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Eco-resort of the future

Eco-resort of the future

STAR Island developers have dreams of a sustainable, luxury destination with entirely green credentials

The Bahamas Investor Magazine
January 21, 2010
January 21, 2010
Simon Cobb

“The only thing travellers should have to give up for the sake of an earth-friendly vacation,” says US architect, designer and chief executive officer of STAR Island resort David Sklar, “is their sense of guilt.” But he is not the first developer with the dream of a high-end resort that salves the conscience of its guests, and guilt-free indulgence is hard to attain. The widely reported “race” to build the first completely carbon-neutral luxury retreat is one in which everyone seems happiest to take the moral, rather than the physical, lead.

Richard Branson’s touted 20-villa zero-impact idyll on Mosquito Island in the British Virgin Islands is still “very much in the planning and development stages” according to a spokesperson. Leonardo DiCaprio bought 104-acre Blackadore Caye in Belize in 2005 with the aim of building an eco-luxury resort, but only announced concrete proposals, in collaboration with Four Seasons, late last year.

Environmental leadership
However, Sklar and his team have the green credentials to just possibly make the dream a reality. As chief architect on the project, Sklar will draw upon his experience in resort, residential as well as commercial design and construction in the development of STAR Island. A member of Newsweek’s Global Environment Leadership Advisory Board, Sklar has used his skills to create innovative eco-sensitive design solutions that have been the calling card for Dalu Design Group, located in Savannah, GA, which he founded before relocating to Hilton Head Island, SC.

When Sklar first started planning a green, carbon-neutral resort on what was Cabbage Cay, off North Eleuthera, in 2006, the only sustainability he was worried about had to do with energy production and waste recycling. In the last 18 months his concerns have become a lot broader.

“The days of just throwing down $100 million to build a resort are gone for a while,” he says. “When we began the project we felt that money was a secondary issue. If we needed $10 million or $15 million, then it was no big deal. But now, everything has changed within the market, and  it’s changed our approach and our philosophy.”

But tighter financial restraints have not dampened enthusiasm. Sklar and his partners–Bahamian musician and producer Benjamin Franklin Carroll and real estate developers Tom Jacoby and Matthew Simon–are all committed to the long haul.

“While profit is very important to us, that’s not our primary goal,” says Sklar. “It has more to do with proving that creating a carbon-neutral development is the right thing to do, and achievable, so that way it acts as a catalyst for other projects.”

Green shoots
Symbolically, ground was broken on the 35-acre island on Earth Day–April 22, 2009. By summer, lots were being staked out, and work had begun on cutting out the main trails and finalizing the designs on the first buildings. “We’ll start going vertical soon,” said Sklar at the time, “and hope to have the first buildings this year. We’re not focused on completion dates, but on making sure that the quality and commitment to sustainability are there.”

The developers can afford to take this “measured and methodical” approach, as Sklar calls it, because of their “very simple, transparent and sustainable business model.” They own the island outright, having purchased it in 2006 for an undisclosed figure somewhere in the region of $6-$8 million. They have been careful not to leverage themselves, says Sklar, “so we’re not tied to an interest clock, which is the death sentence to a lot of projects. When investors put money into a project such as ours, via purchasing property, there is not the element of risk that it won’t be completed, because the money is going directly into the project.”

Waterfront lots begin at $1.2 million, and in a nod to history–Eleuthera was the first island in The Bahamas to be settled by the British–the first purchasers will be designated “Founders” and will enjoy privileges including free consultations with Sklar towards the greening of their existing homes.

The rate of sales “will determine if we finish in one year or three,” he predicts, “but won’t stop us finishing. The development will accelerate at its own speed, based on sales–and we envision it’s going to be much like a snowball effect. Once we get the first structures up, and people can come and see and feel examples of off-the-grid buildings working, then they will feel comfortable committing their money to our project.”

Each of the 45 family residences–20 bungalows and 24 condominiums–as well as the spa, bars and restaurants of the finished development will run on a combination of solar, wind and hydropower, with a biodiesel backup generator using the resort’s own waste. It is hoped that excess wattage may one day be sold to visiting boats at a proposed “no fuel” marina. Solar energy will also be used to turn seawater into drinking water, via reverse osmosis, at the island’s own water treatment facility, and almost every gently sloping surface, from roofs to roads, will be used to collect rainfall in a freshwater lagoon. Everything will match or exceed the US Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards.

The emphasis on renewability extends to the tiniest details, including LED lighting and the use of recyclable bamboo sheets on the beds. Organically grown produce from Eleuthera or elsewhere in The Bahamas will be served whenever possible, says Sklar.

“We will have some farming on STAR Island, but we imagine the significant production will be in the surrounding areas. We’re already in talks with local farmers to help them get established to provide for our needs. Of course, this is a luxury resort, so if you want caviar you’re going to get it. But there’ll be what we call a reverse premium, so people perhaps think twice when they want something that wouldn’t be the greenest. We’re not preaching sacrifice, just demonstrating that there are alternatives.”

Question of carbon
Carbon-neutral does not mean zero-carbon, says Sklar. “We all make carbon. It’s about achieving a balance. We will plant enough trees and have enough sequestering vegetation to get that balance.” He and his partners are focused on what they call “zero-scaping” –nurturing native species and using existing vegetation. “As we clear land we are transplanting into other areas. We’re also trying to eliminate some of the invasive species, but we’ll have more vegetation when we finish the project than when we started.”

The structures on STAR Island will be built using cold-formed steel, which is made partly from recycled material and uses no heat in the process, giving it a low carbon cost. Lightweight pre-manufactured forms that will be filled with concrete on site reduce shipping requirements as well as providing work for local labourers. “But there’s also the way you think about the function of the building,” says Sklar. “A conventional home with an air conditioning system requires an enormous amount of energy, usually from the grid, generated using coal or diesel. If you replace that a/c with a geothermal ground-coupled heat pump, you need 70 to 80 per cent less power to cool your home. If you provide the rest through clean technologies, you’ve basically eliminated your carbon footprint on keeping cool.”

Blank canvas
When Sklar first saw Cabbage Cay in 2006, he had no clear intention to make a green resort. It was “love at first sight,” he says, but that was because of its location, its elevation (in places more than 35 ft above sea level) and its position in a protected sound sheltered from the Atlantic by a hook of land extending north from the main island. “It had great features for a designer,” he says, “but because it was a blank canvas, we had to start thinking about how to put in infrastructure. From a reliability and convenience standpoint it made sense to generate our own power, but we didn’t know if it was possible.”

Sklar and his partners put together a team of experts and spent two years in research “to make sure that we weren’t out of our minds.” What he discovered about the carbon burden of his industry, he says, “changed my career forever from where it was going.” Moreover, he discovered that “not only is what we wanted to do possible, and viable, it is absolutely the right way to go. For business. And more importantly for the environment.”

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