Costa Rica’s LEED-certified Olas Verdes surf hotel gives local community an economic boost

Costa Rica’s LEED-certified Olas Verdes surf hotel gives local community an economic boost


Summer 2018 | Written by Jeff Harder

Above: The decor of Olas Verdes emphasizes the culture of different Costa Rican destinations, incorporating handmade artwork from artists based in each region.

Step through the verdant jungle of Ostional Wildlife Refuge and onto the yellow sands of Playa Guiones, and paradise stretches out for miles: waves swelling from across the Pacific and crumbling at the sandy bottom offshore. There’s no place quite like Nosara, a dirt-road outpost in Costa Rica’s northwest that’s long been a magnet for seekers of all kinds: yogis, vacationers looking for a week of sun and sand, and surfers of all abilities, from beginners to barrel-seeking short-boarders.

And there’s no place in Nosara quite like Olas Verdes, a 17-suite boutique hotel that’s the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum hotel in the country. Nestled among Jobo trees, the five-building campus serves as a model for sustainable building and social equity in far-flung places that are increasingly looking for thoughtful alternatives to business as usual. “Nosara is a beautiful destination, and in our own humble way, we’re happy to be part of the catalyst for establishing sustainable development principles,” says Carl Kish, the project manager for Olas Verdes and co-founder of STOKE Certified, a certification body focused on sustainability in the ski and surf tourism industry.

A resident of San Diego, Kish first visited Nosara on a three-week trip as an undergraduate at San Diego State University, working on a research project that involved helping resorts with sustainability management systems, community development projects, and analyzing return on investment for renewable energy installations and other projects. Away from Nosara’s beach breaks, he found a place that held on to its cattle-farming rusticity and a community of locals and expats united in keeping their home both welcoming and free from the perils of untrammeled development, including a community-wide push for stricter zoning regulations and waste management protocols. “There’s a big focus here on healthy lifestyles and environmental conservation, there’s a strong sense of activism, and many well-established business owners have made it a priority to integrate sustainability,” Kish says.

Kish was eventually hired as a sustainability coordinator for the hotel attached to the Safari Surf School, a wave-riding institution that’s been in Nosara since the 1990s. After hotel ownership changed hands, the surf school sought out a group of investors from their most long-term patrons to build a new hotel in Nosara that integrated sustainability from the ground up. In 2013, Kish joined as a sustainability consultant with designs on taking the project as far as possible. “A big push from me was, what if we became the first LEED-certified building here? And if so, could that become a catalyst for sustainable design and construction in the region?”

Soon after, Sphera Sustainability Consulting, an agency that’s helped bring to fruition projects from Guatemala to Bolivia, got on board. “I don’t think the idea of sustainably developing a project that doesn’t have a big impact on the environment was a new concept in Nosara, but LEED certification was definitely an innovative concept at the time,” says Federico Steinvorth, director of energy projects at Sphera. “It’s still a movement that’s growing, an ongoing process.”

Olas Verdes, a 17-suite boutique hotel in Costa Rica, is the first LEED Platinum hotel in the country.

Carl Kish is the project manager for Olas Verdes and the co-founder of STOKE Certified, a certification body focused on sustainability in the ski and surf tourism industry.

Designing Olas Verdes (“green waves”), which encompasses a restaurant and a surf school on its premises in addition to its hotel accommodations, meant navigating a number of different environmental constraints, chief among them: water scarcity. Costa Rica’s northwest typically stays dry six months a year, including during peak tourism season, and Nosara was in the midst of a five-year drought just as Olas Verdes got off the ground. (“The postcard picture of Costa Rica does not always exist in Guanacaste province, but it is still beautiful,” Kish says). Other factors influencing the design vision included a no-build area extending 200 meters from the high-tide line, minimizing storm runoff into the creek that cuts across the property and into the ocean—called a quebrada—and constructing a built environment sensitive to the neighboring wildlife refuge. Additionally, the investors emphasized putting Nosara’s cultural heritage front and center and relying on locals to staff the hotel.

It also meant finding clever ways to be sustainable without lowering high hospitality standards. “We have to be honest: restaurants and hotels can be big polluters,” says Luis Pardo, general manager of Olas Verdes. “In the name of customer service, we waste resources—for instance, if you go into a restaurant and you change your mind about the dish you just ordered, they’ll throw it away and you aren’t charged for it … Pursuing LEED Platinum is the minimum you can do to offset your impact.”

Given the logistical complexity, Kish’s role quickly evolved to become project manager, and with local architect Donald Loria and local construction company Guanacaste Builders on board, work on Olas Verdes began in earnest in 2013. In developing a sustainable destination so far off the beaten path, LEED provided an invaluable roadmap for Olas Verdes. “Being the first to do LEED [in the area] was very enticing, and we knew the rating system would help guide us through some of the technical aspects of design and construction,” Kish says. Sphera’s experience in other LEED projects was extremely helpful in coordinating with a design-build team on the verge of its first LEED project, and both Loria and Guanacaste Builders were receptive to the challenge. “From the beginning, they said as long as someone can help us navigate the requirements, let’s figure it out,” Kish says.

The five-building site centers on a passive solar design, using shading, predominant wind patterns, and natural ventilation systems to naturally cool and light the buildings while minimizing their energy needs. Olas Verdes also features rooftop solar panels, solar hot water, and a battery storage system, handling roughly 30 percent of the hotel’s energy load, thanks to a variety of energy-saving measures: energy-efficient appliances, CFL and LED lighting, timers, and motion sensors. The only air conditioners at Olas Verdes are in the guest rooms themselves; Big Ass Fans cool the communal spaces.

Sourcing materials was one of the easiest facets of the project, Kish says. “They were used to sourcing local timber and doing most things in wood, and we took advantage of that wherever possible. All the beds, cabinetry, doors, and railings were handcrafted and sourced locally.” Most of the wood was teak harvested from local farms. The hotel’s yoga deck as well as the deck at El Manglar, the on-site restaurant, utilized repurposed plastics, and the guest suite kitchens and the restaurant’s bar feature recycled glass countertops.

To address its water conservation needs, Olas Verdes added an underground rainwater storage system that captures up to 14,000 liters. Graywater is treated with bacteria instead of chemicals, then recycled to irrigate the property. Boulders and plants line the slopes of the quebrada to mitigate erosion and storm runoff. “That was a big initiative for us because it used to be an eyesore, and a lot of sediment from the roads goes straight to that stream,” Kish says. Each suite features low-flow water fixtures, and ultimately, Olas Verdes uses between a third and a quarter of the water of other similar-sized hotels in the region. “That’s the biggest issue we all have to face, and that number shows how well we are doing,” Pardo says.

In Nosara, there’s a focus on healthy lifestyles and environmental conservation. Olas Verdes invited a group of investors from among their most loyal patrons to help build the new hotel.

Contrasting the clear-cutting that’s all too common when developers build in exotic getaways, Olas Verdes took an ultra-measured approach to ensure 90 percent of the property’s existing trees were left untouched. Along with carefully placed buildings and geometrically trimmed rooflines and overhangs that weave around the trees on site, the architect and builder shaped the pool to resemble a pair of breaking waves and maneuver around the adjacent large Jobo trees. Ravenala Landscaping incorporated aeration around the trees so the roots would still receive adequate oxygen despite being so close to the pool and other buildings. Plantings of native, drought-tolerant vegetation are recurring elements around the property, and they blur the transition between the hotel and the leafy Ostional Wildlife Refuge next door.

An emphasis on culture translates to the decor at Olas Verdes. Each of the five buildings is themed after a different Costa Rican destination, incorporating handmade artwork from artists based in each region. Additionally, the property features handcrafted and hand-painted hotel signs, a locally crafted iguana showerhead, and a pair of large mosaics constructed from recycled glass bottles. “We worked with local artists to figure out a design and the colors we needed, and then we worked with the town’s recycling center to determine which kinds of beer, liquor, and wine bottles would match those colors,” Kish says. “The women at the recycling center collected bottles for 6 months at a time, broke them into little pieces, filled them into 50-gallon drums, and the local artists used them to build out the mosaics.”

Federico Steinvorth, director of energy projects at Sphera.

The facilities utilize passive solar design to minimize solar heat gain and maximize natural ventilation—taking into consideration the sun angles and wind patterns—to naturally cool and light the buildings as much as possible, which maximizes guest comfort while minimizing energy use.

A cornerstone of Olas Verdes is its emphasis on empowering its staff and offering upward professional mobility. El Manglar, for example, is run by two female heads of household—both Nosara locals who started with the surfing school years ago. The hotel paid for their culinary and business training, built a commercial kitchen and an expanded deck for seating, and turned it over to the duo to run on their own as a successful Costa Rican fusion restaurant. “These two women have been with us for a long time,” Pardo says. “Now they run the operation, they pay the rent, we give them support, and it’s a beautiful thing.” The leadership at Olas Verdes also pays for employees’ English classes and professional training. A former housekeeper now handles purchasing at the hotel. An employee who used to be a helper at an ATV rental is a linchpin of the hotel’s marketing team. Employee turnover at Olas Verdes, Pardo says, is almost nonexistent. “Our employees learn new skills, but they don’t change anything about their personalities or their culture,” he says.

Olas Verdes’ accommodations to the environment haven’t diminished guest satisfaction. “It was always a balance of providing amenities while prioritizing energy and water conservation needs,” Kish says. Every visitor receives a complementary bicycle rental and access to a shuttle so they can explore the area without driving a car. No one seems to mind the absence of air conditioning in common areas. “When you realize that you don’t need air conditioning all the time, you realize you can live life without being so wasteful,” Pardo says, as he points to the popularity of the hour-long sustainability tours he leads around the property. And since opening in December 2015, Olas Verdes has been had great success.

Beyond keeping guests comfortable, Olas Verdes has proven its resilience in a part of the world where inclement weather–induced power outages are a perennial concern. Hurricane Nate, the October 2017 storm that devastated the core of Nosara and became the costliest natural disaster in Costa Rica’s history, put Olas Verdes and its power system through its paces. During a 36-hour power outage, the hotel reduced its load to keep the main building and the restaurant up and running for guests. “It became kind of a sanctuary for the staff and the guests staying there,” says Kish, who visited during the storm. “We’re in a pretty isolated location when these storms hit and close the roads, and we were still able to meet guests’ needs and they were still happy to be there.” Additionally, the stormwater management design at Olas Verdes resulted in no erosion or flooding on site. By relying on local materials and local labor, Pardo adds, “It means we’re able to recover from [a disaster] very fast without needing aid from government agencies.”

Maritza Sanchez and Alicia Matamoros run the resort’s Costa Rican fusion restaurant.

For many visitors, the allure of Olas Verdes is less about surveying its sustainability bona fides than the environment itself: howler monkeys bounding through the trees in the wildlife refuge, sea turtles descending on a black sand beach to lay eggs, walking through the jungle clutching a surfboard and exiting to cerulean seas that feel beyond the reach of the world. Paddle out to the lineup, look back to the land, and it’s all trees and mountains.

But Olas Verdes is also widening the realm of where authentic, third-party-verified green building can have a presence. “People might have a conception that a project something like four and a half hours from the capital city, in a place that isn’t easy to reach, would be hard to execute,” Steinvorth says. “This breaks a barrier. Not only is it possible to do it, but also it can be done at a high level. Location really doesn’t matter when it comes to planning, designing, and constructing sustainable and efficient-performing buildings, it’s about getting the best out of your surroundings.” The waves being made at Olas Verdes, in other words, aren’t just the ones rolling in from offshore.

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