BAMBOO and construction are not mutually exclusive — there is the archetypal Hong Kong skyscraper cocooned in a nest of bamboo scaffolding with workers perched inside.
What about using bamboo as a building material though? Would you believe it if we told you that you can build a spacious 6-storey house complete with a crow's nest, stylish furniture and other creature comforts with nothing more than culms of bamboo, some bolts, some river stones at the footing, thatch and a lick of coating for good measure?
Ibuku is an international design firm based in Bali that uses the hardy grass to create breathtaking, fully-customisable homes in the Green Village, a 7.5-acre tract along the Ayung River. The plots range from 0.15 to 0.4 acres, although the number of homes coming up depends on its clients.
The homes typically range from 300 to 400 sq m, with the largest — a four-bedroom place — at 700 sq m. Each home costs US$350,000 (RM1.06 million) to US$650,000.
Besides homes, the company has built the Green School and chocolate company Big Tree Farms' commercial centre. Made entirely out of bamboo, the Green School is an international school that offers a "natural, holistic and student-centric" education to children aged three to 18, including Balinese students sponsored by the school. Located next to the school is the commercial centre, a 23,500 sq ft, 3-storey building that includes a factory, retail centre, office, event centre and warehouse. The school and factory are tourist attractions thanks to their unique architecture.
Why build with bamboo? "My father [jewellery designer John Hardy] said bamboo was something he felt good about because it was something he could promise his grandchildren, the children of the world. In the context of a world where there is scarcity and people are doing bad things, he is trying to say, 'It's okay, there are things that are bountiful and beautiful that you will be able to count on and use'. That is a promise that we cannot make with other materials that are technically green," Ibuku creative director Elora Hardy tells City & Country.
The promise is based on the fact that bamboo grows quickly and lushly. The shoots reach their full height in six to eight months, although they are only harvested after five years to ensure optimal fibre density. Ibuku uses wild bamboos which grow on land that is useless for agriculture, such as river valleys and land damaged by mine tailings (the useless remnants of ore separation).
"Some people use it as a recovery system for land as it is one of the first steps to bring the land back to health. So I know the investment will be quite low," she adds.
"Can you imagine the villagers looking over the fence of the new rich foreigner's house and going 'Wait, that's bamboo!?' Here we are glorifying it and using it in amazing big buildings. That changes something," says Hardy.
She was recently in town to inspire local architects with her magnificent designs at the Eco-B Forum 2013, part of the Eco-B 2013 sustainable building and design exhibition held by the Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM), the Malaysia Green Building Confederation and Green Building Index.
A former print designer for Donna Karan, Hardy spent the first 13 years of her life on the idyllic Island of the Gods before she was uprooted to the US to pursue her education, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Tufts University and School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, US.
She had her first taste of architecture when she designed a "fairy mushroom house" at age seven that her parents later built when she was nine years old. This was followed by an internship with acclaimed architect William McDonough, co-author of
Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, one summer that ironically led her onto another career path instead.
"I wasn't interested in fashion, I was interested in architecture but the young architects in McDonough's office told me that it was way too difficult, stressful and boring to become an architect, so I didn't!" she laughs.
Hardy then landed a job designing prints with famed American fashion designer Donna Karan. One of her favourites, with bold brush strokes, was featured in the spring/summer 2010 collection. Her other favourite creations include photographs of city lights and neon-coloured animal prints.
Five years later, she went back to Bali and became involved with furniture design for Ibuku, before returning to architecture by designing the homes. Armed only with passion, the support of her family and some very able craftsmen, Hardy inadvertently became the face of Ibuku's sophisticated works.
"I was absolutely unprepared for what I got into but I believe many people who end up doing new things wouldn't have done it if they knew what they were getting into. But everyone is glad they did it in the end. That's what I hope anyway," she chuckles.
The method to the 'madness'
The bamboo species Ibuku uses is quite stiff. The usable length of these culms is usually 18 ft.
The culms are treated in borax to stop powderpost beetles from devouring them. "Borax basically sucks the sugar out of the bamboo and replaces it with salt, which leaves [the beetles with] nothing to eat any more. For the beetles it's like biting into a pickle," Hardy explains.
After consulting the clients, sketching designs and creating a three-dimensional model, a miniature model is fashioned out of bamboo. The craftsmen then proceed to build the home, making as minimal changes as necessary. To preserve the land, structures are built carefully around plants. Most notably, anyone entering the site must take off their shoes.
Depending on the designs, bamboos with the necessary curves are sourced from the wild. The craftsmen will also cut, carve and bundle the culms together to achieve a specific shape and strength.
Sealant — ranging from lanolin, tung oil and water-based to industrial wood coatings, depending on the property's location and other requirements — is added to prolong the structure's life. Hardy says the homes are designed to last "a lifetime", with only occasional cosmetic repairs on exposed parts required, such as replacing the bamboo-aluminium roof shingles.
Using bamboo to build permanent structures is actually not a novel idea. The Balinese from three generations ago used the grass to build their homes before it took a backseat to "modern" materials, such as wood and brick. Hardy recalls how she had once asked one of her craftsmen if he would like to rebuild the pavilion of his house with bamboo.
"He said, 'I will have to check with my mother', because his mother has a perception that bamboo is from the olden times. But now, everybody thinks it's cool! It's rustic of him to build his pavilion out of bamboo, so we're changing perceptions even among the villagers."
While Ibuku has dabbled in sustainable housing — it built a bamboo shelter for garbage collectors in Denpasar as part of its corporate social responsibility — the company has no plans to go into affordable housing.
"We are pulled by the market. The direction that we have been going in is towards the other extreme of making it more luxurious, more spectacular and more beautiful. That is sympathetic with my strengths as a designer, where I want to make extremely beautiful things.
"But I see the longer-term ripple effect — that it will help to promote bamboo as a material for everyone. And I have seen the power of status and luxury through fashion, through my father's jewellery business. Throughout history, people follow what they perceive as luxurious. Of course it is my hope that it becomes something that affects everyone."
Walk that talk
Hardy opines that people should stop talking about sustainability and start living it instead because it is the logical thing to do. "Kindergarteners are taught to share, to be kind to each other, to not break things, to not litter, but that's not how modern society lives. We pollute ... modern society is living in a state of disconnect with logic."
At the Green School, this philosophy is deeply ingrained in the curriculum. For instance, students who scratch their desks will have to repair the desks at the end of the semester.
"We are not trying to teach the kids that the world is impermeable. If things are broken, you don't send them back to the manufacturer. We teach them that you have an impact on the world around you and to be aware of what you are doing.
"I think that there is a need to talk about intelligence and logic and consideration and not get too stuck in the conversation of being sustainable because it ends up being limiting and excluding and defensive," Hardy says.
"People get defensive about not being green, but they don't get defensive about not being logical."
This story first appeared in The Edge weekly edition of Apr 22 - 28, 2013.