Breathing Locality Into The Experience

Oliver Heath is founder of Oliver Heath Design, a sustainable architecture and interior design practice focused on improving health and wellbeing. We spoke with Oliver about the importance of imbuing a sense of locality into design projects and hospitality offerings to improve the human connection with nature. We also showcase two initiatives that are putting this into practice to benefit local environments and the communities that surround them.

“Sustainability is typically spoken about in a carbon-centric way. Most often, the conversation surrounds resources, air miles, upcycled furniture and the minimisation of single-use plastics. But fundamental to any sustainability conversation is the human cost, particularly when buying products. The unethical practices of some bigger, trusted brands are now coming to light and forcing other brands to align themselves with better practices, bringing the human-centric aspect further up the agenda.

Awareness around social sustainability is growing, with more schemes emerging to certify products and vet manufacturing processes to ensure ethical treatment and fair-trade practices. The point is to connect community trade and skills with new audiences and new markets for the benefit of producers and consumers alike. 

In order to get people to care about anything, it’s vital to make them understand it. By bringing locality into design and exposing the origins and processes behind design products and hospitality offerings, consumers are more likely to feel a sense responsibility for the health and wellbeing embedded in those products. The key is hotels that recognise the value of their location, keeping economies within the local community and capturing their flavour. 

It’s important to connect to the environment around us. When we spend time in nature it reduces stress and our bodies recuperate energy levels. When we connect with nature and the local environment, we are connecting to the landscape and that’s important when we travel.”

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In Costa Rica

In 1994 Hotel Punta Islita opened in a setting of economic disadvantage and environmental decline. Access to education and jobs was limited and the tropical forest had suffered by slash-and-burn agriculture. Developed in full synergy with its local neighbours, Hotel Punta Islita has engaged in wildlife conservation and reforestation initiatives, planting more than 10,000 indigenous trees to date. Art programmes, local education, and ‘purchase local’ policies further empower the local communities. Today, Islita is not only a globally recognised destination but a thriving region characterised by a healthy natural environment and a collective of travel professionals, community artists and micro-entrepreneurs. 

The hotel’s sustainability tenet is that a healthy, educated community with a diversified economy is the most efficient way to ensure resource stewardship. Thus, Hotel Punta Islita favours local purchases of sustainable micro-enterprises, provides complementary education for local community members, and shares relevant infrastructure and processes with local communities. Local purchases of goods and services (within a 10km radius) represents about 70% of its total annual purchases. 

Hotel Punta Islita’s most recent green initiative has been partnering with The Ara Project, an NGO dedicated to the protection and recovery of native Macaws. Once abundant throughout Costa Rica, these beautiful bird species saw their numbers dwindle as biological corridors were truncated. In the past 24 months, Hotel Punta Islita donated land and construction of The Ara Project’s main facilities. Red Macaws are again dotting the area’s skies.

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Hand-dyeing in Kathmandu

When Tania Johnson started her business, a main goal was to source products ethically. Since, she has spent a lot of time with staff from GoodWeave, an organisation working to end child labour in the carpet industry. In 2014, Tania visited their rehabilitation centre in Kathmandu, Hamro Ghar. Seeing children, no older than her own, who had lived through horrific experiences of forced labour and abuse, now being educated in a happy and safe environment strengthened her commitment to GoodWeave’s work. 

‘Our rugs are all made in Nepal, I visit at least once a year to meet our manufacturer and weavers, discuss new designs, match new colours, and check on production. Initially we produced only hand knotted rugs but are now also offering a handloom collection. This is an exciting development and has helped to provide additional employment for the local community. A percentage of all our exports goes directly to GoodWeave and, since the earthquake in 2015, we also donate a portion of all sales directly to our manufacturer. Government relief has been slow to reach people and we wanted to ensure we could directly help the community we work with.’ The weavers in Nepal are highly skilled but also happy. What’s more, they understand the contemporary western aesthetic and, as Tania’s designs tend to be difficult to weave, she felt they would be best able to realise her designs.