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Finca Rosa Blanca is an ecological coffee plantation resort in Costa Rica where the proprietors use the power of the sun, natural wastewater treatment, sustainable materials, local food, native plantings, and organic coffee growing methods to wed natural beauty and luxury with long-term sustainability.
The resort sits almost 4,000 feet above sea level, on nine acres overlooking the capital city of San Jose in the valley far below. Finca Rosa Blanca rests in the shadow of Barva Volcano - directly above the resort - the largest in land mass of the many volcanoes in Costa Rica. Visitors also discover wild rivers and cascading waterfalls, big cats, quetzals, tapirs and eagles. Roughly a quarter of Costa Rica's area is made up of National Parks. Finca Rosa Blanca also offers lessons in creating a “green” bedroom in your own home, as well as lessons in sustainability on a broader level. (Scroll down for site map, photos and resort link.)
Secrets of the Green Hotel
As dawn broke over the lush green coffee fields of Costa Rica’s Central Valley, I awakened in the fantasy house of Sylvia Jampol, whose dream was to sleep in the clouds. Our bedroom, encircled by windows and looking out onto an expanse of blue sky and green countryside, was nestled among tropical flowers and the arching branches of a fat, 200-year old Higueron buttress tree.
No dream, Jampol’s house is now a bed and breakfast place called Finca Rosa Blanca (“White Rose Farm” from a poem by Cuban dissident Jose Marti ) outside, San Jose, Costa Rica, which passed into the hands of her son Glenn Jampol when she died. Her son has now turned his mother’s vision of natural harmony into an ecological model as well.
The bed I am lying in, made from rough-hewn coffee logs salvaged from nearby fields, sits amid cabinets and vanity tables also made of scrap wood. The walls, undergirded with concrete to withstand earthquakes, are covered in hand-slapped white stucco, the age-old building material suited to this hot, dry climate. Immense windows face south to capture the sun, while smaller windows all around capture natural light, making electric lights mostly unnecessary.
Your Green Hideaway
Your own bedroom may not be situated in some exotic mountain aerie looking over endless fields of green that recall the vineyards of California’s Napa Valley as it may have appeared at the turn of the century. And your budget for remodeling may not leave you with a lot of ‘green’ to handle. Still you can turn your boudoir – and indeed your entire home - into a hideaway of healthful and ecological living with a few simple principles.
First, the coziest and most intimate room of your home ought to be a haven of health since you spend more time there than anywhere else.
Give me the luxuries of life and I will willingly do without the necessities. ~Frank Lloyd Wright.
We spend one third of our lives in bed, according to Peter Sierck, a naturopathic physician based in Encinitas, Calif., who conducts environmental surveys of homes and offices. “Probably the important place” in your house, according to Sierk, is also the smallest: Your bed. “While asleep, the human body is many times more sensitive to environmental influences than while awake. During the day, the body has highly active regulatory mechanisms at its disposal to fend off stress. At night, the body, the mind and soul want to relax.”
Yet, secondly, if your bedroom is like that found in most houses in the United States, it may be plagued by the ills of ‘sick building’ syndrome, caused by the ‘off-gassing’ of a variety of synthetic chemicals from household plastics, wood products, and other sources.
Foam mattresses and cushions, for example, are commonly made with polyurethane that can emit toxic fumes, while many beds themselves are made of particle-board and plywood bound together with toxic adhesives containing formaldehyde.
In THE HANDBOOK OF CHEMICAL AND ALLERGIC REACTIONS AT HOME, Tom Fairley, of Environmed Research, Inc., writes that foam can ‘contain residual styrene, vinyl acetate, isocyanate and hydrocarbon blowing agents’ that can be released slowly as the soft plastic cells are broken down by use.
Invisible Sleep Stressors
Many people are less resilient to chemical stresses than others, often as a result of having been bombarded by toxic exposures in the past. Daliya Robson, of Walnut Creek, CA., believes she was poisoned by pesticides in early childhood and is now so chemically sensitive that she must use nothing but all organic (produced without pesticides) cotton sheets and bedding. She now runs a mail order business and advice service for the chemically sensitized. Read more here
“If you’re sleeping half the time on synthetic chemicals and among pollutants, you can be severely affected, by everything from asthma to attention deficit to chronic fatigue,” Robson maintains. She believes “this happens to a lot of people” who are unable to get their ailment diagnosed by doctors.
Begin with your own vision of beauty, loveliness and serenity for the most intimate room in your house.
A similar story comes from Lynn Marie Bower of Bloomington, IN., who became chemically sensitized while remodeling an old home. She had installed new carpeting, sheets and draperies in her bedroom when she became severely ill from a condition that is now referred to as ‘multiple chemical sensitivity’ (MCS).
When the family realized that her illness was due to the fumes coming from synthetic materials, they sold the home and built another new home completely with non-toxic materials. Their experience led to the creation of The Healthy House Institute, which the Bowers established to help other people facing similar health sensitivities.
Third, the good news is that alternative building materials that are less toxic are increasingly available and affordable. Low emitting paints, glues, carpets, and finishes are more and more standard. Less toxic insulation, as well as insulation made from recycled materials, is also available. The market for these alternative materials is growing and they are becoming more widespread in the marketplace.
A Resurgence of Green Refurbishing
Judging from the profusion of bed and bath stores and showrooms, and of remodeling magazines in the United States, Americans spend a lot of money on home improvement. According to a National Association of Homebuilders analysis of the most recent data, homeowners spent about $150 billion on home improvements and repairs in 2013.
According to Tracy Mumma, with the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) “homeowners are becoming increasingly interested in building homes that are healthy and environmentally sound.” She cites Professional Building Magazine noting that 60 percent of home buyers want ‘healthy house’ features and 25 percent look for ‘green construction’ (with more resource efficient, recycled materials).
If you are building a bedroom as a new addition to your home, your challenge from an ecological perspective will be greater than if the site, building style, house size and solar orientation are all fixed. The benefits in energy, too, will be greater. Orienting the room for best solar gain and prevailing winds can make a big difference in energy savings; you can also make use of the increasingly wide variety of resource efficient materials for walls, flooring, and insulation.
However, if you are simply remodeling or refurnishing your bedroom, you’ll want to maximize the living space you have; insure that the materials found in wall coverings, furniture and other furnishings – from curtains to linens – are environmentally safe and resource efficient; and of course, protect your family from any potentially unsafe chemicals encountered in products or appliances.
Finca Rosa Blanca Bedrooms
The rooms in the Finca Rosa Blanca Inn illustrate a few principles of green bedroom design.
Above my bed hangs a ceiling fan, a great way to keep cool without air conditioning. Unadorned by curtains, and thus more free of dust, the room is outfitted simply, with a cotton/bamboo quilt and hand-loomed textiles, ceramic and wood-carved animal figures on tables. Small rag rugs crafted by local artisans tossed here and there, and weavings, warm up the native stone floors.
“Your bedroom is where you live and who you are,” Jampol tells me, climbing up to the inn’s piece de resistance, his mother’s original bedroom in a turret atop a spiral stairway, where a canopy bed, enshrouded in macramé and lace, looks out onto the mountain vista. The bathtub is fed by water that cascades over a sculptured waterfall of rocks, for Sylvia, he recalls, “used to love to read in the bathtub.” Hanging down into the bath is a 4 foot long hanging basket of braided epiphyte plants.
“Give me the luxuries of life and I will willingly do without the necessities,” wrote architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Begin with your own vision of beauty, loveliness and serenity for the most intimate room in your house.
It may not be a turret, but a skylight, a painting, a mural, can transform a room and make the rest of your retrofit more fun. Besides, as Jampol points out, ”you can get so manic about the minute details of ecological correctness that you lose the whole point of living.”
A Mother’s Vision
Glenn Jampol’s ‘green’ country inn…now 14 rooms with two stand-alone cottages…started out as a dirt Motocross field where local kids came and raced their motorcycles and mountain dirt bikes. It had a beautiful view, but it needed a personal vision.
This vision came from Sylvia X. Jampol, a divorcee originally from the Bronx, N.Y., who saw the valley below and the giant buttress trees above….and swooned. Having left her husband, an architect and designer of huge glass and stone slab buildings, she wanted to build a house “with no square corners.”
She changed her middle name to “X.” Local laws were so sexist in those days, adds Jampol, his mother's wish to return to her maiden name would have involved expensive legal wrangling after the divorce.
"X was the next best thing," he laughs, "so when people said it out loud, it would be 'Sylvia Ex-Jampol.' "
On her field of dreams, this red dirt field high in the coffee plantations outside San Jose, Costa Rica, she wanted to build a home “that would create something special in her life,” says her son.
Her overall conception was to build a structure made of all local materials and leftovers (“sobrantes” as they are called in Spanish).
“She had this ‘found object’ mentality,” he says describing her habit of fashioning lampshades from old hats, cabinet handles from pieces of driftwood. In this place she found a warm and pleasant climate, plentiful hardwoods, as well as abundant local stone, and striking natural beauty. “It would have an ‘organic feel, with curves and S’s and no hard edges,” he said, and be a place that she envisioned ‘as a retreat for travelling scientists like those she met in Berkeley, CA., in the late 1960s, who put together symposia on ecology.’
Years later, her son, a painter as well as an innkeeper, now finds himself at the forefront of Costa Rica’s burgeoning ‘green hotel’ movement, endeavoring to set standards for eco-tourist establishments and the hotel industry, that encourage recycling, energy efficiency, water conservation, and reduced use of pesticides, for example.
In an effort to make his inn one of the first to be “five flag” hotels in the “Blue Ecological Flag” (Bandera Azul Ecologica) program, Jampol has inaugurated many green features to make his hotel a sustainable option. In fact, Finca Rosa Blanca was the first hotel in Costa Rica to earn five levels (“green leaves”) in the Certification for Sustainable Tourism- CST) and since 2006 it has had a 100 percent score in this program.
Timber is the ultimate ecological building material, as long as it is managed properly.
The gorgeous exotic woods throughout the inn would stand out like trophy heads anywhere else but here. Even though hardwood is locally abundant, using tropical timber hardwood products is a key issue because Costa Rica has been a victim of rampant deforestation. The large tree trunks of gorgeous Cristobal hardwood were a fortuitous buy from the government when the cross-country highway was built. Jampol has always insisted on getting legal papers for any timber or wood products he purchases. Since then, however, he has been particularly careful and has looked for alternatives to wood in other places.
“You can buy real wood veneer for coverings and use plastic laminates in less visually noticeable places, like the insides of cabinets, that can evoke the same feeling as wood but save lots of trees,” he says. Instead of building wooden balconies on the two new casitas (room suites) he built, he installed steel rail decks, painting them to look like weathered bronze by dabbing them with a light green verdigris patina.
Using Wood Judiciously
Wood doesn’t have to be avoided, just used judiciously. Timber is “the ultimate ecological building material, so long as it is managed properly,” writes Edward Harland, in Eco-Renovation: The Ecological Home Improvement Guide (Chelsea green Publishing Co., 1993). “Surely hard to beat” as a building material, writes Harland, it is one of the healthiest and most efficient, being a natural energy insulator, and requiring relatively little energy (compared to steel or aluminum) to process; it is also strong, recyclable, biodegradable, and highly attractive.
The problem is that few forests worldwide are being managed sustainably, especially in tropical rainforest areas, which are most vulnerable to corporate exploitation.
In the forests of North America, where wholesale clear-cutting and habitat destruction has gone on for years, supplies of wood are diminishing at our current rates of consumption. The United States is the largest producer and consumer of timber and forest products, accounting for 17 percent of global timber consumption, as of 2013, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures, with only 4.4 percent of world population (Source: USDA). For all these reasons, many environmental advocates suggest that prospective homebuilders consider alternatives to wood framed homes, such a brick, stone, concrete, as well as adobe and other possibilities—and use wood sparingly in interiors, flooring, and furniture.
In North America, it is much harder for consumers to know the origins of tropical wood products. Where does that teak armchair come from and did the teak farm employ sustainable harvesting of the wood?
One promising tool for being able to assess whether or not tropical or temperate forest products have been sustainably harvested is the forest certification movement, which started in the 1990s and has become mainstream since. To be certified, timber companies must show that they have incorporated sound forest management practices into their businesses – through selective logging, allowing for forest regeneration and respect for biodiversity and wildlife habitats, before they can win certification. Then they can label their wood products with a registered ‘green’ mark to alert wholesalers and consumers that the products they market come from sustainably harvested forests.
A number of forest certification groups have grown up during the last few years, which are helping consumers to become educated about woods and which woods should and shouldn’t be used. One is the “Smart Wood” Program of the Rainforest Alliance in New York City, which has certified some 7.5 million acres of forest in the United States, Central America and elsewhere. According to Todd Cater of the Rainforest Alliance in New York City, “It’s just a matter of consumers becoming educated about it and asking for these products.” But, he notes that Americans are far behind Europeans in their awareness and education.
Besides wood, there are a host of other natural paint products, ranging from thatch and bamboo that can be used in building and furniture materials.
When it comes to fabrics and fibers for bedroom furnishings, too, it is wise to research the wide variety of natural materials, from kapok to jute and hemp. Cotton is widely used because of its strength and versatility. However, most cotton is grown using intensive agricultural methods using high amounts of pesticides and fertilizers whose residues can prove unhealthy as well as environmentally damaging.
Many cotton materials are also treated with chemicals, such as formaldehyde, to give them certain characteristics, such as being wrinkle free or flame retardant, for example. Organic cotton linens are available, although they are more expensive, as well as so called ‘green’ cotton, which is free of post-processing treatments.
And after you’re finished with all the minute details, look forward to that divinely restful night’s sleep.
A Checklist for Creating the Sustainable Boudoir
• Health Checkup: Give your room a full air quality checkup. Identify any indoor pollutants in your home that could affect your bedroom. Mildew and mold, VOCs from plywood, adhesives, polyurethane stains and varnishes, wallboard, vinyl tiles, cabinets, carpets, flooring, foam and upholstery are all potential culprits. Check your walls for old lead paint. A test for radon is prudent, too. Also check if any possible sources of electromagnetic radiation.
• Ventilation: You should have a bedroom that ‘breathes.” Keep a flow of outdoor air into your bedroom, especially if you are concerned about indoor pollution. Consider a heat recovery ventilation system (HRV) otherwise known as an air to air heat exchanger. Install windows that open and close.
• Control dust mites. For the average person, according to Ted Johnson, an information specialist with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Indoor Air Quality division, “the most common air pollutant in a bedroom is probably dust mites.” High concentrations are found in bedding because mites feed on moisture and flakes of skin. Johnson recommends washing bedding regularly in hot water.
• VOC emissions. For the chemically sensitive person, staying away from formaldehyde and an assortment of other toxics is a necessity. Formaldehyde emissions are particularly a concern in mobile homes, because they’re smaller and have less ventilation. So builders must meet regulations on particle-board products used in mobile homes Otherwise, though, these chemicals are unregulated in building materials and furnishings.
• Wood: If you buy wood, find and verify the source. Start by searching out locally produced wood (easiest to transport and likely to be most appropriate to the climate). Then look for recycled products. Stay away from tropical hardwood, such as teak, and mahogany, unless you can verify its source from sustainably managed forests. Avoid large dimension solid lumber (2 x 10 feet or more, in flooring and beams). Use wood where it counts, rather than burying it in the walls, where you can use engineered products instead. There are also many opportunities to re-use wood. accord to government figures, more than 20 percent of the materials from construction go to waste. “Keep your eyes open,” advises Tracy Mumma. “If someone’s throwing out hardwood, such as local churches or office buildings, try to get hold of it.
• Furniture. Any wooden furniture – i.e. wooden beds, vanity tables, night tables, etc. – should be made of wood from sustainable harvested forests. Look into bamboos, cane, and other nature materials.
• Windows. Super-insulated windows that are glazed and coated with specially selected films can either retain heat, to warm, or reflect light back, to cool. These coatings can improve insulation and filter out harmful ultraviolet rays as well.
• Lighting: Design your room to incorporate the benefits of ‘daylighting,’ using windows and skylights to maximize natural light. Daylighting also wards off mold growth and bacteria. Install compact fluorescent lightbulbs, now designed to look more like natural light, wherever possible.
• Paints: Use non-toxic paints and stains carrying low VOC emissions. Use recycled paint, or organize a ‘paint swap’ with neighbors.
• Indoor Plants: studies done recently suggest that indoor vegetation can be beneficial in actually filtering toxins from the air.
• Hang artworks. And why not make your own art? In the Finca Rosa Blanca, much of the original art on the walls of the inn is truly original, made or bought by the innkeeper himself, his children and friends. Even these are from recycled materials. In one room - “La Piedra" - the bed is mounted on the giant rock (“piedra”) that used to be the base of the dining room table. Like other bedrooms of this house, it is an exercise in experimentation and playfulness, especially with unconventional materials.
On one wall hangs a small circular painting framed in one-inch hemp rope. What a relief to come to a place advertised as a country inn and surrounded by the beauty of genuine, homegrown artifacts instead of the standard B & B fare. No heart-shaped, lace-edged, antiqued widgets or teddy bears anywhere! “Discover yourself through what you leave on the walls,” laughs innkeeper Glenn Jampol. “Take an old bicycle and hang it on the wall for awhile.”
Finca Rosa Blanca Sustainability Efforts
CARBON NEUTRAL: The resort is 100 percent carbon neutral due to its reduced use of fossil fuels and reduced carbon emissions, mostly because its organic coffee plantation compensates for what might be produced in its hotel.
SOLAR ENERGY: The resort uses solar energy for generating hot water. A 2016 grid-tie law in Costa Rica is requiring the electric companies to buy back all the power that is produced, but Finca Rosa Blanca doesn't use photovoltaics; Costa Rica’s electricity is about 97-99 percent clean (hydroelectric, wind, geothermal) and thus the consumption of electricity form the national electric companies is really being part of a co-op of clean energy members. Jampol has a goal of producing self-sustaining energy that is symbolic as well as financial.
ROOFING: All of the resort’s roofing materials are made from recycled plastic from the banana industry, and are the result of small companies in Costa Rica taking advantage of the recyclable products. In this case, the tiles look like the old fashioned colonial clay tiles, and even have the moss stains on them just like the old ones. They are extremely durable, long-lived and easy to remove or replace when needed.
CEILINGS: The resort uses a ceiling treatment called “Caña Brava,” a reed or cane that grows abundantly in Costa Rica and resembles bamboo. Instead of using gypsum or wood strips in ceilings – for interiors and exteriors - they use Caña Brava laid one next to the other. It is long lasting, looks beautiful and grows 30 meters per year so it is inexpensive and sustainable.
SWIMMING POOL: The Finca Rosa Blanca resort pool uses a copper/silver ionization system, so there are no chemicals of any kind (nor salt which produces chloride/chlorine). The cost of replacing these anodes is about $400 per year as opposed to the $6,000 per year or more it would cost to treat the hotel’s pool water the conventional way. In the last 20 years, the resort has saved about $60,000 in not having to buy chemicals and with beautiful, healthy looking water. The ionization process has the added bonus of also killing off legionnaire’s disease along with bacteria and algae. The pool water is heated through a special tubular black rubber carpet that heats the water pumped from the filter back into the pool.
ORGANIC WASTE: Finca Rosa Blanca has an ecological cycle for its organic waste, which includes recycling it into compost through worm beds (vermiculture) and feeding some of its organic waste to its chickens that produce organic eggs. They use the composted and fertilized soil in its organic greenhouse where they produce most of their greens, herbs, edible flowers, tubers and condiments. The effluent (“alixiviado”) from the worm beds is used to fertilize the organic vegetables, trees and plants found on the farm.
ORGANIC COFFEE: Finca Rosa Blanca produces certified organic shade grown coffee. Over the years in the coffee farms, the resort has also planted thousands of native trees that are symbiotic with the coffee as they are almost all nitrogen-fixing trees - adding to the lower carbon footprint. (Nitrogen-fixing trees “capture” nitrogen in the air and even deep in the soil; the leaves are also full of nitrogen. Then when the many nitrogen-rich leaves fall, they cover the ground which helps the coffee stay healthy and with natural nitrogen boosts.
"These types of trees are well loved by farmers; the native “Poró” trees are excellent producers of nitrogen, are super-fast growing, have stunningly beautiful bright orange flowers and attract birds. They are so hardy, that a branch can be cut off and stuck into the ground and, presto, a few months later there is a growing tree. I'm not kidding.)
As a result of such practices, Finca Rosa Blanca has been invited to become a member of the Costa Rican Network of Private Reserves and is certified as “sustainable” by the Rainforest Alliance. The coffee farms also produce the needed plantains and bananas, limes and lemons for the resort’s restaurant’s needs, and these trees are very symbiotic with the coffee, offering shade and highly nitrogenized leaves and parts that are left on the soil to decompose.
WASTEWATER: The resort uses an anaerobic treatment plant (called “Tanque Diez”) for all water waste (sewage, graywater, blackwater). The effluent from this system is checked every month for non-conforming levels of e-coli, bacteria, phosphates, and other organisms, and can be recycled back into the creek, as the water is 100 percent clean.
NATIVE PLANTINGS: About 90 percent of the Finca Rosa Blanca vegetation is native species, from the horticultural zone where they live. That allows the resort to reduce its watering needs to almost nil and also allows for the natural regeneration of the flora that was endemic or native to this area.
ENVIRONMENTAL ACCOLADES: Finca Rosa Blanca, says Jampol, has won various “Blue Ecological Flags” which are awarded by the Ministry of the Environment of Costa Rica, the Water Department and the Forestry Fund. These flags are for carbon mitigation, water use reduction and community water use training.
WATER HEATING: All of the resort’s water, throughout the hotel and restaurant, is heated with super-efficient solar thermal panels and therefore fuel consumption for heating water (rainy days, nighttime etc.) is practically nil.
FOOD: All of the food in the Finca Rosa Blanca restaurant is sustainable – serving only use non-endangered fish, local and their own organic greens. Also, the resort does not use any toxic products for cleaning or washing. All waste is recycled or used as chicken feed. The resort also buys in bulk to minimize the waste from containers and packaging. One hundred percent of its employees are local or from the surrounding areas and the resort constantly monitors its waste through metrics such as weight and quantity.
RESTAURANT SUPPLIES: Instead of plastic or paper straws, Finca Rosa Blanca uses small diameter bamboo shoots in its restaurant; Jampol reports that they work super well, are very sustainable--- and eliminating the need for throw-away plastic or wood materials. The servers also ask clients if they want a straw when they order a beverage; most say they do not, so they reduce use of these straws.
NOTE: Code Nast Traveler has rated the Finca Rosa Blanca as one of the TEN BEST SMALL HOTELS in the WORLD for 2014.
Finca Rosa Blanca Site Map (632 kb)
Finca Rosa Blanca Eco Resort in Costa Rica