Category Archives: Sustainability

Innovative Leather

As an accessories designer, I do frequently come across leather, but have always seen it as a commodity rather than the true form of art it can be. As a guy who tends to stay away from meat, I’m also conflicted when I realize that leather can also be viewed as a way to minimize the waste of our animal consumption. But when in Bangkok I met with Nauvarat Songsawaddichai, President of the Thailand Leather Association. She asked me about fish leather…fish leather?


Then I was asked if I had seen chicken shin leather…really? It’s also known as poulard.


But my imagination really took off when I was shown stingray leather. In fact I had to buy a wallet made out of it. The white eye shape is where the bony tail emerges from the top of the animal. It’s so tough you could sand wood with it.

Now I am determined to find out more about all of these resources and wrestle with the concepts of sustainability in harvesting and tanning the skins of these animals. Perhaps there really is a place for innovative and sustainable leather in our coming product line of shoes. Needless to say, the more I learn the less I know!



This is Not a Solar Panel

When John Hardy and I discussed “base of pyramid” projects I was pursuing, he was kind enough to refer me to Greg Hinchliffe of F Cubed. A former Quiksilver surfing pioneer in Indonesia, his work led hime to be a caretaker of the environment with initiatives including the acclaimed Kuta Beach Sea Turtle Conservation. Now Greg’s work has turned to filtering water, using another of Indonesia’s basic assets: the sun.

F Cubed was established in 2004 by Peter Johnstone, with their premier product being the Carocell. The concept is surprisingly simple: dirty water is heated by the sun and only clean water evaporates and condenses onto the clear polycarbonate film above. Clean water runs down the inside of the film and collects into containers. The process is further described on their site.

The product costs about US$500 each and from 40 liters of dirty water, generates 20 liters of clean water per day. At typical Indonesian pricing of $1.50 per 20 liter container, the payback is 1 year. Research from IDE’s Paul Polak points to a 3-4 month payback for most dollar-a-day farmers to make an investment, so they may still have some cost-cutting to get wide acceptance, but partnered with a sponsor, this could achieve wide acceptance quite quickly. Test sites are already underway, with the first Balinese installation being at Kesayan Ikang Papa Orphanage in Gianyar City. This site economized space and doubled its function by becoming a car-port roof as well.

A byproduct of the water purification is that the 20 or so liters of un-evaporated fluid is sterilized by the heat. If salt water is used as the input fluid, the resulting fluid is sterilized and concentrated, which can be used to make pickling brines or other byproducts that may have additional commercial value.

Greg also mentioned that this same technology could be used to treat industrial waste. In fact there are already looking at huge arrays of these to be deployed in parallel for such purposes.

My thought would be to simply couple this on the back side of a urinal. He said it would work. In fact, the applications seem quite endless. The beauty of it is to have a simple modular system that can be deployed as single units or massive arrays. Matching utility with simplicity and economy is exactly the type of innovation that can change the world.

Stimulating Creativity through Preservation

One of the common threads of my favorite Eisenhower Fellows is their multifaceted careers. Laretna Adishakti is no exception. I was able to meet with her in her family-owned of Mustokoweni Heritage Hotel. The entry was an unassuming but very cute coffee shop. We were just digging into our Nutty Cream and Cinnamon Latte when we were escorted through the back and downstairs to a beautiful courtyard.

We were led around a hanging batik-in-progress and into a gallery with a series of rooms of beautiful batiks. The pride of the gallery was the “indigo room” which featured all natural fabrics printed with traditional patterns using all natural dyes. Knowing that batiks are the pride and joy of Yogyakarta culture, we felt we had just entered the Holy of the Holies.

“Sita” Laretna arrived and invited us for some tea in the courtyard and started to give us some background on what we were admiring. As a professor of Architecture at Gadjah Mada University, she gave us a wonderful introduction. There are several threats to the rich and deep culture of batik in Java. Most recently erupting volcanoes in the region have wiped out homes and villages. We saw some evidence of this on the way to the Borobudur temple. Some boulders the size of cars were still lying in the midst of houses nearly 20 km from Mount Merapi!

Sita explained “unlike devastating earthquakes, sometimes volcanic activity makes places too dangerous to ever return.” These people are then homeless and their crafts and traditions disappear. This led her to found the Center for Heritage Conservation. The mission of CHC is to help retain the skills and knowledge of these traditions. They also work to preserve the natural materials and dye recipes used in batiks.

A typical institutional and academic approach would be to document and publish their findings. CHC’s commitment has gone beyond this and iaids in the production of the batiks. They control their supply integrity by purchasing natural textiles, then contracting rural batik wax artists to paint them with traditional patterns. One of my favorite patterns is called “chicken feet” by locals but is a rigidly geometric style. When complete CHC brings the, back to Yogyakarta for dying and melting the waxes away to reveal the previous coloring. I asked how they controlled this and I was taken still another level deeper in the compound.

Neatly tucked behind the courtyard was a garden and I saw my first Indigo plant. I was taken back by how such an unassuming plant could have caused so much geopolitical conflict. They are able to crush the indigo lease on sight to make the dyes. Apparently the dye color requires an exponential amount of leaves and requires expertise to get right. The darkest blues may require 25 times more leaves than the lighter blues.

After dying the fabrics hung to dry, stiff as a rock. Special melting and washing processes were required to turn them into the supple batiks in the gallery.

The most inspiring thing was when we started looking at the dye sources. We had samples of Mahogany bark and a variety of other javanese woods that all made distinctive colors – learned by studying traditional Batik sources. Most of these dye sources were only known to certain villages. However with Sita at the helm, she saw the opportunity to combine traditional patterns and dyes and cross-fertilize the research and create new color combinations. The blending of deep mahogany with medium indigo is just breathtaking. These striking new color combinations and re-emergence of traditonal patterns with natural material has caught a lot of attention.

In the end there was an important lesson for me here: researching and preserving traditions can itself be a very creative venture and allow new possibilities to emerge. I am excited to see how these efforts will create the “new traditions” of batik!

From Green to Great

I can’t properly state how thrilled we were today. Not only did we see some of the most magnificent architecture of my life, but we spent the whole day with John Hardy to get the first-person perspective on how it comes together.

The first stop was the “factory.” In one building, you can see the design team create models of the homes they intend to build, with the iterations hanging upside down from the ceiling. Outside is a bamboo processing operation, where the massive 40′ trunks are treated with Borax, pressure washed and stacked for sale or use in their own projects. Many different types of bamboo come into the facility, each with its own use: the straight ones become structural components for buildings, while the curvy ones make great railings or furniture elements. Some pieces are ripped into small strips so they can be reassembled into flooring or counters. Some larger pieces are scored so they can become matts. Then there are the beautiful cross-sections which make up headboards or railing posts.

Interspersed with this variety of operations is a small clue into John’s creative thinking. In almost every corner there is an experiment: combining bamboo with tires, ceramics, or glass and with other bamboo components in a variety of constructions. Each one looked like a whole new business was ready to start.

Our first stop was to look at a bamboo home in process. The entry was through a fully round tunnel – apparently the concept came from laying a tower down. The workers made it look like it was a fine idea.

In Bali the climate is quite friendly: temperature is moderate, bugs are nothing like NC, and the rain falls vertically. So this means walls are optional. For the most part, the Hardy’s opted out.

Of course some spaces require some privacy, so bathrooms were created as large baskets deployed in corners of the open spaces. The undulating walls created some layers of separation and in some cases obviated the need for doors.

When doors and windows were needed, they found appropriately creative ways to address them.

Countertops, floors, railings were all part of the vision.

Even the headboard… and some ideas on how the young man might use it…

It was stunning to see how the designs worked with the existing topography and barely disturbed it in construction. Clearing an architectural site is always a highly disruptive activity that consumes massive amounts of energy, destroys lots of foliage, and creates runoff problems.

But in many ways it all clicked when I saw the footings. Generally a footing needs to be purely compression-bearing. Shear forces at the base is an engineering no-no, especially without tensile structures in place. So columns are always built straight up. However the Hardy’s have come up with an ingenious footing system that allows their main columns so meet the ground at an angle. I won’t give away their system, but as an engineer, I see this footing system as a “secret sauce” (I think they have many). Once liberated of that, the design opportunities opened up exponentially. But it’s not like it happened by accident.

In my experience the best creativity emerges when new constraints are imposed. The Hardy’s committed to sustainable design and bamboo. This then pushed them into finding ways to design and work with the material, which led to a nice innovation in footings and freed them of perpendicular architecture. This in turn opened up an ocean of new design possibilities. What sells anyone on their bamboo system is not the sustainability, but the fantastic designs that emerge because of this commitment. Sustainability is clearly in the DNA of these buildings, and this manifested into some gorgeous forms.

See Beth’s post with way better pics here.

Bambu Indah, Bali

I’m jet lagged and stalking a shrimp under my bed.

The villas at Bambu Indah are re-assembled antique Javanese teak bridal homes…with some adjustments. Ours was put together with glass panels inset between the timbers and positioned over a natural pool. The green glow of the underwater light provides a wonderful night light for us above the glass and a magnet for insects in the water. The shrimp have figured it out but are too shy for a picture from above…so far.

Bambu Indah is but one testament to the sustainable design philosophy of its founder, John Hardy. Upon arrival to this bamboo architecture oasis, he scootered into the parking lot and had me sit with him to discuss my program and interests. He quickly took some voice memos, sent them to his assistant by his iPhone (in bamboo case), and I had compelling details waiting for me in email by the time I arrived to my room. He moves fast.

The accommodations at the Udang (shrimp) House are as much outside as inside. Glass tiles allow dappled light in through holes of the thatched roof, and teak panels swing out in a variety of ways to create enough windows as to make the room disappear. The food of the outdoor restaurant is all organic, locally sourced and excellent. In the middle of the small compound is a raised outdoor structure made from black bamboo which serves as a lounge and yoga space. Most of the space between the structures is comprised of running streams and vegetable gardens. I’m hard-pressed to find a piece of plastic in the whole place.

John joined Beth and I briefly for dinner conversation which quickly enjoined on Biennale in VeniceBurning ManINKtalks (the TED of India), and men wearing sanitary napkins. What’s clear is John’s intense commitment to sustainability. We plan to see his Green School and Green Village tomorrow before meeting his talented daughter, Elora. Special thanks are due to Stefan Sagmeister for linking us together.