The Build: Urban Bamboo Tinyhouse Earthship (SkyKubu)
Living in Palawan, I witnessed local living conditions and this sparked my interest in bamboo and its application to/for building. It seemed that Local perception is that bamboo is “just for poor people or the very rich”. I wanted to understand what are the barriers to bamboo becoming a sustainable building material.
If bamboo is to become “the building material of the future” then it needs to be made accessible to the majority of the Earth’s population (especially those living in the tropics/subtropics). So the primary aim at a practical level, has been to develop a design for a Bamboo Tiny-House Earthship suitable for tropical and sub-tropical environments that is low-cost and able to be built by 4-6 people in an urban or rural area. I wanted the design to demonstrate how bamboo can be utilised in the “modern sense” and be appealing to people in developing countries and western also (though we have more restrictions with building codes and less freedom to innovate).
I’ve come to the view that, Essentially, if emerging trends of housing development, deforestation and resource use don’t change in developing countries NOW – I.E. where a ‘new riche’ is creating a rising tide of consumption, non-sustainable building (methods and design) increased resource-use (air-cons, fridges…) and other ‘modernisations’ – then even IF comparatively “rich” westerners globally were to shift towards building from bamboo and living “sustainably”…. What good is it really? Like a friend in Philippines stated: Aren’t we just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic?
I progressed to bamboo after realising that living INSIDE Earthships may not be so desirable in tropical environments (due to insufficient ventilation and high humidity) and had started this design (back in 2013/14) with the intention of having an Earthship base and then a bamboo structure (main living space) above which could be evacuated in the case of a cyclone… The Bamboo House Design is intended to be applicable by/for local people living in developing/post-colonised countries – who work for very low wages in comparison to people living in “western”/ developed countries and yet who make up a over 70% percent of the world’s population.
Bamboo – because it’s a fast-growing renewable material, we want to share at a practical level how to preserve it and ensure its longevity. Many people in developing countries have existing skills (at risk of being lost) to work with this material but locally they are not “valued” mainly because without proper treatment bamboo will only last 5-7 years, (most communities lack the knowledge and finance to be able to make bamboo longer-lasting).
Earthship – because, even though the Earthship ‘signature’ car tyres are not a freely available ‘indigenous’ material in SE Asia where we’re based (we pay $1-2 per tyre), our design aims to create a home that produces its own food and energy, deals with its own waste and lessens unsustainable resource use/consumption.
Tiny-house – because we aim for a maximum efficiency, low budget portable design that meet the needs of the changing world community who either a) live in developing countries and are bound by the financial constraints of living on low wages (less than $10/day), shortage of available land area and materials availabilty/affordability or b) are living in developed countries and prefer not to take up lifestyles and jobs which lead to further global decay and want to Be the change by living a low-consumption resource-friendly lifestyle and contribute to the proliferation of renewable innovative technologies.
After realising that living INSIDE Earthships may not be so desirable in tropical environments (due to insufficient ventilation and high humidity) I started wondering how bamboo could be incorporated with Earthship design…Originally my design-concept was to build an Earthship U-shape base with a bamboo building above tied in so that in the event of a cyclone (I come from North Queensland) the bamboo building (main living area) can be evacuated to the earthship downstairs. However I didn’t have enough expertise on Earthships and couldn’t quite convince the locals on the car-tyre aspect at the time (and our land was water-inundated) so I decided to just focus on the bamboo building/structural side while incorporating up-cycling and ecobrick and cob/ earth-building where possible. In Bali (where the most skilful bamboo builders and craftsmen are located) I have endeavoured to learn Everything I can about this material and to keep sharing along this journey.
This design is made in the “village-style”; it’s unusual for a traditional bamboo building to be higher than 2-level so I’ve dubbed it sky-kubu or sky-shack in other words. Traditional knowledge/methods have been used and local skills – no architect was involved (except for making drawings afterwards).
My main priority has been to find treatment method to prevent insect attack on bamboo that can be practiced affordably at a village-scale as this is the main barrier (I see practically) to people in developing countries utilising bamboo as a building material. So far I’ve completely failed (using more fashionably “organic” and expensive means out of necessity). We are presently experimenting with other locally-accessible methods but borax has become illegal in Indonesia because someone tried to make a bomb out of it apparently… It is still possible to source (with a bureaucratic process attached) but STILL – it’s unaffordable for most people on a local wage rate; unless collectively purchased and planned for. We are working on creative collective solutions to help bridge the divide through sharing renewable technologies and knowledge of treatments methods for making bamboo a long-term sustainable resource in developing countries: Which is the basis of Outreach Projects.
The base site is reclaimed rice-field… the area was pretty soggy and i had no idea how to set and fill tyres on/in it to make an Earthship-base like i originally intended… but now i KNOW (hehehe) to just fill the area and then put car tyres on top. Seismic activity is felt quite strongly in our area, apparently because of the clayey/wet ground; a car tyre foundation would have moved-with the earth’s motion. But… I’m glad in a way that i used a cement foundation (and stone) as I think the horizontal pressure from the height of the building (13m) needs to be “tied-in” rigidly (and it is less challenging to “western” building codes). And, as I’m no expert in Earthship building… better I explain my idea to someone who is and just demonstrate the bamboo structure for now. So for this structure, we’ve used steel rock and cement footings…
The Design Yard
My original concept evolved from wanting to design an Earthship cyclone shelter/windship for an all-abilities community project in North Queensland following my experience in the Philippines after Typoon Yolanda (volunteering on the Windship build in Dalug, Tacloban). The idea was to have an Earthship as the base and then an open metal/steel-framed structure above anchored into the Earthship (elevated to catch the tropical breeze because it’s no fun living on the ground in the tropics) with wall linings and roofing (renewable/woven/mosquito-netting) that can “blow out” in a cyclone and be replaced easily. This was before I had really experienced bamboo… I had only observed natural/traditional roofing and walling styles on visiting Malaysia in 2011.
The model for the house, made by Supri Yanto, comes from an adaptation on a design Djuka Montanero owner of Farmer’s Yard Hostel in Canggu brought to Bali from Java (near Jogja). It is based on a rice-barn (Lumbung) building… a common sight around Indonesia. I helped out building his bamboo lumbung at “the Yard” on my visit to Bali in 2016… Our version is ‘slightly’ wider (by 2m between the pillars) and a fair bit taller… We are around 5m x 6m floorspace on each of the 2 upper bamboo floors and 4.5m between the pillars/foundations in the lower level. The highest point of the roof is around 13m from ground level (top of the foundation). I’m not sure if this house still fits into the “Tiny” category… Originally the design is intended to be knock-down (removable) but I don’t fancy moving this building as it’s been practically built-in now by the surrounding buildings. Other design aims are: to be able to produce an entire house free of “factory-processes” (making it more affordable), able to be built by a small work crew of 6-8 people in a remote or urban area; and, to meet design/safety standards/regulations in more developed countries.
And Here’s the Boo…
We’ve been blessed to have incredible support to build this bamboo house from so many people – from our neighbouring yayasan Bali Street Kids Project who threw a power lead out the window to give us electricity (and a water hose) when we first began and also welcomed Freyr, to local friends who helped me to source the bamboo and find a harvester and other skilled bamboo workers, to amazing people in the HelpX community, fab friends and family members… all who’ve helped us on this journey which sometimes seems like a series of unpredictable miracles… and continues through this pandemic time. With the gift of hindsight and all we’ve learned so far, our mission is to continue sharing knowledge about bamboo building and investigate further the most affordable and efficient treatment method for bamboo to make it accessible and affordable. See our Current Workshops page for more details.
We used a product called Freemite (a non-toxic natural product made from chilli, neem, camphor and nano-something) to treat my bamboo and constructed a bath 1.5m x 9m long to soak the bamboo poles. It cost around AUD $400 to treat the first 90 bamboo poles (which turned out to be 80 treated as 10 pieces were stolen by local kids to make kites but then were returned later and these have actually given me a control to see the effectiveness of the treatment method). Freemite ‘expires’ after 30 days so I purchased more to treat the following bamboo order (but that bamboo was younger, not harvested in the ‘correct’ season and i was pressed for time and the treatment was rushed and not effective). I also purchased pre-treated (boiled with borax) from a local bamboo supplier for a few of the other bamboo orders.
The initial bamboo sourcing and transport mission took nearly a month to source and organise… It was interesting. .. Interesting when a 12m truck won’t fit down your street and so you have to unload on the main road and then somehow move 92 pieces of freakin heavy 8-8.5m bamboo poles about 500m (which we ended up doing with 6 people and a smaller truck – just day-breaking it after finally getting our shit together after 11pm the night before. . . Don’t have photos of that one. But, that bamboo was harvested during the cooler weather on the dark moon. We cleaned the icky hairs from the nodes of the bamboo culms (which are quite hazardous to breathe in… And then hollowed out the nodes manually with a steel rod. Getting the bamboo culms into and out of the Freemite bath (treatment to protect against insects and termites) was always a group activity …
We called in some apprentices from our neighbours Bali Street Kids, and found talent to say the least. Alfred was a natural on the tools and stayed on to learn carpentry with Arief and Supri. Johannas (originally from Sumba) who came over a few times in the afternoons is the originator of the Bamboo Stars design; He just started making a star one day from bamboo in our bamboo trash pile.
A bamboo crew from Jembrana (West Bali) then came to construct the roof, walls and finish the flooring… and it was pretty amazing to have stairs!! We made all the string for tying the alang alang roof onto the “usuk” and watching these guys smash out “gallar” (flattening the bamboo for flooring) and making everything by hand was humbling to say the least. Finishing the bamboo was another adventure with rock-climbers and parkour practitioners contributed invaluable skill for that part and we had some great experiences running a parkour class at our friend’s village in Tabanan and luxuriating in the hot springs near Penebel., and also making an adaptive parkour class for Freyr’s friends at Sunrise School. Our friend Richard from the Phillippines came and helped us make a cob rocket oven as well as Xavier (Koluba.org) who helped us make our cob walls.
I’m currently working on putting together an Ebook/pdf with video links about this build and what I have learned … so far… So if you’d like to support me, please make a contribution here and I’ll email it to you when it’s done!
Bamboo E-book by Natalie Davenport
My experience learning to build with bamboo in Bali. I'm not sure when the book will be finalised. When I have enough funds to pay an editor it will get done.
Adventures with Annabelle…
And here is Annabelle… our upcycled reclaimed doll from the Bali Street Kids orphanage next door… who’s ‘designer’ fabric scraps were sifted from the fill loads that came to our site along with plastic and other trash; her nonchalant expression giving some befuddled amusement to some of our moments…
If you’d like to join our bamboo and natural earth building experience, and learn about bamboo, design, carpentry and village-style design Sign up for our Bamboo Courses…