Magical Houses, Made of Bamboo: Elora Hardy at TED Talk (Full Transcript)

When I was nine years old, my mom asked me what I would want my house to look like, and I drew this fairy mushroom. And then she actually built it. I don’t think I realized this was so unusual at the time, and maybe I still haven’t, because I’m still designing houses. This is a six-story bespoke home on the island of Bali. It’s built almost entirely from bamboo. The living room overlooks the valley from the fourth floor. You enter the house by a bridge.

It can get hot in the tropics, so we make big curving roofs to catch the breezes. But some rooms have tall windows to keep the air conditioning in and the bugs out. This room we left open. We made an air-conditioned, tented bed. And one client wanted a TV room in the corner of her living room. Boxing off an area with tall walls just didn’t feel right, so instead, we made this giant woven pod.

Now, we do have all the necessary luxuries, like bathrooms. This one is a basket in the corner of the living room, and I’ve got tell you, some people actually hesitate to use it. We have not quite figured out our acoustic insulation. So 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, 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.

That’s my dad. He’s the one who 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. 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.

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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. And 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.

It’s earthquake-resistant. Why hasn’t this happened sooner, and what can we do with it next? So 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. This is a traditional Sumbanese home that we replicated, right down to the details and textiles. A restaurant with an open-air kitchen. It looks a lot like a kitchen, right? And a bridge that spans 22 meters across a river.

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Now, 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.

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