I am often asked how Bamboo Living came to be the first and only company to build bamboo buildings that are approved by western building codes.
For me personally, it started as the result of my midlife crisis. I am an architect and was attempting to design and build as sustainably as possible. In 1993, I began designing my own home on Maui’s North Shore. The home was to have an off-grid electrical system powered by photovoltaic panels. I would recycle fifty eight-foot tall by five-foot wide louvered mahogany doors that came out of a Maui hotel that remodeled. These doors would become the walls for the house, mounted on sliding tracks so that the home could open up completely when the weather was nice! I would even incorporate local bamboo that I harvested with friends into the fences and railing pickets for my home.
However, when the lumber to build the house was delivered it was like a gut punch. Way too many trees had been cut to build my home! The huge pile of lumber delivered was a painful testament to the trees that had fallen to bring my home to life. I was well aware that intensive lumber use is typical for houses in the U.S., but the reality of the lost forest hit home in that moment.
I started looking for a better way to build with less impact on our forests: A way of building about which I could feel great. My experience has been that if we seek sincerely, we eventually find that for which we are looking. Already the seeds of an answer had been planted the year before.
I had been hired by Kutira Decosterd to design a home for her and her husband, Raphael, on Maui. I had just completed the design of my own home and had submitted for the building permit. Kutira and I decided to go to Bali together to gain inspiration and search for accouterments for her new home. On landing in Denpasar, we were greeted by our friend, Emerald. Emerald’s full legal name is Emerald Dolphin Heart Starr. My brother was dating his ex-wife at the time who, like Kutira, taught Tantra. Emerald arrived to pick us up in his emerald green Volkswagen “Thing” with his new boyfriend, Adimas, a young Indonesian prince sporting a sixteen-hundred-dollar pair of sunglasses. Emerald owned the property on Maui in front of Kutira’s land: A beautiful mango grove that ran right to the cliff’s edge and fell two hundred feet to the ocean below, giving views along the rugged North Shore coast toward Hana.
After greeting Emerald and Adi, Kutira and I climbed in the back of the Thing and headed up the mountain toward the town of Ubud. In each village through which we passed, all the shops seemed to offer the same type of handicraft. One village would have all woodcarvings, another all stone carvings. Apparently each village shared an artisan trade that had been a specialty of its inhabitants for generations.
Near Ubud, we turned off the main road and wound down a dirt road that led to a small Balinese village. We passed the community hall where the people of the village gathered most evenings to rehearse their gamelan orchestra. Parking at Emerald’s property, we opened the carved front door and stepped inside, into an enchanted world. We were still outside but had entered into a magical realm, a mountain palace! The home perched on the steep slope of a deep river valley. The jungle cascaded down the slopes to a roaring river far below. Balinese bathers stood in the shallows where the river eddied. Every now and then a group of Sobek white water rafts would float by loaded with adventure travelers. On the far side of the river peeking above the jungle were the picturesque rooftops of another Balinese village.
Emerald’s home was broken up into pieces: Each function in a different building. And all open air, even the kitchen. The walls, of which there were few, were made of panels of woven bamboo slats called bedeg. Every room had a stunning view of the river or the surrounding jungle. A steep path led from the main house down to the “pondok” where I would sleep. The pondok was essentially a beautiful oversized bed draped with mosquito net, again without walls, and set under a broad tile roof that kept off the rain.
The time in Bali passed quickly as we explored the island and discussed design ideas for Kutira’s new home. Just as Kutira had predicted, my eyes were open to another way of living in the tropics: One that embraced nature and allowed nature to embrace it. I thought about my own home and how I could incorporate an even greater embrace of nature than I had planned.
Emerald took me to meet his friend, Linda Garland. Her estate was on a smaller river just outside Ubud. We met Linda in the main hall of her estate: A two-story open-air structure with a huge thatch roof, no walls, and all made of bamboo. The furniture of her design was bamboo as well: Couches and chairs of giant bamboo, furniture large enough to live in and piled with pillows sporting fabrics of her design. She and Emerald were planning the World Bamboo Congress that would be held at her estate the following year.
Her estate, like Emerald’s and the traditional Balinese homes, was a series of structures broken apart by function. There was a bathhouse surrounded by a rock wall for privacy that had its own roof and an oversized tub that sat under the eave — all built with bamboo and without walls. The bamboo guesthouses were each unique. One made the cover of Architectural Digest that year. I saw firsthand the aesthetic potential of bamboo and was inspired!
I returned home from Bali encouraged by the people's way of living in greater harmony with nature. I adjusted the design of my own home to incorporate what I had learned. The entry to the home became a bridge that crossed a pond and joined the wings of the home. Entry to the bridge was over stepping stones set in the pond. The recycled doors were set up to slide away during good weather and the house was oriented to allow the walls to remain open most of the year. We sought sustainably grown wood for the roof shingles and flooring.
The issue of the trees being cut for lumber, however, weighed on me. The next year I was unable to attend the World Bamboo Congress at Linda’s estate due to a conflicting board meeting (I had just become a Trustee of Kripalu, the largest yoga center in the U.S.). However, my friend, Jeffree Trudeau, who had helped me build my home, did attend and came back very inspired. Upon his return to Maui, he called me and so began Bamboo Living!