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Off Bali’s beaten track, past a towering banyan tree and next to an ancient Hindu temple, the world’s largest bamboo commercial structure is taking shape: a chocolate factory.
The three-storey, 2 150 square meter building – made from more than 3 000 long, flexible poles – is crowned with a graceful, sloped ceiling nearly 15.2m high.
Frederick Schilling, co-owner of the Big Tree Farms factory, calls it his “bamboo cathedral”.
The tropical plant, favoured in the West for flooring, furniture and household accessories, is being viewed as the construction material of choice from Africa to South America – and no longer just for shacks and scaffolding.
Bali is leading the charge, attracting carpenters, architects and designers from across the globe to use bamboo in building everything from a school and luxury villas to exclusive resorts.
The plant – found in almost every equatorial nation – can grow up to 1.2m in a day, although more typically they grow between 3 to 10cm per day. Many species are strong enough to use in five years.
Cheap, tough as concrete, with the ability to bend, and incredibly abundant, bamboo’s possibilities are almost limitless.
“Bamboo is definitely regarded as one of the most sustainable building materials in the world,” said Schilling, whose factory is scheduled to start pumping out organic chocolate bars in January. “It’s also beautiful to work with.”
Bali’s craze started six years ago with the founding of a local bamboo production company for the construction of Green School, an exclusive international school with 275 students.
Since then, more than a dozen projects have sprung up. Green Village, a collection of designer villas with price tags as high as R6.3 million, sits down the Ayung River from Green School.
But whether its success here can be replicated in cooler, dry climates remains to be seen.
Strict building codes in Europe and the US make large-scale construction projects more difficult, said Victor van Praag, co-owner of PT Green Home, a bamboo design company.
Like any new industry, bamboo construction remains in a state of innovation. The absence of well-defined standards allows for unrestrained creativity: from developing longer-lasting treatments to experimenting with design. But it also leaves room for unexpected problems.
Gove DePuy, a sustainability planner who has lived and worked in Bali since 2004, said bamboo construction as it exists was too young to be viable in the West.
“When you manufacture bamboo into a product, it can be tested. It can be given certifications,” he said, using flooring as an example. “But if you’re just picking bamboo, cutting it down and putting it up, you’ve left the certification to nature.”
DePuy rejects the idea of bamboo becoming a worldwide super material. He said its large-scale use should be limited to tropical regions where the plant’s abundance, affordability and proven strengths make it practical.
But as green-minded expats have learned in Indonesia, their enthusiasm for bamboo is rarely matched by local people, who often view the material as second rate.
“Indonesians think that bamboo is used only for scaffolding,” said Effan Adhiwira, an architect who worked on both Green School and Green Village. Overcoming that stigma remains a challenge.
As Schilling sees it, the chocolate factory is simply one of the newest and biggest examples of the plant’s untapped potential.
“This is not a revolution. It is an awakening to the wisdom that Indonesians have known for a long, long time,” he said. – Sapa-AP