While Bali’s south coast is being swallowed up by villa and resort developments, there is an innovative green design movement gathering pace on the island. The area in and around Sibang, an off-the-map hamlet between Ubud and Denpasar, has become an unexpected centre for buildings made almost entirely of bamboo. But unlike the bamboo structures that have popped up for centuries throughout Asia and South and Central America, these buildings are resistant to decay and radically innovative.
The principal building of the Green School, a pre-school through 12-grade institution in the centre of Bali, has attracted attention in architecture circles since it opened three years ago. From the outside it’s intriguing enough – three interconnected spiral roofs of thatched grass seem to float 20m above the ground – but only when standing inside its vast open centre does it become apparent that this three-storey building is supported by more than 2,500 bamboo poles.
“Contemporary, organic-inspired, Frank Gehry-style architecture is easily done with bamboo,” says Jörg Stamm, designer of the Green School’s bamboo Kul-Kul bridge, which curves about 22 metres over the Ayung River. “On a smaller scale, bamboo can be used like steel tubes, which are being used to build many contemporary buildings.” Because of its strength and elastic properties, bamboo is often used as scaffolding on building sites in Asian cities such as Hong Kong.
However, an interest in building with bamboo is also booming thanks to its environmental benefits. Studies carried out by civil engineer Jules Janssen at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands show that bamboo has the tensile strength of mild steel, but needs only 1/50th of the energy for processing. Properly harvested and treated bamboo timber can also effectively replace hardwood. Not only does bamboo grow faster, it can be harvested in three to five years versus the 10-15 years for most hardwoods. Yet contrary to popular belief, properly harvested and treated bamboo isn’t necessarily cheaper.
“At the end of the day bamboo is not that much cheaper than steel,” says Stamm. “It’s a difficult and costly process to select, harvest and transport the right bamboo timber in a sustainable way.”
Much of the technical know-how comes from Colombian-based architects and self-taught bamboo experts Oscar Hidalgo-Lopez (who wrote the book Bamboo: The Gift of the Gods) and Simón Vélez, who is credited with inventing a unique bolt system that creates strong and durable joints. He is currently building a bamboo bus terminal, in Santiago de Cali, Colombia, the length of three football fields.
The Environmental Bamboo Foundation, an international think-tank for scientists and architects founded by the Irish designer Linda Garland, has also helped transform bamboo into a permanent material by developing a treatment known as the vertical soak diffusion method. This protects bamboo timbers from insects by penetrating it with a solution of borax (or sodium borate), boric acid and water.
Contemporary bamboo architecture is at such an early stage that techniques are still being developed on the ground. While the massive span of the new Big Tree chocolate factory in Sibang – possibly the largest industrial bamboo structure in the world – has benefited from the bolt systems invented by Vélez, the on-site American architect of the project, Peter Celovsky, had to come up with several solutions of his own.
Celovsky worked for months to develop interior walls that could replace concrete walls, or at least substantially reduce the amount of sand and cement used. He eventually created surfaces made of woven bamboo strips held in place by small bamboo poles and a layer of plaster.
“This creates a very lightweight wall that is both incredibly strong but also supportive in the event of an earthquake,” says Frederick Schilling, chief executive of Big Tree. Fibres from guadua bamboo are longer and more elastic than those in wood, which is why it is often used for seismic-resistant buildings. The factory itself – a surprisingly whimsical structure that resembles a woven basket in the shape of a barn – speaks of artisanal handiwork rather than sterile industrial production.
In order to adhere to industrial codes, Big Tree builders had to coat the inner bamboo walls with a food grade sealant and seal all the interior food production rooms. (There are also plenty of fire extinguishers stashed away.) However, it’s unlikely that a factory like this could be built in much of the developed world. Relaxed regulations in countries like Indonesia are the reason why Bali is a source of great experimentation.
“We have the freedom here to work without strict codes that restrict possibilities,” says bamboo architect Arief Rabik, who is Linda Garland’s son. Rabik is also a material scientist and is currently launching a bamboo flooring company in central Bali funded by a grant from the Netherlands. He believes that bamboo laminates and flooring will have a positive impact on the environment.
“It’s about changing wood from within,” he says. “Most carpenters will not accept a round natural form like bamboo that’s irregular and can’t be standardised for their frames. With laminates those contractors can still get their 2 x 4.”
Rabik agrees that buildings such as the Green School and the Big Tree factory are important examples of bamboo’s capabilities and have helped to improve its reputation. “Bamboo is no longer just the poor man’s wood,” he says. “It’s glamorous and environmentally innovative.”
Back in Sibang, another bamboo project is under way next to the Green School. The Green Village is a community of bamboo homes overseen by Elora Hardy, daughter of the Green School’s founder John Hardy. Although only five of its 32 planned houses are so far complete, the project was chosen as a finalist for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2010.
Walls here are made from bamboo poles that have been sliced into a boxy pattern and even kitchen appliances, including the refrigerator, are covered with a bamboo laminate.
House prices range from $300,000 to $600,000. “We also have a request to build a million-dollar estate on a separate piece of land near the Green Village,” says Hardy. “In general the building costs start at $800 per sq m, though on request we can design much higher-end luxury.”
Tom Navasero, founder and executive director for the Asia Center for Sustainability, moved his family here two years ago after enrolling his eldest son in the Green School. “We live in luxury in the middle of the jungle,” he says. “We hear the sound of a river, see beautiful sunrises and sunsets and have fresh coconut water every day. We know that our carbon footprint is very low despite comfortable living. People talk about thinking outside the box; we live outside the box.”
● Big Tree www.bigtreefarms.com
● Green School www.greenschool.org
● Green Village www.greenvillagebali.com
● Linda Garland and the Environmental Bamboo Foundation www.bamboocentral.org