Launch Slideshow

Life in the Trees

Life in the Trees

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    Silke Gondolf

    The El Castillo Mastate treehouse seen from a trail below.

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    Erica Hogan

    A shot of the Mis Ojos treehouse from below.

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    Erica Hogan

    A bedroom in the Mis Ojos treehouse. 

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    Anders Birch

    From the window seat in the Mis Ojos treehouse, residents get a good glimpse of the arboreal offerings.

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    Matt Hogan

    A shot of Casa Mariposa from the side.

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    Allison Shelley

    Zip lines and trails are the primary means of transportation.

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    Anders Birch

    A bedroom in the El Castillo Mastate treehouse.

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    Anders Birch

    Faucet detail in the El Castillo Mastate bathroom.

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    Matt Hogan

    The stairwell in the El Castillo Mastate house was built around the tree.

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    Erica Hogan

    A dining gazebo at Finca Bellavista. 

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    Anders Birch

    The development even has its own community center with a large kitchen and dinning area. 

As far as burgeoning residential communities go, Finca Bellavista sounds like pretty standard stuff.

The project is located on a 350-acre site; it is selling lots; and it has five houses and about 24 buildings, including a community center and other support structures, and other houses in various stages of construction. But this is no ordinary community in some suburban or even exurban location. Finca Bellavista is a sustainable treehouse community that’s sprouting on the southern coast of Costa Rica.

Founded “accidentally” by Erica and Matt Hogan, Finca Bellavista began as a mere search for property for a little vacation home but blossomed into a full-scale endeavor. “The idea was to create something simple, nothing too complicated, maybe a fixer-upper surf shack or a bungalow in the rainforest,” Erica says. “We had a Top 10 list to explore, and on my 29th birthday we looked at a few places, eventually landing at what would later become Finca Bellavista.”

After the couple kicked around ideas on how to afford the then 62-acre property, they came up with the idea to do a treehouse, and Erica “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.” Erica continues, “I remember saying ‘remember the Ewok village from "Return of the Jedi"? Why don’t we do that?’”

Today the community consists of 300-plus acres of secondary rainforest and reclaimed pasture and is billed as the world’s first planned, modern, sustainable treehouse community. The real estate adage about location still applies, as the site is situated near national parks, beaches, whitewater rivers, hiking trails, and “mountainscapes.”

Construction began at Finca about three years ago, but it’s really in its infancy—relatively speaking. The developers have sold 46 parcels. And though the Hogans’ idea, initially, was to create a community of primary residents, it has been a draw for vacationers. They have five full-time residents, but many of the owners rent their homes through the property management program.

“[It] is currently functioning as somewhat of a treehouse resort community,” Erica says. “Though as the community progresses and people’s life situations allow them to be on-site on a more full-time basis, that will likely change and morph. I think there’s a lot of opportunity here for people to create their own niches in terms of employment, and telecommuting is possible. We have an owner operating his business from his telecommuting treetop office! 3G cell and internet service is a pretty amazing improvement in the last year that will enable lots of people to work from here.”

The neighborhood has a community center with a large kitchen and dining hall, an open-air lounge and WiFi zone, and a bath house.

Homes are in various stages of design and construction. Given the location and the nature of the development, building is a very different process and yields very different homes. “Each one varies based on the access, the available trees, the elevations present,” Erica explains. “Our two-story treehouse, Mis Ojos, is about 800 square feet of platform and about 450 feet interior living space. El Castillo has a combined total of about 1,100 square feet. Casa Mariposa is closer to 1,600 square feet.”

“We have found that the most frustrating phase for our owners of creating a living space here has been the overwhelming amount of possibilities,” Erica says. “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, but it does involve a fair amount of forethought, planning, and patience.”

The developer has a list of suggestions to help ease the process. They recommend that a botanist inventory the trees on the parcel for suitable candidates; that owners visit the parcel and get a feel for the property; that buyers do a second assessment to help determine what the exact trees' overall health may be if building in or around them; and that people start looking at treehouse books and designs to begin getting an idea of what types and styles of treehouses they like.

“Finca Bellavista now has its own construction management company, which a lot of folks choose to use because of the logistics and challenges present on-site,” says Erica. “We operate like other construction firms in that the first steps would be working with people to draft a design that works with the selected site, design, wish list, budget, etc.”

Like any other “on your lot” community, all plans and designs must be approved by the Environmental Review Board and receive a Costa Rican building permit prior to construction. “For our purposes here at FBV, we are more concerned with the ecological ramifications of what we build here on the property and are very strict about minimum setbacks from adjacent lot lines, drainage, proximity to streams and springs, nearby trees that may be rotten and/or nearing the end of their life span and hazardous to the home site,” Erica explains. “Review of designs and plans and permitting takes time and is not an element of the building process that can be omitted.”

The community has other requirements. All structures must be either stilt-built or arboreal in nature and cannot use poured slab or solid terrestrial foundations. It encourages small homes, and it requires that all units utilize rainwater or spring water collection and be tied into the community’s electrical grid, which uses solar but has plans for hydroelectric power. In addition, all waste must be processed through a biodigestor.

“Like most rural areas of Costa Rica, we have to transport and drop off our own garbage and recycling (but the idea of re-using everything is alive and well in the greater Southern Zone, which we are trying to take to a new level with future planned building projects),” says Erica.

Homes are individually owned, so homeowners are responsible for their own maintenance and upkeep, including improvements to private trails. At the moment, ownership at the community is about 60% American, 35% Canadian, and 5% European. “Finca Bellavista has come about very organically,” Erica says. “Matt and I aren’t developers by training or background—this is truly a grassroots type of community and has become a labor of love for us and our lives.”

Nigel Maynard is senior editor for Builder.