A Blueprint That Breathes

The world's leading eco-architect on how to build green

Mar 1, 2003
Outside Magazine

MOST OF US IMAGINE that a stay at an eco-lodge means eyeballing howler monkeys from the deck of a tree house with a cup of shade-grown espresso. But beyond a remote location and a few solar panels, what makes a lodge "eco"? We asked internationally renowned eco-architect and planner HITESH MEHTA to walk us through the creation of a sustainable retreat that mixes the eco, the exotic, and the luxe.

Drawing up plans for the proposed LOBOLO ECOLODGE, on the western edge of Kenya's Lake Turkana, Mehta began where all good design should: with the neighbors. "The local people are seldom included in the initial planning or in the assessment of a lodge's potential impacts," says Mehta, a Kenyan-born Indian working for the Florida landscape architecture firm EDSA. "Yet they are the ones who know the resources and whose culture needs to be respected."

The pastoral Turkana tribe, whose cattle still graze the arid moonscape surrounding the lake, hold two things sacred: water and grass. So Mehta incorporated, for example, a path for cows, and gutterless buildings that speed rain back to the soil.

Although construction has been on hold due to regional strife, Kenya's political situation has cleared, and Mehta's client, the Kenyan outfitter Jade Sea Safaris, is already using the site as a tent camp for birders, cultural tourists, and fossil-seekers headed across the lake to the Koobi Foora archaeological sites made famous by the Leakeys. When completed, Lobolo Ecolodge will be luxurious—$300 a night for bush convenience—but its footprint will be decidedly low-key: Eco-architecture often means reining in grand plans—forget the gold-plated faucets if the metal was mined by exploited workers—in favor of local supplies. Mehta's team studied native plants, searched out sustainably harvested timber, and found the best outdoor lighting that still allows for power stargazing. Will Lobolo's guests appreciate Mehta's hard work? Yes, if it's done right. "The lodge will feel timeless," he says. "Its main feature is the natural world. If we cannot create an almost spiritual connection to nature, we have failed."

AERIAL VIEW OF SITE: "The whole landscape around Lobolo Ecolodge is a desert, and the site of the lodge is actually an oasis," explains Mehta. "We wanted to make sure that we did not overdesign and therefore violate the limits of acceptable change to the site." Mehta's team calculated the carrying capacity of the spring-fed oasis, then subtracted the water needed to keep the cattle pasture green and to replenish groundwater sources. The final tally: enough water for only 16 guest units, eight campsites, and 12 units of staff housing—roughly 85 people in all. Structures are set far enough from the lake to make it accessible to cattle, goats, and shorebirds.

A. LAKE TURKANA is home to huge flocks of flamingos, and serves as a nesting site or flyway for 350 other bird species. It's also a fine swimming hole (albeit one shared with crocodiles and hippos), so there's no need for an energy-and water-hogging pool.

B. STAFF HOUSING: 12 to 15 employees (80 percent of the 20- to 30-person staff will be locals) will live on the grounds with their families.

C. A small GROCERY STORE and medical dispensary for use by locals and guests will be staffed by members of the Turkana tribe.

D. The tribe helped identify the best route for this CATTLE PATH to nearby grass pastures. "We want the Turkana to feel pride in this design," says Mehta.

E. DOUM PALMS AND LEAFLESS ACACIAS are indigenous to the area but have been damaged by El Ni-o storms. Reestablishing these will attract native birds and insects.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web