Designer Elora Hardy Is Disrupting The Way We Think About Sustainable Construction
The heavens open as I meet Elora Hardy inside an elegant bamboo building in the centre of the idyllic Indonesian island of Bali, one of many she has designed. Rain hammers on the thatched roof and the grass outside. There are no walls, so the cooling breeze blows across us, carrying the scents of the surrounding jungle. We’re technically inside, but it doesn’t really feel like it. “Isn’t it nice to be sheltered but not separated,” Hardy comments, gazing out into the forest.
Hardy has made a career out of blurring the lines between indoors and outdoors. As creative director of Ibuku, a Bali-based design studio, she has spent years exploring ways to build homes, schools, restaurants and more out of bamboo, one of the most sustainable building materials on the planet. But these aren’t the traditional, single-storey bamboo structures you see dotted around Southeast Asia; these are futuristic, curvaceous buildings that appear totally open to the elements. “Some of our buildings look like they’ve been built by aliens,” Hardy says with a laugh.
Many of the outlandish homes Ibuku has designed are clustered in Green Village, a sustainable community nestled in the rainforest outside Ubud, where we’re sitting this morning. Green Village was originally the brainchild of Hardy’s father, John, who founded an eponymous eco-friendly jewellery brand in 1975 before his concern for the environment led him to establish Green School, a non-profit school housed in the largest bamboo building in the world.
“Dad founded Green School and attracted a really amazing group of people to get it built,” Hardy explains. “That was a really intense two-year process of designing and inventing a whole new way of building. No one had built with bamboo on that scale before. Then, when it was finished, what were the team going to do next? There were around 130 people with all these skills and craftsmanship and a whole new vocabulary of how to build and engineer, so it was a natural extension to start thinking about people living nearby in homes that were in the same style as Green School.”
Hardy took charge of this team, which she formalised into the studio Ibuku, and began expanding Green Village, which now has 12 finished homes and a handful more in the works. A stone’s throw from the building where we’re chatting is a prime example of Ibuku’s architecture, River House. A four-storey family home that seems to tumble down the valley towards the Ayung River, it looks like something out of the James Cameron film Avatar. The rooms are connected by gently curving staircases that seem to float in the air, while soaring above the house is a thatched roof held up by thick bamboo poles. From above, the roof looks like a huge leaf.
Ibuku’s houses might appear rustic, but they’re not devoid of creature comforts. Most of the bedrooms in the Green Village houses have air-conditioning (glass panels are easily slid into place to keep the cool air indoors) and all have electricity and plumbing, though many of the bathrooms are at least partly outdoors.
“These houses are not what many people are used to,” Hardy says. “But I’ve found that when people step into a room that doesn’t have walls, they often feel really at home. I think humans spent a lot more time evolving in natural spaces and spaces like caves [than in buildings], so I’ve found that the more organically shaped rooms are, the more relaxed and refreshed people feel. I don’t think it’s that different from what people feel when they walk into a beautiful grove of trees.”
Everything Hardy does comes back to bamboo. In the houses at Green Village, the roofs, floors, walls (as they are) and most of the structural support is made from bamboo. Inside, almost all of the furniture is custom-made from bamboo. The Ibuku team uses plenty of bamboo in its raw form, but they also chop, sand and carve it to create different finishes and effects. “We’re working on engineering bamboo more at the moment,” Hardy says. “Once you slice it up, you can get more flexibility from it and you can play with whole different shapes.”
Local entrepreneurs are now seeing that bamboo offers something unique
Most of the houses at Green Village are occupied by expats or are rented to tourists through Airbnb, but Hardy’s greatest success may have been changing the perception of bamboo among the locals. “People have built with bamboo for thousands of years, but they couldn’t count on it to last because it was always eaten by insects, so it was seen as a cheap material,” Hardy explains. “We treat all our bamboo with a borax treatment, which is a natural salt solution that gets the sugar out. Once the sugar is out, bugs won’t eat it and a bamboo house can last for 100 years. It’s as simple as that. So local entrepreneurs are now seeing that bamboo offers something unique. They know that people want to come to Bali and find something special, that they don’t want Bali looking like the rest of the world.”
Leading hotel brands are interested, too. Four Seasons commissioned Ibuku to design a yoga pavilion at one of its Bali properties, and Hardy consulted on the Como Beach Club at the new Como Uma Canggu on Bali’s Echo Beach. “Como Beach Club was designed by Paola Navone, but we took Paola and her team through a bamboo workshop so we could introduce her to bamboo and see how it influenced her,” Hardy recalls. “She got to really get her teeth into what bamboo can be and she fell in love with black bamboo, which she hadn’t seen before. It was really fun and Como Beach Club looks like nothing we’ve ever done before.”
And word is spreading beyond Indonesia. Hardy was invited to give a Ted talk in 2015 (which has now been watched online more than four million times) and a feature-length documentary about Ibuku that’s being produced by Apple is scheduled to be released in late March. Ibuku has already worked on several projects internationally, including the Hong Kong restaurant Tri, and is currently working on buildings in the US, Thailand and Sierra Leone. But, for Hardy and Ibuku, Bali will always be home. “We want to keep some projects in our own backyard,” she says. “What we do in Bali is more than just creating a building. For the people who own homes here, Green Village is part of who they are. They feel like they’re on the cutting edge of innovation and, more than anything, they feel connected to nature and the land here.”