We’ve showcased numerous bamboo designs over the years, from furniture to entire buildings, but when it comes to combining green building and renewable materials, Ibuku’s incredible bent-bamboo buildings take the cake. The Bali-based bamboo building team already has luxury villas, houses, schools and infrastructure buildings in their portfolio, and is renowned for their dedication to using traditional Indonesian building techniques. We spoke with the firm’s founder and CEO, designer Elora Hardy, about vernacular architecture traditions, her involvement with designing bamboo buildings, and the reasons behind her vocational change from high-end fashion to sustainable architecture
INHABITAT: Before founding Ibuku, you had a successful career in fashion. What prompted this change in direction?
Elora: I visited Green Schooljust as construction was completing in 2010, and it blew my mind. My father and step-mother (John and Cynthia Hardy) founded the Green Schooland built every structure on campus out of the most sustainable material they could find: bamboo. I felt the need to be involved in a sustainable industry and I realized this was it. Having grown up in Bali, I had already had a taste of the creative possibilities of working with natural materials and skilled local craftsmen, and so the temptation to get involved with what was going on at home was strong enough to coax me away from both fashion and NYC.
INHABITAT: Can you describe the dynamic of your design and construction process?
Elora: We spend time on the land, and with the people who will be using it. We sketch a bit, and make simple real-scale mockups on the site. Once the placements are clear, we make 1:50 scale structural models out of bamboo. This is where the art—and engineering—happen. Our bamboo builders follow this model (not blueprints) to build the structure of the house. There are over 100 people involved in construction, with an average of 20 onsite at one time. No heavy machinery, no cranes, no bulldozers. Walls are woven onsite, and craftsmen whittle bamboo pins to pin splits of bamboo skin onto the floor one by one. These are truly hand-made homes.
INHABITAT: Bamboo is known as the quintessential rapidly renewable building material. What are its characteristics in terms of fire resistance, strength, and lifespan?
Elora: Bamboo is a truly sustainable unrivalled timber, with the compressive strength of concrete and the tensile strength of steel. The kind of timber we use, Petung (or Dendorocalaus asper) can have as much as 18 meters of useable length. It’s lightweight, hollow, round, curving, and tapering. It’s also flexible, making it ideal for earthquakes, as it will bend and flex long before it breaks. There are 1450 species of Bamboo in the world, and my team uses 7 of them.
It grows on most continents on Earth, and we harvest ours from groves deep in the ravines of Bali and Java—from between 1 hour and 1 day’s drive away. It grows on land that’s not useful for agriculture and thrives on rain or spring water. In an established clump, each shoot emerges from the ground full at diameter, growing up to 1m per day. 3-4 years later, it’s dense and mature and ready for harvest.
INHABITAT: One of the major concerns when it comes to building with bamboo is its susceptibility to insect damage. You have developed a new treatment method which tackles this issue—can you tell us how it works, and what your experiences with it have been so far?
Elora: In the past, the powder post beetle succeeded in eating just about every bamboo object ever made. Bamboo is a member of the grass family, and its sap is sweet. If you succeed in replacing those sugars with salts, the beetle can’t eat it.
We treat our bamboo with a natural Boron salt solution, which permanently protects it from insect attack. The treatment is the key to what we do: without it, bamboo cannot be considered a permanent building material. Linda Garlad founded Bamboo Central, the Environmental Bamboo Foundation in Bali, innovating and promoting bamboo treatment methods and opening up the possibilities for bamboo as a sustainable timber. She inspired us to build with bamboo and gave us the confidence to build long-lasting structures, and that has been the key to what we’ve been able to build.
INHABITAT: Your buildings rely on passive sustainability. How often do you incorporate active sustainable systems such as photovoltaics or rainwater harvesting?
Elora: We recently designed asolar field and battery house at Green Schoolfor the solar system that Akuo energy donated to the school. Our focus is on bamboo, on expanding our capabilities and expertise with this material, but as new technologies are designed and become available, and as we connect with other sustainability experts in other fields, we collaborate with them and integrate their systems in to our designs.
INHABITAT: How does Ibuku’s practice affect local Balinese communities?
Elora: Most of our craftsmen are descended from wood-carving and farming families from surrounding villages here in Bali. They say if they weren’t working here with us, they would likely be carving handicrafts from wood, or perhaps working in the tourist industry as security guards or waiters. I’m proud to have created an opportunity for these skilled craftsmen to continue their trade and broaden their expertise. How we build with bamboo gives the world a glimpse into the artistic value of Balinese culture, beyond the tropical island destination reputation.
INHABITAT: Ibuku’s bamboo designs span different typologies. You’ve built houses, schools, bridges, auditoriums and even a car park. How do you see the applicability of bamboo evolving in the future?
Elora: Bamboo has extreme versatility. If you follow the basic rules, and innovate with complementary technologies and materials, the possibilities worldwide are endless. Most of our buildings to date have been into the land they were built on; they are designed for Bali. Often they are designed from the point of view of bamboo, utilizing its strength and protecting its vulnerabilities. I’m excited to see how other designers will interpret bamboo for the rest of the world; in structures and beyond.
INHABITAT: Bamboo is used as a building material in tropical countries where it can be harvested locally, but in Asia it’s mostly used for scaffolding. Do you see it becoming a major building material beyond Bali and Indonesia?
Elora: Bamboo is ideal for tropical construction, but I’m sure it will also have application in structures in other climates, likely used in combination with other appropriate materials for those regions. I imagine bamboo structural towers within structures enclosed by rammed-earth walls, with insulated roofing material.
INHABITAT: Our readers are familiar with several of Ibuku’s projects, namely the Green Village and the Green School. What are you working on at the moment?
Elora: We have two new homes in process at Green Village, as well as an extraordinary private home in nearby Ubud that has a kids’ house with a climbing wall and slide. We just completed several additions at Green School, and our gardening team built them a Peace Garden. On an island neighboring Bali, we are designing a school for local kids. We have a yoga pavilion design in process, and just completing a riverside spa with a bamboo basket pod suspended over the river.
Images by Rio Helmi, Agung Dwi, Tim Street-Porter/OTTO