El Cosmico to move, expand and build housing under new plan

Amenities on the new El Cosmico site will include a swimming pool, which will be open to locals as well as hotel guests. Image courtesy of ICON.

MARFA — Hotelier Liz Lambert announced on Wednesday an ambitious plan to relocate the El Cosmico hotel and campground to a plot of land triple its current size — roughly doubling its current guest capacity — where all-new hotel accommodations, amenities available for public use, and housing units would be 3D-printed by construction company ICON.

Though not a done deal, Lambert is under contract to purchase around 61 acres north of Marfa city limits, near Vizcaino Park, where the planned development would be built. Lambert plans to make the current El Cosmico campground — 21 acres located south of city limits along U.S. 67 — the site of affordable housing. If all goes according to plan, the new development will break ground in 2024.

Lambert expounded on the plan in an open letter to the Marfa community, submitted to this newspaper as a Letter to the Editor, which can be read in its entirety on the Opinions page. In the letter, Lambert stressed that while the plan is in a preliminary phase and subject to change, she wanted to present the plan in its current form to El Cosmico’s neighbors directly.

“I would not normally talk publicly about a project at this early stage, as many of the specifics are evolving as with any construction projects,” wrote Lambert. “That said, it is important to me that we be as transparent as possible with our neighbors in the community. While I cannot promise that every hope we have for the project will come true, I would like to share the vision we are working toward and hope to be able to achieve.”

The new El Cosmico would include roughly 120 units for hotel guests and amenities that would also be available to locals — a small restaurant overlooking the Davis Mountains, a large swimming pool and a bathhouse, plus space for “art and skills-building workshops,” according to a statement from Lambert. Most of the existing structures at the current El Cosmico site, including its yurts and tents, will be transferred over to the new site. As part of the plan, El Cosmico plans to offer a hospitality training program open to local applicants, regardless of whether they work at El Cosmico. 

El Comico’s annual music festival, the Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love, will take place at the new site. When asked whether the festival would grow in size as a result of the expansion, Lambert stated that what is special about the festival is its smallness, and that El Cosmico has “always had a conscientiousness to not overwhelm the town.”

The new El Cosmico grounds will also include two-, three- and four-bedroom homes available for purchase along the outside edge of the property, which will range in size from 1,200-square-feet to 2,200-square-feet. Reservations for those homes, which will be managed by El Cosmico, will open this summer.

The development is being designed and constructed in partnership with architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and Austin-based 3-D-printing construction company ICON — a buzzy startup at the forefront of the relatively new world of 3-D-printed housing. The company uses a fleet of printers called Vulcans to “print” layers of “Lavacrete,” ICON’s proprietary cement mixture, which form the walls of homes built by the company. This largely automated process allows for relatively quick construction, using minimal labor, without sacrificing the quality of materials or comfort of inhabitants, said ICON founder Jason Ballard. “That’s what 3-D printing allows us to do, is to have this sort of housing with dignity while going faster and lowering costs,” said Ballard in an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel.

Ballard, whose family owns property in Terlingua, said he was enthusiastic about building in the region specifically — a region where he felt the curved, concrete structures ICON plans to produce will feel like organic additions and extensions of the masonry that has already existed in the area.

It is, he said, the company’s most ambitious project to date — and not just because it will represent the company’s largest undertaking in terms of number of units (ICON is currently constructing the largest existing 3-D-printed housing community in Georgetown, Texas — a total of 100 units).

“It’s also the most ambitious and exploratory architecture,” said Ballard. “[We’re] really trying to … not just print like normal boxes, but really to channel the history of Marfa, the sort of history of sod housing, the history of El Cosmico, the history of Donald Judd, the history of minimalism, the history of Texas modernism — trying to channel all that and express it in the architecture in an exciting way that just sort of honored the place.

“My hope is that when people of Marfa and the people of the larger Trans-Pecos see the project they’re going to be like, ‘Of course,’” continued Ballard. “Like it doesn’t feel like something external that was bolted on. It sort of felt like a natural growth of the rich history and culture of Marfa.”

Per Lambert’s letter, ICON will also be 3-D printing the affordable units planned for the existing El Cosmico site. “While we know that the city of Marfa doesn’t have a hard and fast guideline for what constitutes affordability, we know that there is a demand for long-term housing,” Lambert wrote in her letter, which also states that she aims to provide long-term housing for El Cosmico staff through the project.

Details regarding the affordable housing component of the plan, including price ranges for the units, are not yet known, said Lambert, and a timeline for that project is forthcoming.

“This is all very much still in the planning and fundraising phase, but we wanted to reach out to the Marfa community directly to state our hopes and intentions about the project so the community wasn’t learning about it through rumor and speculation,” said Lambert.

Local officials on Wednesday said they were eager to learn more about the plan as it develops. Presidio County Commissioner Brenda Silva Bentley, whose precinct includes the north side of town adjacent to the new El Cosmico site, said she saw the upside of the expansion, which would provide “more things available to tax,” and was glad that Lambert was considering the matter of affordable housing in her plan — but that she hopes the housing produced is truly affordable for locals.

“That’s always my biggest concern, you know: how do we accommodate the people that are living here and want to stay here that are making 10 bucks an hour, if that?” said Bentley.

Though the site will fall outside city limits — as does the current El Cosmico site — Lambert clarified that El Cosmico currently pays hotel occupancy taxes (HOT) to the City of Marfa and plans to continue to do so. “We aren’t required by law to do that, but we believe in contributing to the local economy and we intend to continue paying City hotel occupancy tax,” said Lambert.

Presidio County Commissioner David Beebe echoed Bentley’s hopes that an affordable housing component comes to fruition, and noted that while the campground falls outside city limits, its growth could mean an influx of tourism for the city of Marfa, which could amount to a “cash injection.”

“Every single one of those [El Cosmico] tourists likes to venture out during the daytime,” he said. “Sounds like if they’re getting bigger, we’re going to have more tourism, and I don’t have any problem with that.”

Abby Boyd, Marfa Chamber of Commerce board president, said El Cosmico has been a “great friend” to the chamber and a “great community member” — its expansion will have to be part of a larger conversation around how to continue to ensure Marfa is livable for its residents as tourism continues to grow and increases demand on local businesses and amenities, she said.

“I support El Cosmico’s choice to increase in size — I think visitors will be happy with that, and it’s always good to have a variety of things to choose from,” said Boyd. “But I think that all of these decisions need to be considered in regards to how they’re going to impact Marfa: what Marfa feels like for those of us who are fortunate enough to live here.”

When asked how El Cosmico plans to account for a potential influx of tourists, Lambert noted the demands created by tourism in Marfa already exist, and El Cosmico’s expanded accommodations could help contend with them — the project was less about “creating more tourism and more about meeting the existing demand within the hotel space rather than through short-term rentals,” she said.

“There are many drivers of tourism to Marfa and the region, and while an expanded El Cosmico may contribute in some way to patterns of demand, it certainly isn’t the only demand driver,” she continued. “And on the other side of the coin, growing El Cosmico means that there will be more jobs in the area.”

Editor’s note: Updated 3/9/23 to clarify the location of the homes at the new El Cosmico property, and to include information about the Trans-Pecos Festival.