles in the US by focusing its marketing on hotel guests instead of fractional buyers, and is fully booked. Even in the heat of summer, guests are lining up to pay $285 USD per night for the luxury casitas.It turns out that building green can be smart business.
The Famous Baby Boomers
In popular retirement destinations like Los Cabos,Baja California Sur; Ajijic, Jalisco; and San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, an influx of Baby Boomers in recent years has radically altered the communities,often for the better. Many Boomers choose Mexico because the cost of living is significantly lower than in the US or Canada, but onetheless they inject lots of money into the local economy.Many of these newcomers also participate in volunteer projects that improve the community for all residents, locals and expats alike.
However, the arrival of North American Boomers is threatening Mexico´s environment. A common way of measuring an individual’s impact on the planet is the “ecological footprint,” a calculation of the resources needed to produce the goods consumed by one person, and to absorb that person’s waste. According to the Global Footprint Network,the average Mexican uses 2.6 hectares, while Canadians and Americans need 7.6 and 9.6 hectares respectively to sustain their lifestyles.
Boomers heading south often seek all the comforts of home in their new surroundings: air conditioning,swimming pools, two-car garages, and golf courses. Development catering to norteamericanos is having major environmental impact everywhere from Baja to the Yucatan, and as the number of Americans and Canadians moving to Mexico rises,there is a real threat to many of the ecosystems and unspoiled landscapes that help make Mexico so attractive to begin with.
Fortunately, the Boomer generation is by and large conscious of these issues: a survey conducted in the US in December 2007 for the AARP revealed that 70 percent “feel a sense of responsibility to make the world a better place.”
This responsibility manifests itself in many ways: driving more efficient cars, seeking out locally-produced goods, and buying organic food. For most people, though, the most important purchase they make is their home, whether primary residence or winter getaway.
Scale and Context Developers, builders, and environmental systems experts working on sustainable projects all agree that sustainability can’t be achieved by simply opening your checkbook. In order to make a real commitment to reducing one’s footprint on the planet and in the immediate environment, it is necessary to make fundamental changes to one’s lifestyle.
Affluent North Americans have become accustomed to living in very large homes—the average size of a single family home jumped from 1,500 square feet in 1970 to nearly 2,300 square feet in 2000. With this increase comes a greater draw on resources, as more materials are used in construction; more energy is needed to heat and cool the larger interior space; and the sprawl initiated by the construction of large homes leads to greater reliance on automobiles for transportation.
Ecological systems designer Art Ludwig of Oasis Designs in Santa Barbara (www.oasisdesign.net),California, has done extensive consulting for thePomara Indian village of Maruata on the Michoa-
Learning to Live Green Sustainable building doesn’t mean compromising on comfort or style.
When Beatrice Briggs decided to build a house and yoga studio near Tepoztlán, Morelos,she wanted a home that would reflect her “own ecological values, [and her] desire to make something that would be beautiful, comfortable to live in, and could serve as an inspiration to others.”
She sought out architect Michel Lewis, a team of solar experts, and water systems designer Art Ludwig.Together, they built a large (4000+square feet) structure that, in spite of its dimensions, has a minimal impact on its environment.
Her home, named Huehuetortuga(Nahuatl for the “old, old turtle”), exemplifies the opportunities—and occasional compromises—involved in sustainable building. The house is situated on the southern slope of a hill: this exposure,along with the region’s mild climate(ranging from 24 to 32 degrees Celsius)makes heating systems nnecessary:skylights allow solar energy to enter and be absorbed in adobe walls, which release heat at night.
In addition to locally-made adobe bricks, construction materials included stone found on-site, recycled red roof tile, and non-endangered hardwoods sealed with linseed oil. Slate from Taxco was used for the terrace. The natural building supplies mean that Briggs’s home is free of chemicals found in synthetic materials.
Electricity is provided by twelve photovoltaic solar panels on the roof.The energy is stored in batteries, and supplemented during the June-October rainy season by a water turbine,which has “kept the lights on during two weeks of cloudy weather,” according to Briggs. The state power grid and a gasoline-powered generator exist as seldom-used backup systems.
Water was a major concern. This part of central Mexico averages 1,400 millimeters of rain per year, but most falls during the four month rainy season: drought conditions prevail the rest of the year.Water designer Ludwig created a system of two cisterns: a 50 cubic meter tank behind the house fills with rainwater and is fed by a nearby seasonal waterfall. It supplies the solar hot water heaters and the cold-water faucets in the house. A secondary 25 cubic meter unit is replenished by runoff from the roof, and feeds the kitchen and laundry areas.
Water is conserved through the use of low-flow fixtures and a composting toilet (there are six-liter low-flush toilets available as well). Because bathrooms and the kitchen are far from the hot water tank, Ludwig designed a system of pumps to circulate the water as it heats,avoiding waste and time spent waiting for it to warm up. Waste water from the flush toilets is treated and eventually ends up in a constructed wetland, while gray water is used to irrigate fruit trees and plants.
Bea Briggs is proud of her home. It is very comfortable, though she admits that the finished result isn’t perfect.
Nonetheless, the systems at Huehu etortuga have served as examples for people seeking a more sustainable way to live.Briggs will see “some efficiencies and economies over the long run,” but “the main return on the investment is the (on-going) learning process and the ability to show what is possible.” iMx
You can contact Beatrice Briggs at
To learn more about her house and
sustainable development classes visit the