LONDON The Future in Bamboo

Part of our series on people that change the future, we explore the future of sustainable building.

LONDON

The Future in Bamboo

Part of our series on people that change the future, we explore the future of sustainable building.

Bamboo architecture credit: Ibuku

With ever-growing signs that serious climate change is years, not decades away, man’s impact on the environment over the past 100 years is increasingly regarded as irrevocable.  Never has there been a more pressing need for wiser choices, combined with practical solutions that enable sustainable living and make reducing consumption a reality for the many rather than the few.  Yet in a society so obsessed with style, perhaps the answer lies in making the solution aspirational rather than obligational, and in creating products and a way of life centred on an eco-conscience that doesn't compromise on style. This is one of the aims that inspires Brazilian landscape designer Renata Tilli, the creative green-fingers behind some of Brazil’s most evocative landscape design projects and private houses. A modern-day Burle Marx, Brazil’s globally renowned architects Marcio Kogan and Arthur Casas have her on speed-dial.  “I know I’ve done a good job when it looks like nothing has been done”, she says when asked about what makes her style of work unique, “when it looks like nature has been allowed to grow in its natural exuberance – crafted by the hand of God. You could say that my role is to lend a helping hand yet without the sense that man has interfered”. Together with her husband Danilo Candia, she co-founded Bambu Carbono Zero, one of the leading design houses in Brazil working with bamboo.  An agronomist by trade, Danilo first came to understand the power and potential of using bamboo as a primary construction material while assisting the Colombian architect Simón Vélez on a resort project close to Paraty in the late 90s.  Considered one of the pioneers of contemporary bamboo architecture, Simon’s work captivated Danilo, and inspired him to dedicate his life to bamboo. 

I was one of the first in Brazil to grow sustainable palmito palm-heart, and now you find it through-out the country, adding real value to the economy as well as ensuring it is grown in a sustainable way.  I see the same potential for bamboo – it grows incredibly quickly and is very easy to plant, as well as cheap to cultivate, strong and sustainable. With one field of bamboo you can build houses for yourself and your extended family.  Imagine how it could be used in answering Brazil’s housing crisis and give a new economic opportunity to Brazil’s poorer rural states.  Like eucalyptus, it’s incredibly fast growing and sustainable – There is such a fashion and demand these days for hard-woods, but where do you think these come from? From forests, from the Amazon, from trees that take decades to grow – as our natural resources diminish at a faster rate than they can ever be replaced, isn’t it time to find another solution?”

Yet rather than in Brazil, it is Bali where Danilo, Renata and I meet – one sunny afternoon over lunch in the spectacular curved dome of iconic bamboo hotel Bambu Indah’s tropical dining space. The couple have come to Bali to soak up some bamboo inspiration as they look to expand through Brazil and potentially open a bamboo school to train locals. One of their first ports of call is Green School, founded by American entrepreneur and jewelry designer John Hardy, who along with his daughter Elora, is regarded as one of the leading innovators within the bamboo world. “On our way here we stumbled across a warehouse filled with bamboo structures, windows, doors, frames being shipped to the US and to Europe – so it’s not just a trend that is limited to tropical climates, but with the right insulation, it can work anywhere.”

Opened in 2008, Green School is one of the world’s leading schools for alternative education.  Set in the jungle outside the hippie haven of Ubud, parents come from all over the world to enroll children in a style of study that teaches them how to innovate sustainably, while becoming leaders and visionarys that step outside the traditional ways of thinking and job titles. “I encourage future generations to think beyond the ‘traditional’ vocations and look to become entrepreneurs of a more sustainable future. They do not have to become doctors and lawyers or accountants if they do not want to, there are plenty of people qualified to do that. We encourage free thinking to build up sustainable business models as you can employ people to help you run your business, but the new generation has to come up with the new ideas to become leaders of a new generation.  With fees ranging from £5,500 to £12,500 per year, its classrooms are built from bamboo and the school sustained through hydropower and solar power, with fruit and vegetables consumed grown in site and regular workshops in permaculture and bamboo architecture.  “One of the great things about the school is the sort of people it attracts – kids of famous artists, designers and thinkers from across the world”, shares one parent, a property tycoon who recently emigrated from London.

While Colombia is still considered to be the birth-place of bamboo architecture, it is in Bali that the structural potential and technical innovations first cemented by the work of Simon has evolved stylistically. Amongst the global leaders is Elora Hardy’s design firm Ibuku, the creative genius behind some of the world’s most spectacular sustainable housing, including Ananda, which was recently profiled in Architectural Digest and a 6 story bamboo mansion that stretches over 8,000 square feet, both of which can be found in Green Village, the world’s first intentional residential community crafted from bamboo – intentional because bamboo communities have been built by native Amazonian tribes in Latin America for centuries. Ibuku’s latest projects also include a hospitality school for locals on the remote Indonesian island of Sumba, in partnership with Nihiwatu, a spectacular surf resort encased in jungle. Combining one of the world’s most exclusive surf breaks with a strong integration with supporting the local community, Nihiwatu was voted last year the Best Hotel in the World by influential travel magazine Travel  & Leisure. 

As we wrap up lunch, Danilo continues; “Bamboo has the potential to change the world.  Bamboo, in its essence, is a plant that can be used in many ways.  Look at all these luxury resorts, crafted from wood sourced from Borneo – it’s like the Amazon, we are destroying our rainforests to construct luxury hotels that give guests the sense of being outside – there is a serious irony there.  It’s a market that is worth trillions of dollars per year.  We need alternatives: Eucalyptus, which comes primarily from Australia is one, but it’s much more suited to paper than to construction.  In Europe we have pine, but bamboo is incomparable in the speed in which it grows because it is a grass, the king of grass you could say.  The more you cut it, the more it grows.  The root of why it is so great is physiological, it absorbs more carbon than any other green leaf. Every plant, all organic material absorbs carbon, everything in the world exists on carbon, petrol, everything. When we extract oil, we unbalance the carbon structure of the earth. For every one photon  (particle of light) bamboo absorbs 4 molecules of carbon. The others green leaves absorb only 3.  It naturally regenerative for the planet.

It’s an interesting moment”, concludes Renata, “and more and more, you’ll see the world focusing its attention here.  It’s the center of the cyclone, it’s the future – bamboo, vegetation, man and how he interacts with Nature. Sophistication is now rooted in simplicity and nothing exists more profound, more complex and more powerful than nature itself.”

Alternative future - sustainability meets design
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