Original article published 5 January, 2021
[10 minute read]
Today, bespoke sections of the surf industry are enjoying a return to natural materials with more green eco products becoming available each year. Materials like hemp, flax, paulownia timber, the very versatile balsa, coconut husk, cork, and a host of tech-supported options too - like algae, cellulose fibres and mycelium (mushrooms), can now be found across niche product ranges. This shift towards sustainable and renewable materials can also be seen in some associated industries, like surf travel.
Some sobering stats to kick off with...
Building and construction are responsible for 39% of all carbon emissions in the world today, 11% of which comes from the manufacturing of materials, the transportation of those materials, and the construction process itself.
Now more than ever there is a demand for more renewable construction materials, such as bamboo. An extraordinarily strong, lightweight material which has been in use in parts of the world for centuries, bamboo has a high carbon fixing capacity, is capable of rapid growth, and is highly recyclable, biodegradable and compostable.
UNA, a bamboo eco-hotel currently in development on the south coast of Sri Lanka, is the first construction project of scale to use native, Sri Lankan bamboo in its design. The founders, Julien Bailly (a keen surfer) and Aoife O’Sullivan, explain the project:
"Not only will all of our structures be built entirely from bamboo by a Sri Lankan team of carpenters, but the bamboo will also be sourced, treated and processed locally. This creates jobs all along the supply chain, from cultivation, harvesting and transporting to treating the bamboo.
We hope UNA will inspire others to make more sustainable building choices, looking to materials that are available locally to make beautiful structures, so we can grow and develop in a more responsible way."
In a surfing context, could all future surf resorts take inspiration from this? Could surfboards of the future have the same concept applied, i.e. using native materials and a local production line that massively reduces its carbon footprint? The environmental and social benefits could be huge.
The masterplan for UNA, due to be completed over the coming two to three years, includes designs for six naturally ventilated, en-suite bamboo villas, a large, curved bamboo pavilion with a central courtyard housing a restaurant and lounge, a studio pavilion for resident artists or guests needing a work-space, and a small, secluded yoga shala nested amongst the rice paddies. A pool planted within the curves of the land will complete the experience.
The surrounding grounds will be cultivated as a permaculture home-garden to provide food for the garden-to-table restaurant.
UNA is Julien and Aoife's vision of holistic, barefoot living in the tropics.
They kindly joined us for a fascinating chat which revealed their true passion and understanding for the sustainable super-grass we know as bamboo…
Tell us about your area of expertise and your current project...
UNA is a sustainable, bamboo eco-hotel on the south coast of Sri Lanka. The area we have been most focused on in the development of this project is sustainable tourism; businesses that are of lasting benefit to local communities, that make a concerted effort to reduce pollution and environmental damage as well as the pressure that tourism so often creates on precious local resources. We were fueled in this venture by our passion for travel, but also by our own desire to live a more conscious lifestyle.
The first step for us in determining our sustainability goals was the question of how we would bring the destination out of the ground in the most responsible way. We began researching locally available, renewable construction materials, taking inspiration from the vernacular architecture of Sri Lanka, and the traditional materials of old, like bamboo and clay.
What are the major hurdles in bamboo becoming mainstream?
Bamboo has obviously become a major focus of the project as we made every effort to source the material locally. While Sri Lanka has the perfect climate to grow bamboo, the grass has not been cultivated commercially in Sri Lanka as an alternative to timbers, as we have seen in other Asian countries. This presents a number of challenges.
Firstly, without any bamboo plantations the bamboo needs to be sourced “wild”. Additionally, there are tight restrictions around this type of bamboo harvesting in Sri Lanka, with lengthy permit procedures in place.
There tends to be a misconception that harvesting bamboo is detrimental to the riverbanks where it thrives. However, on the contrary, we know that sustainable harvesting methods are in fact beneficial to the health of the bamboo clump, and in turn the riverbanks. It’s just a matter of education about these methods.
With all of that said, we have built an amazing community of dedicated bamboo lovers on the ground here. Together we believe we have the power to generate progress in the industry by highlighting the potential of Sri Lankan bamboo at UNA.
What happens at the end-of-life with your project, in terms of waste disposal and the process of biodegrading?
We have been guided by a “leave no trace” principle, looking at the full life cycle of the material choices we are making today in our built environment. So, all of our structures are single storey, reducing the need for heavy concrete foundations, and all of the materials used in the design of our eco-hotel are derived from nature; bamboo, clay, grass, rattan, rammed earth, meaning that one day they can be recycled or will biodegrade.
The other effect of that is that the land itself can be recycled, keeping it in good condition for the next generation of land users, whatever their needs might be.
What other applications could bamboo potentially be applied to?
The potential for bamboo is exponential as it can used for food, shelter, energy and water. What can’t bamboo do would be an easier question!
What we would love to see happening here in Sri Lanka is the standard use of bamboo in construction to replace timbers. This can be applied in various ways, from the use of “raw” bamboo to processed, laminated bamboo. You just have to look to Thailand, Indonesia or China, for example, to get an idea of the potential applications of bamboo in construction. Mind-boggling!
Given the nature of surfboards needing to be buoyant and rigid, could you see bamboo being adopted by the surf industry to create surfboards that are free from petroleum-based materials?
We have no doubt that bamboo can be used in place of less sustainable and renewable wood products in almost any application. Brands like NOTOX are already using bamboo to create high-performance boards. Bamboo itself is buoyant and with a great flexibility pattern, which are obviously all great qualities in a surfboard.
In the future, what are you most excited about in the world of materials?
There is a lot to be excited about in the materials world as we attempt to move away from plastics and synthetic materials and refocus our attention on materials found in nature. We can see this shift across so many disciplines.
This concept of biomimicry has collided with the design world in a big way as innovative designers look to nature’s systems as guidance for how to design more sensitively for the future. Out of this, some truly amazing materials have been emerging, from mycelium bricks grown in molds to organic textiles being produced from waste products like kombucha scobies.
We’re really excited to see these types of materials go more mainstream, and open-source. Materiom, an online database of natural materials, or “nature’s recipe book” as they call it, is a constant source of inspiration to us here at UNA.
We’re also very heartened to see such a renewed focus on how our ancestors lived and the materials used in vernacular structures, like thatching, cob and earth, and seeing these materials being adapted to 21st century living, and technologies. The Nest at Sossus by South-African designer Porky Hefer springs to mind; or the otherworldly superadobe structures of the Cali Earth Institute, to name just a few.
When all of these materials add up to a cleaner and more organic planet that gets us really excited!
Thank you, Julien and Aoife, for sharing your thoughts and learnings. Keep up the fantastic and inspiring work.
Having just wrapped up a successful crowdfunding campaign over on Indiegogo, where pre-bookings for a stay at UNA were among some of the perks, you can now follow the progress of UNA in the lead up to their late 2021 opening by signing up to their mailing list at unabambu.com.