The Ark Herb Farm master plan represents a thoughtful confluence of ecological education, conservation and hospitality. Our client, Tommy Thomas, has been carefully nurturing a lush 17.6-acre botanical garden in Alajuela, Costa Rica for over 30 years. In that time Tommy has amassed one of the largest collections of herbs, plants, and flowers in Central America. He approached us with the idea to formalize the estate’s master plan with the hope of one day establishing the national botanical garden for the citizens of Costa Rica. Our challenge was to deliver a plan that harnessed the site’s natural topography to create an eco-tourism and horticultural education destination.
The Site and Program
Located in the southeast corner of the Alajuela province of central Costa Rica, the Ark Herb Farm sits on 17.6 acres of terraced hillside. The property slopes down over 50 meters from its northern most point to the south. Complicating the steep north-south grade change is significant east-west contouring with a substantial subforrest bisecting the site.
Our planning solution divides the site into a series of zones that connect the different programmatic functions of the property and carve out a logical procession for the different users. Visitors arrive at the north end of the site and then proceed directly to the new visitor’s center and hospitality building. A series of formal terraced gardens cascade down from the hospitality building along the western edge of the site. Alternating terraces are flanked by small educational workshop pavilions, each with a different botanical focus. Myriad wandering paths through a dense and engaging informal garden connects the hospitality building and terraced educational gardens to a collection of private tree houses, cabanas and duplex suites that accommodate eco-tourists and long-term artists-in-residence. The southern end of the site is rounded out with expansive orchards, nurseries, green houses, an on-site meadery and other buildings that support the workings of the farm. Every aspect of the site is a living laboratory, allowing academics and horticultural enthusiasts to gather and learn from Ark Herb Farm’s experts and its one-of-kind botanical collection.
The first new-construction project outlined in our Ark Herb Farm master plan is a new visitor’s center and hospitality building. It is intended as a multi-purpose venue capable of orienting visitors to the farm, serving lunch and dinner to visitors and locals alike and hosting special private events. The hospitality building also serves as a central gathering place for guests staying in the cabanas and suites to relax and have a drink.
The architectural inspiration for this building pays homage to the wide array of cultures that have influenced and become part of Costa Rica’s built environment over hundreds of years. Elements of Spanish colonial, classical Italianate and traditional garden homes are all incorporated into the design. A pallet of local, economical materials - clay tile roofs, hearty timber beams and stuccos siding - help further connect the building to its geographic setting. Louvered openings in the dormers facilitate natural ventilation and eliminate the need for expensive HVAC systems. Wrought iron railings on the balconies and allusions to the Ark Herb Farm’s logo in the tower’s spire provide subtle, hand-crafted detailing for the simple and welcoming hospitality center.
At 12,000 SF spread over two floors, the intimate building takes full advantage of the natural landscape and scenic views. Guests enter at the upper level through a formal colonnade and are offered the opportunity to climb the small entry tower for unprecedented views of the surrounding town and nearby ocean. Continuing inward, guests are welcomed into a cozy reception room and gift shop before stepping down to the bar. A formal restaurant dining room terminates the central axis and overlooks the botanical gardens below. Public restrooms and a special events room occupy the ground level allowing events to spill into the adjoining lawn and formal terraced gardens.