First Energy-Efficient Tree House Community

Welcome to the world's first energy-efficient treehouse community.

September 23, 2010, 10:52 AM

Sept. 30, 2010— -- Energy-efficient communities are popping up around the world; from Masdar, the first carbon-neutral city, near Abu Dhabi, U.A.E., to an off-the-grid treehouse enclave in the Costa Rican Jungle.

There, just off the Pan-American Highway, a rocky path leads from the windy road up a mountain, winding into the rainforest.

"You can literally see the line where the rainforest begins, and that's when you get to the community of Finca Bellavista, an Eden of sorts," Matt Hogan says, driving a beat-up truck.

Hogan, a former motocross racer, is co-founder of Finca Bellavista, the solar-powered tree house community he built from scratch with wife Erica after moving from Colorado and joining an environmental movement toward taking communities off strained electrical grids.

"It's a win-win; we're protecting the environment and creating 'green' jobs building the infrastructure," Hogan says of what's billed as the world's first modern, planned, sustainable tree house community.

It consists of about two dozen sky-high structures, with more than 40 other properties sold and planned for development. All told, there are about 80 two-acre lots, which have been selling fast, the founders say.

The first stage of "pre-infrastructure" lots is sold out, they say, and there are six more in Phase Two, starting at $55,000 for a lot.

Among the amenities are running water, electricity, refrigeration, complete bathrooms, including a shower and head, and even Wi-Fi. And the tree houses that the Hogans built themselves are completely powered by the sun.

The community of the Finca includes professionals working out of their tree houses, young families with kids and retirees -- about 100 residents in all now, some full-time. Most of them are American or Canadian, but Costa Ricans have been looking as well, the Hogans say.

The Hogans took out home-equity loans against their Colorado home to buy land from local owners who had been trying to sell it for timber. They then sold the parcels to community residents, using the proceeds to make improvements.

The first full-time resident was a Zen-like website manager from Canada who goes by the name Kevin. His tree house is known to have the best Wi-Fi on the Finca.

Opening his door to a visitor, Kevin, 29, offers some tea or coffee but quickly has to run to make a call.

He is Skyping to a coworker in Pittsburgh, who comments that, "In this day and age, you can work from anywhere." Kevin is a using a reliable Internet line to work from the middle of the rainforest. He is designing a new iPhone app for the NFL, but he says he's not at liberty to talk much about it.

"I have the most amazing view," Kevin says, changing the subject and looking down from his tree house, 25 feet off the ground.

As for the Hogans, who speak fluent Spanish, they have a hard time traveling to Costa Rica because of passport issues. Neither of them has been granted citizenship (other people in the community have similar problems), so they have to leave the country for three days every three months.

The Hogans were living in Crested Butte, Colo., four years ago when they decided to fly to Costa Rica in search of a surf-shack hideaway. Erica was a writer and editor at a local newspaper. Matt co-owned a company that made roofing tiles from recycled tires.

Finding Inspiration in 'Star Wars'

After taking a tour of a lot of secondary-growth rainforest in the mountainous Southern Zone of Costa Rica, advertised for potential timber logging, Erica Hogan suggested using the jungle to build an Ewok village in the trees, similar to the one on the moon of Endor in the film "Star Wars: Return of the Jedi."

The conversation could have ended there, but her husband liked the idea.

"It's funny, the Ewok village was only featured for a split second in 'Star Wars: Return of the Jedi,' but it left such a lasting impression there are few people who don't know what the Ewok village is," he says.

So Matt and Erica Hogan broke free from their commitments, followed through on their idealism and bought property in the tropical rainforests of Costa Rica.

If they hadn't, the forest may have been lost to loggers, something environmentalists say has happened to half the tropical forests in the world in the past century. The Hogans spent the next four years building their version of an energy-efficient community.

Matt Hogan raced motocross for 12 years, but is finding his peace in the forest. "In a way, this was my way of finding the balance," he says.

It wasn't easy. He chased wildlife poachers off his property with a loaded gun for the first 18 months, sleeping under a tarp at "base camp," an old rock quarry used to build the local loop road off the Pan-American Highway.

He was camping out in the middle of a Costa Rican rainforest, working 18-hour days, amid venomous snakes, scorpions, and mudslides.

His wife joined him after the first year, living outside with a crew of 30 native Costa Rican men for more than six months.

They both planned and literally built the community with their own hands. They've been there, working hand-in-hand with their employees, who are now more like family, building everything on the grounds.

And, today, the Finca is indeed what they had imagined, a community of off-the grid tree house dwellers, living with nature, with access to 300 acres of secondary-growth rainforest.

It's a place where everyone -- including the resident star Kimbo, the half-blind bulldog -- uses zip-lining as a primary means of transportation. They ride on cables, zipping between platforms that rise as high as 90 feet from the forest floor, soaring across the mountaintops and waterfalls.

"It's a real source of transport," Matt Hogan says, walking through the forest. "Even the building materials for the tree house are brought in via zip line."

There are already 23 lines up, with more in the works as the community grows toward a target population of 200 people.

Tree Houses Take Root

Trekking through the property in rubber boots up to his knees, Hogan shows off the waterfall situated below his personal two-story tree house that is soon to house Costa Rica's largest privately-owned hydropower system. When all is said and done, the hydro and solar systems will generate enough power to service all the new structures that will be built.

Rarely does anything at the Finca go to waste. They use the grounds to grow enough food to feed the community. They compost all their food waste, get water from natural springs and even biodigest toilet waste that's returned to nature.

But it's not perfect, as the Hogans readily admit. The community of Finca Bellavista still relies on oil to power its trucks, which they use for everyday work and to explore outside. But they are actively looking for alternatives, such as all-electric ATVs.

In terms of lifestyle, residents have time to go out and explore nature, and still be productive. Even in the rainy season.

"You can tell time by the rain in the rainy season," Hogan says as the skies open up, more like an act of God than a rain shower. "It rains at noon every day."

Such routine comes with other benefits. "You don't have to sacrifice the luxuries of life anymore to go back to nature," says Lauren Lubin, 25, a Chicago native who shares the tree house with Kevin, the Canadian project manager.

They met while studying vegan cooking in Boulder, Colo., and she hopes to help with the gardening of the Finca. What's more, she says, she has recently finished writing a book on self-discovery, "The Rainforest Awakenings: A Mystical Journey Within", which she will self-publish.

"It will be the first book ever to be written and published from a tree house," Lubin says. People around the Finca are comparing it to "The Celestine Prophecy".

The Hogans chose to take the community off the electrical grid because Costa Rica is notorious for blackouts, despite its commitment to renewable energy, and it is a bit out of reach.

Relying less on electrical grids is increasingly common around the world, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, which not only lowers costs but also creates jobs.

"There certainly is a movement towards a decentralized system, particularly in the developing countries, primarily driven by the fact that in 2009 there was more money worldwide investment in new renewable energy than fossil fuels generation," U.N. spokesman Nick Nuttall told ABC News. "And, certainly, you're seeing in Asia, Africa and Latin America a move towards wind power, a lot of decentralized electricity."

Indeed, a recent U.N. report concluded, "The provision of power in areas that are not reached by the grid is an effective way to generate green growth and jobs, often in areas widespread and persistent poverty."

The Hogans are also devoted to the trees. Some of them are more than 300 years old, Matt Hogan says, pointing to one particularly large tree he calls "the mother of the forest."

The rainforests of the world house half the planet's species, but cover only 7 percent of the earth's land. And protecting them from loggers is a difficult task.

With this in mind, Finca Bellavista forbids the destruction of trees, relying on the only legally harvestable wood for construction material.

"The first rule for building sustainable tree houses," Hogan says, looking skyward: "No other trees are destroyed."

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