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ATELIER NOMADIC is an architecture and landscape design studio that specializes in biophilic architecture and regenerative landscape design. The studio has been honoured with several prestigious international awards including the Architecture Master Prize, International Architecture Award, Design for Asia Award and the UNESCO Prix Versailles.

We began working with Atelier Nomadic in late 2019; a natural choice for us in collaborating on the design of our bamboo eco-hotel given the studio’s extensive knowledge of working with bamboo, and of Sri Lanka.

Olav Bruin, the creative director and lead architect of the Rotterdam-based studio, is responsible for designing the first contemporary bamboo buildings in Thailand back in the mid-2000s, where previously there had been no supply chain for bamboo as a construction material. A bamboo pioneer who knows all too well the challenges and the magic of working with this tropical timber.

We caught up with Olav earlier in December from his studio, an early 19th century monument built in Delfshaven, to find out more about the evolution of his architectural practice and his journey into the world of bamboo, as well as discussing his views on the importance of the vernacular, the future of hotel design and more.

una bambu olav bruin atelier nomadic
Olav Bruin, Architect

Firstly Olav, thank you so much for taking the time to chat today. I’m very excited to have the opportunity to pick your brain and gain a small insight into your practice.

As a formally trained architect can you tell me a bit about your journey into the world of bamboo, and whether there was a turning point in your practice which made you want to pursue the material?

I was always interested in natural, low impact building materials, and organic architecture. I went to the Steiner School, where they don’t develop just the brains of the students, but also the senses; crafts and working with your hands. So I was always interested in the craftsmanship of architecture instead of contemporary, high-tech architecture.

Then in my final year at Delft University my graduation project was to redesign the national museum in Dar es-Salaam, Tanzania. I studied tropical architecture and passive tropical design, from the period before the introduction of air conditioning. Before A/C the architect had to solve the environmental issues, in terms climate, weather, wind, sun using passive design strategies. So my interest in this type of architecture was triggered.

After I went to work at 24H Architecture, where I met Louis (CEO Nomadic Resorts). He was working for Six Senses at the time, and they approached us to design a children’s activity center for their resort in Thailand. They wanted us to use local, natural building materials, and then we noticed bamboo. So we contacted Charlie Young, who was a bamboo pioneer in Europe at the time, and he introduced us to Jorg [Stamm]. I joined Jorg for a 3-day bamboo workshop in Germany, and in those three days I learned so much from him; how to make all the basic joints, and the material behaviour. That was enough to kick off the bamboo design process.


So it was more like a sequence of projects that lead to bamboo making its way into your practice?

Exactly. The funny thing was, we didn’t know anything about bamboo when we started the design in Thailand, and we had designed all these organically curved beams. In the workshop with Jorg, holding the bamboo in my hands, I realized you can’t actually bend the bamboo. It’s flexible when it waves in the wind, but when it dries it doesn’t bend.

I went to our bamboo supplier, Thailand Bamboo, who were creating bamboo furniture. They helped us to develop a steam oven to heat the bamboo, forming the poles into 30-meter-long curved beams. We would take them hot out of the oven and put them on the building! Our naivety with the material really led to this quite innovative method of construction.

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Soneva Kiri, Thailand

Would you say the Six Senses project in Thailand was your big introduction to the world of bamboo?

Yeah, 24H Architecture sent me to Thailand to build the project, and just after I arrived I joined Louis in Bali where he was accepting an award for Six Senses. That was a very special trip because we met Linda Garland (founder of the Environmental Bamboo Foundation), the bamboo queen, and stayed at her beautiful bamboo home in Ubud. She is the true bamboo pioneer. Jorg happened to be in Bali as well, and he guided us around the Greenschool, and Three Mountain Building, which was the largest bamboo structure at the time.

In Thailand, there was no reference for contemporary bamboo architecture, and there was no real supply chain, so I had to travel within Thailand to look for places to buy bamboo. In this way I can say I was a bamboo pioneer in Thailand.

One thing I liked about building this project for Six Senses was that they found a group of bamboo builders from the Karen hill tribe in Chiang Mai. The Karen people still use a lot of bamboo in their villages. I had learned the contemporary construction techniques from Jorg, which allows you to make larger bamboo structures than with traditional joinery. We used the contemporary joints for the primary building structure, the columns and the main beams, and then the traditional joinery with dowel, rope, and rattan for the secondary structure.

The whole process was an exchange of knowledge; me learning from the Karen guys how to do the traditional joints, and them learning the contemporary joints from me. This time I spent with them was really a life-changing experience.

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Soneva Kiri and Panyaden School, Thailand

I didn’t know the Karen hill tribes had been building with bamboo. That’s really interesting. Merging the modern and the traditional techniques really brings the craftsmanship to another level.

When building with bamboo you can’t work in a traditional way as an architect by preparing a set of drawings, giving it to a contractor, and wishing them good luck, because bamboo is organic. Every bamboo is different, so for every pole you must think of where to use it in the building. With bamboo architecture you need to be very involved in the execution or have people who are experienced.

The next step was that I presented the completed building at the World Bamboo Congress, which happened to be in Bangkok that year, which was another nice introduction to the bamboo world.

We met Markus Roselieb there and he asked us to design Panyaden School. Marcus was setting up Chiang Mai Life Construction at that time, and my team of workers were able to move directly from my project to the Panyaden project. I was so happy that the knowledge we gained could stay within this group and that they could also use their skills to get work, because for the Karen people, as a minority group, it can be difficult for them to get jobs in Thailand. The bamboo knowledge empowered them to get more work in bamboo construction. Instead of only using that knowledge for their own houses they could actually make a living out of it.


I guess not only were they empowered, but they also became the experts in Thailand with this type of construction.



At what point did you and Louis begin discussing further collaborations?

Throughout all those projects Louis and I were always fantasizing about how to build resorts in a more low-impact, lightweight way, and in the years following we developed this concept of prefab tented structures, which is where the Looper tent came in. Then Louis found a client in Sri Lanka who was interested in the tents for a safari lodge and he asked if I wanted to team up with him. So I left my old job in 2014 and took the opportunity to establish my studio; Atelier Nomadic.

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Wild Coast Lodge, Sri Lanka

I see. So Wild Coast Lodge in Sri Lanka was the starting point of Nomadic Resorts?

Yeah, it was our first project. It was so nice to start our company with such a big project that we worked on for two years.


Quite a project to kickstart your company! How has Nomadic Resorts grown since that time? Is the goal of building low-impact resorts still there?

We started with the focus of building low-impact tented structures, but I always have this love for bamboo, and I am always pushing to incorporate the material in our projects and designs. With Wild Coast Lodge it wasn’t possible to use it for the full 100%. We designed bamboo grid shell domes and in the end decided to create a steel frame that supports the domes. We were pioneering with bamboo in Sri Lanka but there was no time to tackle the bamboo legislation, and we ended up importing the bamboo from Thailand. We felt at least if you build something with bamboo, even if its imported, people can see for themselves the possibilities of the material.

That’s why I was so happy when you contacted us because I saw the opportunity to design the very first project in Sri Lanka that will be 100% bamboo, using the bamboos available locally. But we haven’t promoted ourselves as bamboo architects enough, I think.


Ok, so I guess this is where Atelier Nomadic comes in.

Yeah. Nomadic Resorts was established as a hospitality design and consultancy company, with the tented projects also. It’s really serving the hospitality industry and that’s anchored in the name. We decided to separate, in terms of branding, the architecture design studio, so we can reach a wider market, because how can you design bamboo schools or social housing, for example, if your company is called Nomadic Resorts. Branding the design studio separately we hope will make this a little easier.


In the years since, Nomadic Resorts has grown to be a global design studio with projects all over the world. How do you bring the ethos of Nomadic Resorts to the context of a project, and does culture or landscape always shape your design process?

We don’t design from a particular style but our designs evolve from a certain process we always follow. For us, anchoring the project in the local context, both culturally and environmentally, is shaping our buildings. We always get inspiration from the local surroundings, so maybe things we find on the site, or in the area. Wild Coast Lodge was inspired by these large boulder outcrops that you find scattered around Yala National Park, and UNA was inspired by the plant cells because it was such a nice, densely vegetated site. We find this quite fascinating.

In Mexico we hadn’t been able to travel, which was a big handicap for us. It kind of disconnects us with the local context, but the client was very much involved. He gave us the ingredients to work with by showing us a video shot right off the coast of Playa Viva of a big school of manta rays swimming just below the surface, and at varying depths, creating different colours and tones. He also provided the input of the local weather conditions; the views and the wind and how the sun moves. His input was critical to the design, and from a distance, with him on the ground, we were able to develop this concept.

His target was to design and build in 6 months. We knew we could complete the design work in 2-3 months, but construction is also a big challenge. That’s why we brought in Jorg, the best bamboo guy in the world, who has a big network of people who could support the construction. He brought in a site architect and a group of Colombian bamboo builders who could collaborate with the Mexican workers, so it’s a really multicultural team. Jorg’s consultancy during the client process allowed us to develop a design that was also relatively easy to build.


When you say it’s easy to build, what is it about the design that makes it easy?

The idea was that elements could be easily pre-fabricated. So the façade panels are pre-fabricated and also the hyperbolic paraboloid can be built on the ground, lifted up, and then the columns are built underneath. This methodology was all developed by Jorg, so we were all super pleased with this collaboration.

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Playa Viva, Mexico and Wild Coast Lodge, Sri Lanka

Clearly you’re drawing a lot from the landscape, but are you also drawing from the vernacular of your context, and how important do you think that is?

The vernacular is super important to study because vernacular architecture is a way of building that’s developed over the centuries, from father to son. That knowledge is anchored in the culture and is developed and improved to protect people living there against the specific climatical conditions. In countries where you see a lot of heavy tropical rains, let’s say, you see that the buildings are often elevated above the ground, lifted to avoid any flooding, or be removed from all the scary animals that you find!

The future in architecture also goes more towards minimising energy use. So that’s kind of funny that in modernism architecture went way off exploring the endless possibilities that the use of A/C provided, but now we are kind of circling back again and we are looking for contemporary ways to reinterpret the vernacular.


What do you think is the future of hotel design, in light of this return to the vernacular which you mention, and especially considering the events of the last year and a half? Do you see more developers shifting to greener building concepts?

I think global warming will have a much bigger impact than the pandemic. Because of climate change travellers are more conscious and feel more responsible about how they travel; where they go and where they stay. The way you build your hotel, in a conscious, low-impact way, or how it empowers local communities, and effects surrounding rainforests, is a story that is important to tell, because people staying there want to know these things.

You can’t really stop people from travelling. As a curious species that always wants to explore, I think we just need to travel less, but better quality. We notice that the bigger hotel groups, that have large traditional concrete hotels from the 80s and 90s on the beach, are now setting up boutique hotel brands that make smaller scale hotels. We see a shift towards smaller scale, more personal travelling.

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UNA, Sri Lanka

UNA is one such small-scale hotel. Can you explain what it was it about our brief which attracted you to the project? Was it simply a case of the familiar location of Sri Lanka, or was there something particular in our brief which drew you in?

We saw your project as a groundbreaking project for building with bamboo in Sri Lanka, especially because you wanted to build it yourself with local bamboo and set up that whole industry. Your project hopefully can ignite the bamboo movement in Sri Lanka. People only believe something when they see it, and they are inspired to also want to do it. A little bit like what happened with my first project in Thailand, when you see where Thailand is now with the use of bamboo. That project was the first time a high-end luxury hotel used this super simple, low-end material; the poor man’s timber as bamboo is often referred. Also in Thailand bamboo didn’t have a great reputation. Everyone wants to become modern, so as soon as they have a little bit of money they replace their bamboo house with a concrete one. Then that bamboo knowledge becomes lost. So using bamboo to a high-end, luxury level you change the perception and the image of bamboo as a material.

The professional interest of doing UNA was designing a 100% sustainable bamboo and adobe project. The other side was that we really like this kind of process where the client is closely involved in the project, where you develop and create together, and the design is a co-creation. A smaller project allows you to experiment and have a more personal relationship and process with the client, which we like. You pushed the design to become more organic and irregular which I found great, and the end result was better.


Was it those irregular shapes that inspired the use of the hyperbolic paraboloid column design, or why did you decide on that type of structural system?

I like to explore different ways of construction so I can professionally develop and learn new techniques and methodologies, and I thought this structural system would work really well. If we had just devised a normal post and beam design the structure doesn’t really play a role in the story of the concept. With hyperbolic paraboloids it emphasizes the story, because you see the columns all squeezed, or twisted, or all a little bit different, and that creates another layer in the architecture. You have the layer of the shape of the building and then smaller layers which strengthen and reinforce the bigger concept.


I never thought about the layers of the architectural form like this. What a wonderful insight!

Lastly Olav, your thoughts on the future of bamboo; I came across an interview with Elora Hardy recently when she spoke about a future where skyscrapers, and whole cities could be built from engineered bamboo. Do you see a similar future with the material?

I agree that engineered bamboo has a great future in the development of our cities, and I believe there is a future where bamboo can be used in a more engineered way, also in an urban environment. Laminated bamboo beams are now at a level where they can be used as structural beams.

In Europe however I see timber as our future building material, rather than bamboo. I don’t see the advantage of shipping bamboo all the way to Europe, and I hope that we are not going to keep shipping building materials from one side of the world to the other. If we create bamboo cities let’s use it in Asia, where it’s a local building material, and here in Europe we focus on our timber industry, which is our local, sustainable building material.

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UNA, Sri Lanka
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