Painting Tourists Green - El Monte Sagrado: A Model for Sustainability

March 22, 2005
Designing and developing an eco-resort is no job for the faint of heart. Creating a design that offers luxury accommodations and amenities while conserving the natural environment, minimizing the impact on the ecosystem, employing sustainable materials and practices, and respecting the local culture and social climate is a tall order.And then there is the human element. Countering anti-development critics while simultaneously targeting upscale ecotourists requires an individual with exceptional vision and the ability to sell that vision. Moreover, the environmental effort has to be balanced by sound business approaches that bring a positive financial return to both investors and the surrounding community. And yet, the market is enticing enough to lure a new breed of visionary developer abetted by a generation of architects and systems integrators eager to create designs that welcome tourists to exquisite natural settings while insulating the environment from human impact. During the past decade, ecotourism in its many forms has been the fastest-growing sector of the tourism industry, offering a clear niche alternative to mass-market tourism. It is clearly an attractive niche from a business standpoint. First, the gross numbers are attractive. According to the World Trade Organization, international tourism reached a record 700 million arrivals in 2003, with nearly 80 percent originating in Europe and the Americas. What’s more, the market demographic represents the sweet-spot of the tourist trade. Recent data compiled by The International Ecotourism Society suggest that the typical eco-traveler comes primarily from the United States or Europe, falls in an age range of about 35 to 54, has earned a college or graduate degree, and enjoys a relatively high income. For many in this category, the destination of choice is becoming the upscale eco-lodge, eco-resort, or – more recently – eco-spa. Culmination of a VisionAmong the most compelling examples of a resort that is leading the way in environmentally friendly hospitality is El Monte Sagrado Living Resort and Spa, in Taos, N.M. Surrounded by mountains and high desert country, the four-acre luxury resort is an environmental paradox that nestles comfortably into the fabric of Taos’s historic urban downtown yet sits amid a verdant collage of ponds and diverse plant life. The resort’s exterior, a blend of new architecture and remodeled old casitas, pays homage to the area’s Native American roots and incorporates local materials and green building techniques, while finely crafted interior spaces honor a variety of global cultures.But what is particularly innovative is the resort’s commitment to integrate cutting-edge technologies with sustainable practices. About 60 percent of the complex,  including the 30,000-square-foot main building, the grouping of 36 guest suites, and several of the 12 casitas, is geothermally heated and cooled; other areas rely on energy produced through an extensive photovoltaic installation and smaller solar panels. Fresh rainwater is collected, filtered, and recirculated for use in the spa. Storm water runoff, too, is collected and managed for ponds and waterfalls. Virtually all wastewater on the property is recycled through a purification system called the Living Machine, which collects, treats, and reuses it for irrigation. But unlike most water treatment plants – typically eyesores designed to be hidden from view – the Living Machine is the heart of the Biolarium, one of the resort’s prominent features. A greenhouse and botanical garden, the Biolarium is an inviting architectural space on its own, and it also serves as a demonstration area for educating guests about responsible water-use issues.Completed in July 2003, El Monte Sagrado is the culmination of a long-time vision by its owner and developer, Thomas Worrell, Jr., a former newspaper publisher, well-known philanthropist, and passionate preservationist. “My aim with El Monte Sagrado,” Worrell says, “is to demonstrate that it is possible to develop and not damage the Earth, to enjoy the highest style of living and remain environmentally responsible.” A passionate environmental advocate, Worrell adds that another goal for his $50 million project is to expose his wealthy, educated guests to his philosophy and to innovative approaches to design and construction in the hope of increasing their awareness and changing their attitudes.Worrell is the founder and owner of Dharma Living Systems (DLS), a comprehensive design and engineering firm that specializes in water systems such as the Living Machine and in the integration of energy and green building systems. He brought together a team of architects, engineers, and ecologists from DLS to provide land planning, the resort’s overall architectural design and development, and construction management. For the interiors of the resort’s main building, including reception areas, restaurants and bar, board room, and library, he selected Sargert Design Associates (SDA), an international interior design/build firm. Community and EnvironmentIt was in the mid-1990s that Worrell’s commitment to preservation first led him to Taos, where he purchased and refurbished several downtown buildings in a state of near-ruin. After restoring them to the National Register of Historic Places and winning wide respect within the community, he became interested in the prospect of creating a new resort by joining three different existing properties – the 1930s El Monte motor court, with its ring of crumbling casitas, a small hotel nearby, and a piece of vacant land. John Szerdi, DLS vice president and chief architect of the planning process, recalls: “It was a challenge to work with a piece of property with so much history attached and a sensitive residential neighborhood next door. We needed to inspire the town’s leadership with the kind of technology we’d use, and that required a pretty strong educational component. It took a while for them to feel comfortable with the sustainability aspect, to envision the resort as part of the fabric of the city.”The architecture, designed around local materials and forms, suits the fabric of the adjacent downtown. The former parking area of the motor court was transformed into a natural open space – the “Sacred Circle” – edged by ponds, walkways, and native plantings. Nearly all living areas open to the outdoors by means of porches, balconies, and small courtyards, connecting guests to nature with short, close-in garden views and long vistas that embrace the mountains.“Within the resort landscape, several microclimates indigenous to the Taos region are represented,” says Douglas Patterson, director of architecture and ecological design at DLS. “There is the ‘bosque,’ which follows the overall pattern of the ancient riverbed and is lined with old cottonwoods. Then orchards, which have been farmed here since the 1600s, aspen and wildflowers found at higher elevations, and mixed conifers.”The architects employed several green products and processes in the construction of El Monte Sagrado. The main buildings’ formwork is plaster over metal lath to achieve an adobe-like appearance. The garden casitas are fashioned from blocks of compressed earth, excavated dirt of too poor a quality for use as plant soil. Paths, walkways, and two of the resort’s utility buildings are made from gunnash, a proprietary mix of fly ash, cement, and additives, rather than conventional concrete.  The primary solar installations are positioned for optimal energy efficiency and minimal visual distraction. One series of photovoltaic panels is incorporated seamlessly into traditional shade structures that shelter the porte cochere and lobby entry areas; the other group is implanted in the skin of the Biolarium, where the panels that can be seen simply add to the sense of technology in the space. By contrast, in a sunny clearing near a cluster of casitas, individual panels adorn the branches of a sculptural “solar tree” and power pumps for nearby ponds. Timeless AestheticsAlthough progressive in its approach to the native ecosystem, there is another dimension to El Monte Sagrado: traditional, even timeless, themes that underscore comfort and well-being in beautiful surroundings. Worrell’s vision for a “world-class sanctuary for those seeking refuge from a hectic world” and his desire to pay symbolic homage to all major world cultures is evident in the resort’s suites and casitas. But it is the interior design of the resort’s main building, the Biogrande, that expresses those cultures in ways that are often both stunning and subtle. “Biogrande is broken into several different areas, but the transitions from one space to another are smooth and subtle, and the feeling of the transitions is mellow, even reverential,” says designer David Sargert, principal and founder of SDA. The journey through those transitions starts at the front door and proceeds through the dramatic circular foyer with its high-domed ceiling featuring a “sacred geometry” oculus and 6,000 points of fiber-optic lighting, stone-stacked walls, and sunburst patterned granite floor – all tributes to the Pueblo culture. Beyond the foyer, the route continues to the hostess area, where a lowered ceiling and a moon window combine for an understatement that reflects an Islamic influence. By contrast, the Anaconda Bar, with its Amazonian sacred serpent theme and unusual lighting effects, offers a lively, exotic setting in which to unwind.“Lighting is one of our areas of expertise and one of the first we address in any design,” says Sargert, whose firm has been innovating with low-voltage and fiber-optic lighting technologies since the 1970s. In the bar, a snake sculpture curves across the ceiling, its scales fashioned of gold mosaic tiles, its belly illuminated by gelled LEDs. “Patrons can see and ‘feel’ the snake move, and the colored lights help warm up their faces,” he says. The serpentine bar features ebonized ash and gold mica arranged in an anaconda pattern; as the sun goes down and ambient light dims, the pattern is brought to life from below with a continuous band of fiber-optic lights. In the two-story foyer, fiberoptics and conventional lighting are complemented by elaborate gas torches. Nearby, the gallery is lit with a combination of wall lamps and innovative lily pad-motif floor effects that enhance the walking experience. “The torches were approved by the fire marshal,” Sargert recalls, “but we soon realized that, though safe, the three-foot flames were far too warm.  We redid the burners for an 8- to 12-inch flame, and the space is now much more mellow – like the mood throughout the building.” The designer also employed fiberoptics in the stepped-tray ceiling of the boardroom, which is furnished with a striking conference table of book-matched Macassar ebony. Similarly treated walls serve as display space for paintings from Worrell’s substantial art collection. Technology is ubiquitous throughout this eco-friendly environment. The boardroom is equipped with two plasma screens and extensive video-conferencing components, and the resort provides complimentary high-speed Internet access via Ethernet throughout its buildings and guest rooms. The entire property is also a WiFi hotspot.In keeping with El Monte Sagrado’s sustainability mission, only the finest eco-friendly, natural materials were specified. The materials were competitively sourced locally and from around the world. Granite, marble, and travertine are blended with local sandstone and structural woods. Even the decorative plaster covering interior walls contains local mica. SDA says its staff made certain that such exotic woods as ebony, sapelli (African mahogany), and Brazilian rosewood were harvested responsibly or gleaned from existing inventories.  “Our vision for El Monte Sagrado was not based on any trendy aesthetics,” Sargert says. “This honest, overall approach accounts for the popular allure of the resort – it’s a great, gravitational pull to the genuine.”Into the FutureAs a businessman, Worrell’s goal is for this environmentally friendly resort to be largely self-sufficient in five years. As an environmentalist, he intends to attract and educate a clientele of eco-evangelists who can influence the future. Although El Monte Sagrado is drawing guests from across the United States and is increasingly attracting travelers from abroad, it is still too early to know how sustainable practices will play out. So far, the business goal looks achievable. Szerdi estimates a five- to six-year payback period for the geo-thermal systems, and says that the photovoltaic system on the Biolarium roof produces enough power to run the Living Machine pumps.The environmental goals, Szerdi says, will be achieved through evolution, not revolution: “We are of the philosophy that you don’t have to go ‘dark green’ all at once, that a project can be designed to allow for gradual green growth.” Both he and Patterson have earned LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, and like Tom Worrell, they believe that education is a core value of Dharma Living Systems. “What we’ve done here,” says Patterson, “is something that’s never really been attempted before. Like a hybrid car, you have to take a whole new look at all the components to get the outcome to work synergistically. We’ve had to break out of the old mold of ‘architect’ into new roles in order to accomplish a common end.”Adopting New HabitsEmbracing sustainable practices can be good for the hospitality business, insists Hitesh Mehta, a landscape architect with EDSA Landscape Architecture and Planning in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. As an advisory board member of the International Ecotourism Society, and a proponent of green practices, he has studied eco-resorts worldwide and is currently working on a model eco-lodge in southern China. Today, Mehta says, the most successful eco-tourist destinations share similar practices and design principles, which he characterizes as a set of environmentally friendly “habits” or guidelines. Briefly stated, they are:Create a site plan and architectural design that blend into the natural setting, paying careful attention to form, landscaping, and color.Meet energy needs through passive design and renewable, energy-saving resources.Employ sustainable building techniques, and ensure that construction has minimal impact on the natural environment.Build and maintain the resort with environmentally sensitive materials, using traditional building technology and materials where possible, in combination with their modern counterparts.Develop alternative, sustainable approaches to water acquisition and consumption and to the handling and disposal of wastewater and sewage.Offer educational interpretative programs to both staff and guests on local natural, social, and cultural issues.Involve and empower the local community in planning and operating the resort.“Eco-lodges are definitely in the forefront and blazing the trail,” Mehta asserts. “Eco-resorts are doing a better job than in the past, but because they are meant to please both worlds – the consumer and the environment – they will never be as green as eco-lodges.”For further information:El Monte Sagrado Living Resort and Spa: www.elmontesagrado.comDharma Living Systems: www.dharmalivingsystems.comSargert Design Associates: www.sargertdesign.comEDSA Landscape Architecture and Planning: www.edsaplan.comInternational Ecotourism Society: www.ecotourism.orgU.S.GreenBuilding Council:

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