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Front of a bamboo home designed by Elora

Magical Houses Made of Bamboo

Yumi Toktok Stret looks at the idea of building homes with bamboo. Bamboo grows naturally in Vanuatu as it does around the region. We take a look at one woman’s determination to “make her own rules” and build a home. These are transcripts from her presentation about the stunning bamboo homes built by her team in Bali.

Building homes by bamboo defy convention because the bamboo itself is so enigmatic. No two poles of bamboo are alike, so every home, bridge and bathroom is exquisitely unique. Elora Hardy shares the potential of bamboo, as both a sustainable resource and a spark for the imagination.

A Resort built by Elora
A Resort built by Elora

When Elora Hardy was nine years old, her mom asked her what she wanted her house to look like, and she drew this fairy mushroom. And then she actually built it.

“I did not realize this was so unusual at the time, and maybe I still haven’t, because I’m still designing houses, and there are lots of things that we’re still working on, but one thing I have learned is that bamboo will treat you well if you use it right.”

“It’s actually a wild grass. It grows on otherwise unproductive land, deep ravines, and mountainsides. It lives off of rainwater, spring water, sunlight, and of the 1,450 species of bamboo that grow across the world; we use just seven of them.”

“My dad got me building with bamboo, and he is standing in a clump of Dendrocalamus asper niger that he planted just seven years ago. Each year, it sends up a new generation of shoots. That shoot, we watched it grow a meter in three days just last week, so we’re talking about sustainable timber in three years.”

Green School built by Elora's father
Green School built by Elora’s father

“Now, we harvest from hundreds of family-owned clumps. Betung, as we call it, it’s really long, up to 18 meters of usable length. Try getting that truck down the mountain. And it’s strong: it has the tensile strength of steel, the compressive strength of concrete. Slam four tons straight down on a pole, and it can take it. Because it’s hollow, it’s lightweight, light enough to be lifted by just a few men, or, apparently, one woman.”

“When my father built Green School in Bali, he chose bamboo for all of the buildings on campus, because he saw it as a promise. It’s a promise to the kids. It’s one sustainable material that they will not run out of. And when I first saw these structures under construction about six years ago, I just thought, this makes perfect sense. It is growing all around us. It’s strong. It’s elegant. Its earthquake-resistant. Why hasn’t this happened sooner, and what can we do with it next?”

“Along with some of the original builders of Green School, I founded Ibuku. Ibu means “mother,” and ku means “mine,” so it represents my Mother Earth, and at Ibuku, we are a team of artisans, architects and designers, and what we’re doing together is creating a new way of building. Over the past five years together, we have built over 50 unique structures, most of them in Bali. Nine of them are at Green Village — you’ve just seen inside some of these homes — and we fill them with bespoke furniture, we surround them with veggie gardens, we would love to invite you all to come visit someday. And while you’re there, you can also see Green School, we keep building classrooms there each year , as well as an updated fairy mushroom house.”

“We’re also working on a little house for export and a restaurant with an open-air kitchen. We have built a bridge that spans 22 meters across a river.”

Front entrance to a Elora designed home
Front entrance to a Elora designed home

“What we’re doing, it’s not entirely new. From little huts to elaborate bridges like this one in Java, bamboo has been in use across the tropical regions of the world for literally tens of thousands of years. There are islands and even continents that were first reached by bamboo rafts. But until recently, it was almost impossible to reliably protect bamboo from insects, and so, just about everything that was ever built out of bamboo is gone. Unprotected bamboo weathers. Untreated bamboo gets eaten to dust. And so that’s why most people, especially in Asia, think that you couldn’t be poor enough or rural enough to actually want to live in a bamboo house.”

“And so we thought, what will it take to change their minds, to convince people that bamboo is worth building with, much less worth aspiring to?”

“First, we needed safe treatment solutions. Borax is a natural salt. It turns bamboo into a viable building material. Treat it properly, design it carefully, and a bamboo structure can last a lifetime.”

“Second, build something extraordinary out of it. Inspire people. Fortunately, Balinese culture fosters craftsmanship. It values the artisan. So combine those with the adventurous outliers from new generations of locally trained architects and designers and engineers, and always remember that you are designing for curving, tapering, hollow poles. No two poles alike, no straight lines, no two-by-fours here. The tried-and-true, well-crafted formulas and vocabulary of architecture do not apply here. We have had to invent our own rules. We ask the bamboo what it’s good at, what it wants to become, and what it says is: respect it, design for its strengths, protect it from water, and to make the most of its curves.”

“We design in real 3D, making scale structural models out of the same material that we’ll later use to build the house. And bamboo model-making, it’s an art, as well as some hard-core engineering.”

“So that’s the blueprint of the house.”

Front entrance to a bamboo home
Front entrance to a bamboo home

“And we bring it to site, and with tiny rulers, we measure each pole, and consider each curve, and we choose a piece of bamboo from the pile to replicate that house on site.”

“When it comes down to the details, we consider everything. Why are doors so often rectangular? Why not round? How could you make a door better? Well, its hinges battle with gravity, and gravity will always win in the end, so why not have it pivot on the centre where it can stay balanced? And while you’re at it, why not doors shaped like teardrops?”

The verandah
The verandah

“To reap the selective benefits and work within the constraints of this material, we have really had to push ourselves, and within that constraint, we have found space for something new. It’s a challenge: how do you make a ceiling if you don’t have any flat boards to work with? Let me tell you, sometimes I dream of sheet rock and plywood.”

“But if what you’ve got is skilled craftsmen and itsy bitsy little splits, weave that ceiling together, stretch a canvas over it, lacquer it. How do you design durable kitchen countertops that do justice to this curving structure you’ve just built? Slice up a boulder like a loaf of bread, hand-carve each to fit the other, leave the crusts on, and what we’re doing, it is almost entirely handmade. The structural connections of our buildings are reinforced by steel joints, but we use a lot of hand-whittled bamboo pins. There are thousands of pins in each floor. This floor is made of glossy and durable bamboo skin. You can feel the texture under bare feet.”

“And the floor that you walk on, can it affect the way that you walk? Can it change the footprint that you’ll ultimately leave on the world? I remember being nine years old and feeling wonder, and possibility, and a little bit of idealism. And we’ve got a really long way to go, there’s a lot left to learn, but one thing I know is that with creativity and commitment, you can create beauty and comfort and safety and even luxury out of a material that will grow back.”