Designing a Sustainable Campus in Costa Rica

Designing a Sustainable Campus in Costa Rica

With a working farm, grazing cattle and groves of mango and citrus trees, the new satellite campus being developed by Costa Rica’s Earth University offers abundant opportunities to explore design for sustainability – and for RISD students to think about eco-progressive solutions in a new cultural context.

College students from around the world are drawn to the tropical university in Guácimo (close to Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast) to study agricultural sciences and natural resource management in a country known for its commitment to environmental stewardship. So when Earth U received a gift of 3,700 acres on the country’s west coast and approached RISD for help in planning a sister campus, Architecture + Design faculty immediately embraced the opportunity.

RISD students and faculty have a long tradition of global engagement. “We help our students understand diverse cultural contexts and be alert to, and deeply critical of, the world around them,” notes Professor of Landscape Architecture Colgate Searle BLA 71, who led a project team that included Assistant Professor of Architecture Enrique Martinez MID 98 and Associate Professor of Industrial Design Charlie Cannon.

Architecture majors were charged with designing physical facilities for the campus. Several students proposed solutions that use locally sourced construction materials and techniques. For example, Walter Zesk MArch 09 envisioned gathering spaces that minimize the distinction between indoors and outdoors, with building units consisting of open frames that support fabric canopies and are complemented by a hotel constructed of rammed earth.

Students in the ID Department’s Innovation Studio conducted extensive research on the site’s social and economic context, as well as precedents in other areas of the world. They then produced detailed proposals promoting the sister campus as a hub for entrepreneurial activities. For example, seniors Stephanie Castilla and Carolyn Spinney proposed merging existing technologies – GPS, topographic mapping, and hand-held phone/data units – to create an open-source research, data collection and tourism tool that supports the country’s eco-goals.

When the studios wrapped up, Cannon and five of his students worked on a book that serves as a record of the group’s investigations and a reference for future research. The team sees the venture as a prime example of the value of partnered research between institutions in various parts of the world.

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