A Dry Paradise: Designing sustainable living

Published on the 16th of August 2015

Sustainability design of a new eco tourism destination: a combined building and farming project.

I spent the past week in Southern Spain in a beautiful tourist location. I could let the world know by posting something quasi-nonchalant on Facebook, like “I’m on vacation for a project. It’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it.” Add in a picture of a drink at the beach and rake in the likes. But instead, I’m going to explain in a bit more detail what I’m doing here, because it’s actually way more interesting.

We’re in Southern Spain with a team of eight people–building engineers, technical consultants, and agronomists, and cultural specialists–to work on the sustainability design of a new eco tourism destination, a combined building and farming project. It’s located on an old plot of land in the center of the island. Not too long ago, it was meant to be sold and transformed into a golf course. But then our clients stepped in and bought the property with the aim to create environmental, cultural and economic activities that fit well on the island.


The plan is to build eco-villas in traditional local style, and use the money made there to finance an organic farm. The aim of the development is to create an inspiring alternative for the excessive mass tourism that is quite literally sucking the land dry. Metabolic is working with the client to achieve this by creating a circular design, which means that demands for resources (energy, water, nutrients, and so on) are minimized, waste products are re-used or upgraded to their original quality, and remaining demand is supplied by on-site technologies, like solar panels or water harvesting systems.


The challenges for reaching sustainability are quite different in Ibiza compared to someplace like the Netherlands. There’s ample sunshine, so the provision of electricity and heat should be much less of an issue than in our dreary Northern swamp. Water, on the other hand, is scarce. The island is currently suffering a drought; rainfall has been well below average these past two years, and, partly due to the large water demand of the tourism sector, the groundwater reservoirs are being depleted rapidly. This is challenging for both the farms and the villas, because we want to provide enough water for the crops, the livestock and the houses without overexploiting the available resources. Beyond water and energy, the project will also be closing the nutrient cycle, using low-impact construction materials that can be re-used, and improve the biodiversity on the site.


We’re here as a group this week to scope the issues we’re dealing with by comprehensively mapping the project area and identifying infrastructure placement in preparation for a resource plan. We’re also meeting with direct stakeholders (clients, architects and farmers) and other relevant people on the island who can inform us on key issues and increase our access to the networks we need to get things done on the Island. In a few months, will have a conceptual design that shows how a beautiful integrated farm and villa complex can be achieved in a circular way.


What I personally enjoy about the project is the mix between building design and agriculture design. I’m part of this project as a technical consultant, so my main responsibility is designing the resource flows between and within the villas. I investigate the energy, water and material demands of the users of the villas, see how they can be reduced, and see how the remaining demand can be supplied in a sustainable, feasible and reliable way.

On the other hand, I also have a degree in International Land- and Water Management, which means that I have expertise in investigating the relations between agriculture and the environment in different countries and climates. I haven’t done so much with this knowledge during my master’s, which focused on urban environmental issues. So it’s very fulfilling and a lot of fun to really dive into an integrated system.


One thing I was reminded of this week was the feeling that the difference between urban and rural areas is artificial–a social construct rather than something that is actually true. The detachment of cities’ food supply from their environment has led to an undesirable situation. The global food system has become mind-bogglingly huge and stretched on the one hand, yet completely invisible to the people that consume the food on the other hand. This creates a recipe for destructive practices on the supply side, and unhealthy and uninspired eating habits on the side of the consumer. I’m of course not advocating a return to the pre-industrial state of cities, but I think having a closer relation between food production and food consumption can help in combating these problems, and integrating the ecology of urban areas and their surroundings with daily livelihoods is a consistent topic of discussion at Metabolic.

Projects like this are important because they aim to address this gap. The design of one organic farm and nine houses will not provide a counterweight to the millions of tourists that visit, but it can provide a model for a more pleasant and less impactful way to utilize the island as a place to enjoy life. A place where locally abundant resources are used, rather than imported fossil fuels and nutrients, where scarce resources like water are used responsibly rather than exploited until exhaustion, and where people’s food and living environment are taken care of in harmony with the island.

Of course, this area is quite an enjoyable place to be, so we’ve been having some nice Spanish meals and wine when we’re done working. I’m writing this blog on our terrace with a view of the sea. Business or pleasure? It’s a little bit of both.


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