When it comes to sustainable design, our thoughts often turn to the marvels of technology. Ultra-efficient LED lighting, cutting-edge photovoltaic solar panel systems, and wind turbines have all transformed the design landscape and feel pulled directly from the pages of science fiction. Sometimes, however, the most cutting-edge design finds its inspiration in looking backward, resurrecting some very old ideas about building sustainably. On the remote Indonesian island of Bali, a small design firm called Ibuku is making waves by finding the rich potential in an unsung-and completely renewable-material.
Rising above Abiansemal’s thick jungle canopy is a unique, magnificent structure of six stories. Its undulating roofs are shaped like massive lotus petals. Poles jut up in wild configurations, creating tiers of nooks and balconies. Visitors enter on a tunneled bridge as if passing through a portal to another world. There isn’t a single right angle or conventional rectangular room in sight.
If most sustainable buildings feel pulled from science fiction, Sharma Springs looks to be inspired by fantasy. The entire structure feels organic as if it has grown directly from the fertile ground on which it sits. And in a way, it has, because this four-bedroom, 750 squaremeter residence is built almost entirely from grass.
Building with bamboo is not a novel notion. For tens of thousands of years, the strong and flexible grass was used in crafting bridges and seabound rafts. All of these structures, however, had a crucial flaw: they were temporary. For thousands of years, bamboo has been an ephemeral material. While it grows famously quickly (with some species capable of shooting up a foot in a single day), it also decays rapidly. Rich in sugars, bamboo attracts jungle pests and deteriorates with continued exposure to water-both deal-breakers in the rainforest.
However, with modern waterproofing and insect-repelling treatment (non-toxic borax salt), bamboo’s lifespan increases considerably, creating a material with the compressive force of concrete and a tensile strength that outperforms steel. Plus, it is significantly lighter than its counterparts, making it ideal in remote locations thanks to the ease of transport.
Sharma Springs’ innovations don’t stop at its materials. The building is curious, playful, and whimsical throughout. Doors are circular or teardrop-shaped to reduce deterioration on their hinges. The kitchen’s countertops are carved from a single boulder and retain their rough-hewn edges. Areas that demand privacy, like the bathroom and television lounge, are sectioned with woven bamboo and resemble giant basket-like pods.
Directed by Elora Hardy, a Bali-raised fashion designer who returned to Indonesia to continue the design-build work of her father John Hardy, Ibuku is a collective of artisans, architects, and master craftsmen looking to help bamboo break big. Ibuku’s design process is perhaps as fascinating as its products and is informed by the realities and challenges of working with such a unique material.
Rather than designing the structure on computers or on paper, lbuku designs from scale miniatures. Designers create full models out of hand-whittled bamboo strips, including each and every pole that will create the building’s frame. This makes stress testing easy-as a curious designer can always give the model a hearty whack to test its strength. Thanks to its supple give, bamboo is an ideal material for building in earthquake-prone areas.
A large team of builders and artisans then recreate the structure on site by hand, finding the perfect bamboo poles for each beam (sourced from local family-owned farms). The process is meticulous and slow. The workers bend and tie lengths of bamboo. They weave and pin. The work takes both patience and an open mind, requiring a fair amount of “listening to” the materials rather than simply building from prefabricated, standardized building blocks. The sheer amount of labor and man-hours required is where bamboo construction fails as a perfect system. While bamboo is an entirely renewable and sustainable material, it demands a costly construction schedule.
While lbuku’s projects are awe-inspiring, they don’t realistically represent a magic bullet for sustainable building. Bamboo’s effectiveness is limited by climate and its high labor costs threaten its viability on non-boutique projects. Nevertheless, their projects boast a surplus of imagination and inspiration, as well as a reminder to consider the deep potential in what surrounds us.
If you’re curious about living in a bamboo house (and happen to be passing through Bali), you can indeed spend the night at Sharma Springs. It’s currently listed on Airbnb.com, commanding an impressive $695/night rate.
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