Loreto Bay, Mexico: New Villages, New Urbanism

Designing the Villages of Loreto Bay

Exhaust vents are incorporated into the architectural design on the rooftop terrace.
Natural Ventilation Cupolas on Roofs. Jackie Craven

The Villages of Loreto Bay is an eco-friendly, New Urbanist community built on the rocky eastern coastline of Baja California Sur in Mexico. The construction site is a three-mile strip of desert tucked between craggy mountains and the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California. Rugged and remote, the site neighbors the sleepy fishing village of Loreto, Mexico, often praised for its beautiful landscape, abundant wildlife, and rich history.

At the start of the 21st century, a group of visionaries began a bold experiment: to build a boom town without busting the environment. Their claims seemed almost too good to be true. The Villages of Loreto Bay would be the largest sustainable development in North America. If their goals were realized, the new community would (1)  produce more energy than it consumes; (2) harvest or produce more water than it uses; and (3) introduce more natural habitats and more natural lifeforms than existed in the region.

Are these goals achievable?  Examining their plan is a real-life lesson in how we might — or can — live in the future. Let's look at the challenges and their design for success.

Ayrie Cunliffe, Project Architect

baldish man with scraggly white hair and beard explaining the urban layout to man in plaid shirt
Ayrie Cunliffe (on the right), the Project Architect. Jackie Craven

Like the Yucatan Peninsula to its east, Mexico's Baja Peninsula has long been a target for tourism. The developers initially were a U.S. and Canadian team working in partnership with Fonatur, the Mexican tourism agency behind the huge resort communities at Cancun, Ixtapa, and Los Cabos. The original master plan for Loreto Bay was the work of Miami-based Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, leaders in the New Urbanism movement. The go-to architect for a project like this was Canadian Ayrie Cunliffe, a knowledgeable and practiced "green architect" who specializes in sustainable design and development.

Beginning with the Founders' Neighborhood, this team set out to create a thriving, eco-friendly resort community. This is how they did it.

1. Eliminate Cars

walkway between many stucoo-sided buildings
Founders’ Village at Villages of Loreto Bay. Jackie Craven

 In keeping with principles of New Urbanism, the homes and shops are arranged in small neighborhood clusters. You won't see garages around these parts, but even if automobiles could fit on the winding walkways through these neighborhoods, there would be no need for them. Businesses and recreational facilities are only steps away. Residents of Loreto Bay spend their days "listening to voices instead of motors," says Ayrie Cunliffe, project architect.

 

2. Build Walls That Breathe

facade constructed of earth blocks with door and service entries
Founders’ Village Under Construction at Villages of Loreto Bay. Jackie Craven

Exterior walls of the home in Loreto Bay are constructed with compressed earth blocks using locally-mined clay. This natural material "breathes," so less energy is needed to maintain comfortable room temperatures. Rather than sealing the walls with paint, they are colored with a porous lime-based plaster coating. Homes in the Villages of Loreto Bay are finished with organic mineral oxide pigments that bond with the lime plaster.

3. Seek Simplicity

finished facade, low Spanish-looking architecture, stucco siding, arched doorway, pergola shelters on rooftop terraces
Homes in the Villages of Loreto Bay. Jackie Craven

Homes in Loreto Bay are not McMansions. The first phase of the project, Founders' Neighborhood started in 2004, offered six stock building plans ranging from 1,119 square feet to 2,940 square feet, including interior courtyards and gardens.

Many of the Village Homes have a small service window with a door near the front door. Residents can opt to have food delivered through this window, adding a sense of security to the serenity.

 

4. Think Globally; Act Locally

overhead photo looking down into an entryway, door and red tile
Terra Cotta Floors, Plaster Walls, and Natural Woodwork. Jackie Craven

The inherent beliefs behind New Urbanist thinking are very traditional — vitalize the local eonomy and respect local customs.

The Loreto Bay Company hired local craftspeople and laborers and offered training and lending programs. Developers estimated that the construction project would create about 4,500 permanent jobs and several thousand short-term jobs. One percent of the gross proceeds of all sales and re-sales goes to a foundation for local aid.

Inspired by Spanish Colonial styling, the houses are solid and simple with plaster walls, terra cotta floors, and Bolivian Cedar doors and moldings. Surprisingly, closets are not a part of the standard floor plan in these homes. The underlying philosophy is that the residents will travel lightly and bring only a few possessions that can be stowed in wardrobes and cabinets.

5. Draw Power From the Sun and Wind

looking into a small kitchen with eating counter and double windows over the sink
Open Kitchen of Natural Finishes. Jackie Craven

 Homes in Loreto Bay have solar-powered hot water heaters. The developers hope eventually to build a 20-megawatt wind farm to supply energy for Loreto Bay and outlying communities — electricity costs can be four times what people from the U.S. and Canada are used to. Appliances and fixtures are designed according to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards for energy and water conservation.  A traditional adobe kiva fireplace brings warmth to the earthen homes at Loreto Bay. Thick earthen walls and ocean breezes help keep the homes at Loreto Bay cool. The space-saving, energy-efficient air conditioning may not be needed.

The tiled kitchen is open to the great room. Porcelain tiles and woven woodwork give the kitchen a Mexican flavor. Local woods are used for the doors and architectural accents for "Village Homes." Water-saving faucets and Energy Star appliances make these naturally beautiful homes especially efficient.

 

6. Blur Boundaries

A wooden garden pergola shelters the roof-top terrace
Rooftop Terrace at Loreto Bay Village. Jackie Craven


Different living areas are designed both indoors and outdoors. Like in many desert communities from Africa to the Americas, the flat roof is intended as a living space, and the boundary between outdoors and indoors is blurred. A wooden garden pergola may shelter a roof-top terrace.

Instead of expansive front yards, homes clustered close together have private interior gardens with fountains. The fountains and greenery cool the air. Hot air is exhausted through vents in roof-top cupolas — some having doors so that residents can control the flow of air into the home.

The roof-top terrace may offer sweeping views of the Sea of Cortez or the rugged mountains nearby. These private terraces allow the residents of Loreto Bay to enjoy the warm climate of Baja California Sur — open windows and private courtyards allow residents a space for relaxation and communion with nature.

7. Preserve the Greenery; Restore the Wetlands

man in shorts pointing to plants and trees in an outdoor nursery
Rob Kater, President of EcoScapes. Jackie Craven


At an EcoScapes agricultural center, specialists like Rob Kater were enlisted to restore the green spaces in the dry desert landscape. Trees removed from construction sites are preserved and transplanted. Organic vegetables are grown in a one-acre garden. Flowering vines and canopy trees are cultivated for neighborhood landscape design. Also, a productive potted plant such as a lime tree or a dwarf calamondin (a type of citrus fruit) is planted in the courtyard or terrace of every home. In grounds surrounding the neighborhoods, overgrazed areas are enclosed with fences so that moisture-preserving foliage can grow. Saline-tolerant Paspalum grass is used for the golf course.

Winding through the villages and golf course at Loreto Bay are shallow estuaries. These water narrow waterways are are delicate ecosystems that provide a safe habitat for sea life and birds. The developers are planting thousands of mangrove trees to preserve and restore the wetlands and to prevent soil erosion.

8. Recycle

wooden arch and walkway over water channels wind through the villages at Loreto Bay in Baja California Sur, Mexico
Loreto Bay Water Channel. Jackie Craven

To conserve water resources in this dry Baja California environment, the developers have set aside 5,000 acres of land with two watersheds. A system of dams and channels collect water during the rainy season. Runoff from the rain is diverted to landscaped areas for irrigation.

As more than 100,000 people may settle in the Loreto Bay villages, problems of waste disposal will mount. Organic garbage and waste will be separated and composted for landscaping and gardening. Reusable items such as bottles and cans will be sorted and reused. Developers estimate that about 5 percent of the wastes cannot be composted or recycled and must be sent to landfills.

The Villages of Loreto Bay

empty pebbly beach with construction nearby
The Villages of Loreto Bay in 2005.

Jackie Craven

 

The "Founder's Neighborhood" in Loreto Bay began construction in 2004. Fewer than 1,000 of the 6,000 homes planned were built when the 2008 North American recession hit the housing industry hard. The Loreto Bay company went bankrupt and construction stalled for a few year until Homex, a Mexican home developer, took over in 2010.

How much of the plans will be developed? Two 18-hole golf courses? A beach club and a tennis center? Shops, galleries, and small businesses surrounded by a 5,000-acre nature preserve?

Over the years, the region is likely to grow. Critics worry that the influx of people will bring traffic, sewage, and crime. On the other hand, many architects and town planners are calling The Villages of Loreto Bay a model of regenerative, or restorative, development. Rather than harming the environment, the new community will restore exhausted natural resources, improve the environment, and enhance the lives of the people who live there, developers say.

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary accommodation for the purpose of researching this article. While it has not influenced this article, ThoughtCo / Dotfash believe in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our ethics policy.