“We wanted something different from a run-of-the-mill or traditional building...we wanted to make a minimum impact on the environment and to create a more sustainable lifestyle, a business that would be small enough to be run entirely by two people but big enough to be able to live a simple life but a good life”
Nigel Thornton was born in Woking, Surrey and grew up in the suburbs in Walton on Thames. He moved to London at 17 and there he had a very varied employment history working with musicians, street trading, estate agency and antique trading. He settled into working with refugees in temporary housing in 1988 and moved through various positions in social housing, dealing with social deprivation, followed by local authority work in North London and East London. He gradually became disillusioned with the political aspects of his work and together with his wife, an Acupuncturist born in Valencia, started looking for other options to make a difference. They decided to create an eco-hotel and bought the land near Valderrobres in Aragon, Spain in 2004. The first two years passed while trying to obtain building permits due to the innovative, environmentally friendly aspects of their project. The construction phase took another three years with Nigel travelling nearly every Friday to Spain and every Monday back to the office in London. Mas del Bot welcomed its first guests in November 2008.
Ecoclub: What attracted you to this profession or vocation and this specific location?
Nigel Thornton: The specific location was chosen following a several week journey through Spain in 2002. We chanced upon Los Puertos de Beceite because my brother-in-law was here with several family members on holiday and we wanted to visit him. I was enchanted by the unspoilt beauty of the area and the people who were open and friendly. We were looking for an opportunity to break away from working in the city; we were living in London, my work involved high levels of stress working with vulnerable people within local government. My wife is an Acupuncturist and Chinese Medicine practitioner and could take her work almost anywhere but mine was difficult to move abroad. I have always been interested in design and architecture, especially indigenous design, my father was a carpenter and builder, and also have always worked with people in one form or other and therefore the hotel / hospitality industry seemed a good fit.
Ecoclub: Why did you decide to build your facility from scratch and, in particular, with straw-bale?
Nigel Thornton: We wanted something different from a run-of-the-mill or traditional building. Firstly, we wanted to make a minimum impact on the environment and to create a more sustainable lifestyle, a business that would be small enough to be run entirely by two people but big enough to be able to live a simple life but a good life. Additionally, we felt that this product, which was at that time pretty much unknown in Spain ,would give us a niche in the hotel world, a market which was just beginning. Finally, we wanted to build something sustainable / ecological that would illustrate to people that living sustainably didn't mean living in a cave with basic amenities but could be a "luxury" lifestyle. Such a property was just not going to be available, certainly not where we wanted to build, so building from scratch was our only option.
We chose straw bale as it interested me, was sustainable and seemed to be something that could be taken on by non-professionals. We did a one week course in the UK and with the naivety of relatively young people decided we could build a house. Initially, I thought it would also be cheaper than a traditional concrete build, something that in reality was not the case. We found a young architects' cooperative in Barcelona who worked with ecological constructions and were keen to experiment. We sourced a local builder who was open to new ideas, researched a lot, downloaded loads of information from the internet and liaised with people with more experience than us in Spain and Germany, and then just went for it.
Ecoclub: Were there any surprising lessons learned from creating and operating Mas del Bot, any key points for success that you had never imagined?
Nigel Thornton: We learnt that building a house is not a simple task, and less so when taking into account sustainability or a natural approach. Sourcing materials was difficult in the beginning, things have changed a lot in the 17 years or so since we began thinking the project through. The local builder that we found to assist us was not experienced in anything other than stone building, so he had a lot of problems with some of the concepts. We had a female architect and site foreman - this was a little difficult for the local builder to adjust to. The inexperience of the whole team lead to mistakes which have taken some years to rectify.
Getting the permission to build was difficult. The local administration were not particularly open to the construction method and were unwilling to grant us rural house status due to the fact that they thought it looked like it should be in Finland! We had to go around them to the provincial government to get the building agreed. There were then other problems in getting a category agreed for the business, as here in Spain different regions have different legislation and also different parts of the same administration have responsibility for different categories. Our house fell foul of the fact that a rural house, which has more relaxed rules around running it, was excluded from us due to its "non-traditional " construction .
The relationship between different materials, the fact that the house is a living thing, breathing and moving, it has taken us some years to understand how it operates. The joy of living in the house, the way it feels different from a standard house, it is warmer, in a more comfortable way, we get most of our heat from the orientation and the sun, it just feels different. The satisfaction of having created something from scratch, it's not a pride thing, it's just growing with it, a bit like raising a child, really.
The hotel has been very successful, we nearly always have clients, especially on weekends and feast days etc but in general throughout the year. The client group is genuinely agreeable, they come for the property and the ethos, and are normally conscientious in their outlook. The fact that they enjoy the experience is rewarding and rewarded by our high satisfaction levels in booking sites and social media. It means that what we are doing makes sense and appeals to people.
Ecoclub: What makes a genuine Ecolodge or a green boutique hotel beyond ecological architecture?
Nigel Thornton: The whole ethos! We use local produce wherever possible; we have our own vegetable production, olive oil and almond production, we use no chemical products, in the construction, in the cleaning products, in the amenities and the bathrooms, our paints are silicate based, we recycle everything; we compost our waste, our chickens eat scraps, we try to minimise waste in every way. Our heating was geothermal but is now aerothermal; in reality we hardly use it given our orientation to the south and our log burner backup, we use recycled paper for our bills and correspondence. It's a conscientious lifestyle choice, not just a marketing strategy.
Ecoclub: We can observe that your rates are very reasonable all year round. From your experience do customers really want or expect to pay more for green accommodation, given that it may lack some luxury (and environmentally & economically wasteful) features, standard in mainstream hotels such as air conditioning and a swimming pool?
Nigel Thornton: I am not convinced that everyone will pay more for green accommodation in general. I am convinced that people will pay a little more for a quality experience. When that experience is also green, I think it may influence their thinking in the future. There is a certain client group that will pay more, but they generally fit into the luxury group and would pay more in general. I do think that increasingly people do consider the sustainable options, however. Our prices are reasonable, mainly because we wish to encourage people to choose us and experience a more sustainable approach.
Ecoclub: Did you ever feel the need to apply for an Ecolabel?
Nigel Thornton: We did think about it, but in reality it just seems like too much bother. I am not really interested in proving my ecological credentials; I know some people feel it is important and that maybe certain clients would have more faith in the ecological aspects with a label, but I am here for an easier, less regulated life, not to surround myself with further rules and restrictions. I also feel that clients are in general not overly bothered by the accreditation, if they already have an interest in sustainable living they will choose to come here anyway and can see for themselves whether it is genuinely sustainable.
Ecoclub: Out here in the countryside, what do you make of all this ‘Overtourism’ furore in nearby Barcelona? Do you also have any comments or thoughts about the tourism model in your broader region? What should be emulated and what not by emerging tourism destinations?
Nigel Thornton: I think that in general people are fed up with mass tourism, in Spain in particular there is a problem with normally, non-resident young people arriving on cheap packages and getting drunk on cheap wine etc. Additionally in Barcelona there are whole areas where the people who actually live there cannot afford to rent as the properties are all let out to tourists. The tourists engage in odd behaviour that they would unlikely repeat at home, going to the shop naked, fighting, shouting, playing loud music at all hours, etc. It's not really surprising that the locals get fed up.
The main issue here appears to be with Airbnb rentals as these have been generally unsupervised in respect of safety inspections and the such like which has not really helped. This is changing as more restrictions are being imposed. We use Airbnb when we travel and rent a property through it as well so I have no issues with the company in particular, clearly from a sustainability point of view staying in somebody else's house and getting to know the local area in a more in-depth way, was a good thing. As usual, the original idea has become somewhat corrupted, and it's now just another form of renting out property to tourists or travellers. It really seems to be all about greed as usual: people are buying up cheapish properties and letting them out to anyone in order to make money without properly supervising the property or taking into account the consequences .
The same applies in the coastal areas such as Salou. In the coastal towns I think that some of this has been brought about by the local hoteliers and hostelry owners who encourage this by letting rooms at ridiculously low rates with drink-as-much-as-you-like options in order to fill up unused space. This obviously also has to change.
There appears to be a growth in more responsible tourism outside of the coastal areas alongside a general growth in rural tourism. Our own clientele is 95% national with 5% foreigners, mainly from Belgium or France. The tourist model in our region is definitely focused on quality accommodation and country activities, riding, walking, swimming etc which I would obviously support.
Ecoclub: Many couples ponder about quitting their hectic jobs in the city and owning and operating an Ecolodge in the countryside or abroad, a sort of Plan B. What should they be clear about before venturing into this business and would they also need a Plan C, an exit strategy?
Nigel Thornton: You should be careful what you wish for, I suppose. We were certainly fed up with our life in the city and took the decision to start the hotel thinking we would work less and enjoy our life more. I have to say that working less has not been a success in our case. Unless you are wealthy, or possibly retired, not working is not really an option. However, the work that we do is a lot more enjoyable than that which I did before, I get lots of time in the open air; I am certainly healthier; I sleep better, my eating habits and diet have improved, we live in a beautiful area, I cannot really complain about the life we have. I certainly could not go back to the job I had before or live in the city again.
What you may need to consider with a small eco hotel is that your income will probably not be the same as you had in the city. We cut up our credit card when we came here and have not had to use it since. We take more local holidays than we did before, enjoy rural activities. There may be a lack of cultural activities, if you are used to theatre, cinema, ballet, live music etc if may be more difficult to get access. Having said that, we are 3 hours from Barcelona or Valencia or an hour and a half from Zaragoza or Tarragona, so if we need a culture hit it's not too difficult to obtain.
I made the change at 42 years old. I was still very energetic. I would be doubtful about taking on a new project such as building an eco hotel from scratch at my current age of 58. It is all-encompassing. We have 5 and a half hectares of land; just dealing with that alone is physically demanding, but rewarding. At 58 I would think about buying a project already set up, just like ours, with a possibility of expansion if you wanted for example. You need to be clear what you want from your life, do you really want to be on a treadmill all of it, you can change the rhythm if you really want to but the change from the city to the countryside is a big change, it's not for everyone.
Ecoclub: How do you feel about using volunteers, such as Woofers and about Voluntourism in general? Some hoteliers feel that they steal jobs from locals while briefing and training them creates extra work for the host.
Nigel Thornton: I think they can be a good thing if you need cheap assistance although personally I do not use them or desire to do so. I came to the countryside to escape stress. I used to manage a lot of people, directly or indirectly 120 or so under my control. I have no desire to manage anyone anymore, and unfortunately if I had volunteers I would need to direct them in their work, and no doubt, as they are volunteers, massage their egos and spend time with them and feed them. Too complicated for me. If I need assistance I would rather pay for it.
Ecoclub: Reusing is one of the famous 3 Rs. Surely, it means that a green-minded person who is interested in owning a genuine Ecolodge should first check if one is for sale and thus save time, money and natural resources. Why is it then that such buyers are few and far between with Ecolodge sales and purchase usually taking many years? Can something be done to encourage such sales in your view?
Nigel Thornton: Unfortunately, I have no real answer for this. I suppose it is an ego issue - you want to make your own statement. Also, built green hotels are generally quite personal, so you need to find one that matches your own vision. Perhaps this is why it takes so long. It's similar to finding your perfect, or near perfect partner. Not that I am a fan of perfection personally.