2023 AIA Small Project Awards: Costa Rica Treehouse by Olson Kundig

Built for environmentalist clients who surf, this carbon-positive house is inspired by the jungle that surrounds it on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. The home is made entirely of locally harvested teak, and it engages with the jungle on each of its three levels. It was envisioned as an open-air surfer’s hut that allows ocean breezes and ample daylight to permeate its spaces. 

When staying at the house, the routine of the clients and their two young children revolves entirely around surfing. They move back and forth between the property and the water, from morning until night, underscoring their intimate relationship with the incredibly bio-diverse jungle. 

At the start of the project, the clients introduced the design team to their temporary home, a tent that sat atop a wooden platform in a small natural clearing. Originally built by the mother of one of the clients, the tent’s double-canvas layer offered protection from the elements, while the platform elevated them above the activity of the jungle floor. The tent informed the clients’ vision for a new home: a simple but  more permanent fixture in the landscape.

In the new home, the ground floor opens to the jungle floor, while the middle level is nestled in the trees. The top level stands above the tree canopy, offering the family sweeping views of surf at nearby Playa Hermosa beach. A series of wooden screens—hand-operable to foster active engagement with the context—on all floors allow air and light into the house. As a result, the quality of light shifts throughout the day as framed and filtered views respond to the interplay of light and shadow. 

“The natural-formed trees as columns work very well here. It’s cool that it is entirely wood and that the exterior expression fits right into the jungle.”– Jury comment

A generous roof overhang functions much like a tree canopy, offering shade and rain protection. A 3.5 kW solar array on the roof supplies all of the home’s power during daylight hours and also powers the pool’s circulation pump. During the rainy season, all water needs are met using a subterranean rain catchment system. 

In many ways, the home is a large solar umbrella sitting on four live-edge teak logs and enclosed by porous screens. Though it is not an indigenous species, teak grows quickly in Costa Rica, and much of the wood was sourced locally. The home was built by a local builder and craftsmen, using as much local material as possible. 

Costa Rica Treehouse

Architecture firm: Olson Kundig

Location: Santa Teresa, Costa Rica

Category: Three

Project site: Not previously developed 

Building program type(s): Residential – single-family detached

Project attributes

Year of substantial project completion: 2017

Gross conditioned floor area: 2140 sq. ft.

Project team

Design Principal: Tom Kundig, FAIA, RIBA 

Principal: Kevin Kudo-King, AIA, LEED® AP 

Project Architect: Martina Bendel  

Associate Architect and Structural Engineer: Daniel Sancho 

General Contractor: Dante Medri Gizmo 

Design: KB Architectural Services 

Landscape Architect: Vida Design Studio 

Lighting Design: Niteo Lighting 

Mechanical and Electrical Engineer: Energetica Soluciones y Consultoria

Photography: Nic Lehoux

AIA and it’s Small Project Design (SPD) Knowledge Community present the annual Small Project Award Program to raise public awareness of the value and design excellence that architects provide regardless of the limits of size and budget.

Submissions are welcome in four categories:

  • Category one: Small project construction, object, work of environmental art or architectural design element up to $250,000 in construction cost
  • Category two: Small project construction up to $2.5 million in construction cost
  • Category three: Small project construction, object, work of environmental art or architectural design under 5,000 square feet 
  • Category four: Unbuilt project award: any unbuilt design that meets any of the category requirements above. This award is for projects that will not be built in the future (speculative work, conceptual work, competition work, student work, etc.)

In 2023, only recipients from Categories 2 and 3 won awards.

The jury evaluates entries based on how successfully projects meet their individual requirements. Entries are judged individually—not in competition with each other. 

All projects must demonstrate design achievement, including how the project fits into its environment and how the project connects to the Framework for Design Excellence. 


  • Open to all architects, designers and projects that meet our category criteria below. Additionally, the U.S.-licensed architect must be a major contributor on the project.
  • Built projects must have been completed after January 1, 2017.​
  • There is no requirement for professional photography.
  • Any size firm may submit a project.
  • Maximum of four entries per firm—(a single project may be entered in two different categories with applicable fees for each entry).

2023 Jury:

Chandra Robinson, AIA, Chair, LEVER Architecture, Portland, Ore.

Madhubala Ayyamperumal, Assoc. AIA, Gensler, Oakland, Calif.

Chris Baribeau, AIA, Modus Studio, Fayetteville, Ark.

David Corban, AIA, David Corban Architects, Naples, Fla.

Katherine Hogan, AIA, Katherine Hogan Architects, Raleigh, N.C.

Past SPA Recipients 

2022 recipients >

2021 recipients >

2020 recipients >

2019 recipients >

2018 recipients >

2017 recipients >

2016 recipients >