The reservation sheet for Everglades National Park’s latest accommodation had more than 80 bookings, and the new quarters hadn’t even opened yet.
With the lodging’s rates starting at $16 a night, Park Superintendent Dan B. Kimball has already booked his stay—February 1 and 2—at the small eco-tent structure that has four gable ends and can comfortably sleep four.
If the excitement over this oddly shaped abode seems a bit excessive, just consider for a moment that before its arrival the historic Flamingo section of Everglades National Park had lacked overnight camping facilities for five years. Storm surge conditions delivered by a one-two punch from Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma back in 2005 damaged the park’s 107-room hotel and 12 cottages so severely that officials decided to demolish what was left of them rather than undertake an expensive repair project.
Ever since then, visitors have had to pitch their own tents or use an RV park if they wanted to overnight at Flamingo. But the demand for permanent overnight facilities remained.
“What we heard loud and clear was that there were family traditions based on stay-over-night, and people wanted us to return to that tradition,” said Kimball.
The park took a giant step in that direction on December 19, unveiling the 200-square-foot eco-tent that will serve as the prototype for 20 more such structures to be installed at Flamingo.
Created by students in the University of Miami School of Architecture’s Design Build Studio, the sustainable structure has flooring made of bamboo and recycled plastics; screening that captures breezes yet keeps mosquitoes out, and a roof fashioned from a durable hand-sewn fabric, giving the structure a tent-like appearance.
“We wanted [to deliver] something that would minimally impact the landscape, something that would be used to support the park’s mission and promote environmental awareness. We tried to use materials that would support that effort,” said Rocco Ceo, the School of Architecture professor who teaches the semester-long Design Build Studio.
He noted that the eco-tent’s wood frame is made of heat-treated pine, which lasts longer than its chemically treated counterpart.
“We laid out the specifications we wanted, and the Design Build Studio took it from there,” said Kimball.
A generous grant from the South Florida National Parks Trust funded the project.
Students worked on the structure throughout the entire 2012 spring semester, designing, constructing, and testing the eco-tent on UM’s Coral Gables campus. After it was completed, the structure was disassembled and transported to Everglades National Park, where it was reassembled. It will be used there from mid-November to mid-April—the park’s official camping season. Before the Atlantic hurricane season starts, park officials will take apart the structure and store its components, leaving only the foundation.
Jacqueline Crucet, senior program coordinator for the Sun Coast Region of the National Parks Conservation Association, a watchdog group created to be an advocate for the National Park Service, said that the timing of the eco-tent project “couldn’t have been better.”
About 150 jobs were lost after Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma destroyed Flamingo’s overnight camping facilities in 2005—“jobs that really weren’t replaced,” Crucet explained. “But this will now change with this amazing eco-tent. A rebuilt Flamingo would be an economic catalyst.”
For the students who designed and built the eco-tent, the project provided hands-on experience they will carry into their professional careers.
“The whole goal was to get to do something we could actually build,” said Violet Battat, who graduated from the School of Architecture last May. “A lot of what you do in architecture, at least in school, is design, and you never quite see how things works. It’s all on paper.”
Battat took the lead role in drawing sketches of and deciding what fabric would be used for the eco-tent’s roof. As part of the process, she selected a sustainable fabric that would deter vultures from eating it.
It was Michael Galea’s job to make sure that all of the custom hardware properly connected the eco-tent’s poles. “The biggest challenge was measuring 50 times and cutting once, because we had one chance to get everything correct,” said Galea, who graduated last May and now heads Miami-based Wee Rock Toy Company, which specializes in unique rocking toys assembled without tools, hardware, or glue. “We didn’t have any extra materials. A lot of it was checking our 3-D drawings and then making sure that it all translated into reality.”
Superintendent Kimball called the eco-tent a step in the right direction for the park’s future.
“Albeit, it’s only one,” he said, “but to get something like this and to team up with the University of Miami and involve young students who came up with something that’s innovative and functional and also beautiful is fabulous for the park.”