Building a Bamboo Yurt in Ecuador
By Mateo Sáenz | June 30, 2022 | Alumni -
Follow Mateo Sáenz’s journey as he builds a bamboo yurt inspired by a traditional Kyrgyzstan yurt in Ecuador, during his participation of the Bamboo U Online Course.
Student Name: Mateo Sáenz
Name of Project: Kyrgyzs-Andean Bamboo Yurt
Year/ Month attended Bamboo U Online: 2021/February
Country: United States and Ecuador
Profession/ University: Student/Cell and Molecular Biology at John Jay College, City University of New York
Growing up in New York City I was surrounded by concrete, steel, fast trains, and dull colors. Living in this man-made environment helped me to appreciate nature for its open spaces and vast greenery. I always envisioned myself living in a forest or a jungle, somewhere that would make me feel like I was back at home in Ecuador— where I was born. In Ecuador, I was surrounded by nature. From a young age and up to now I have studied in New York, primarily focused on the sciences, with the hope of one day becoming a medical doctor. My interests have always been diverse and I’ve always been looking to learn new things. This curiosity is what led me to Elora Hardy’s TED talk on IBUKU in 2015. This was the first time I saw bamboo as a viable and beautiful construction material. Where I am from, houses made of bamboo are synonymous with a part of society that is marginalized, underserved, and forgotten. The way Elora talked about and presented the luxurious, grandiose, and amazing bamboo houses in her talk changed my mind completely. Suddenly, I envisioned a way for me to get back in touch with nature; living in a bamboo house. I began to imagine how I could walk on and feel the bamboo floors and walls, how I could look out into the deep green spaces from any part of my house, and how it would be made of an incredible, reliable, ecologically-friendly material.
Shortly after, in April of 2016 an earthquake hit the coast of Ecuador. I lost contact with my family for 3 days and was unsure if they were okay. From New York, I felt helpless and wanted to go there and do something. Instead, I took a different approach to try and help people impacted by natural disasters. At my university, I was told that I could help by innovating and creating solutions that would prevent the loss of more lives in future disasters. I applied my knowledge of science to find new ways of solving social problems. I traveled around the Americas under a National Science Foundation I-Corps grant to interview responders and survivors of disasters and to learn about ways to help them. I spent over two years doing this and saw the devastation in California during the 2018 wildfires, the loss of homes in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and finally, at the end of my trip, I visited the epicenter of the earthquake in Pedernales, Ecuador. This left an impression on me. I started to look for ways to help communities that are marginalized and underserved. I put IBUKU’s goal for sustainable design together with my newfound mission and thought of using bamboo as a renewable material that can be transformed into emergency deployable houses that allow survivors to have a home after losing it to a devastating event.
Watching that TED talk several years ago led me down the bamboo shoot to learn about Green School, the Kul Kul Farm, and other natural and environmental programs. Every year since, I had planned to go and visit Bali to take the 11 Day Bamboo Build and Design Immersion course, but had been unable to make it happen. Then the pandemic hit. This crisis brought about another opportunity— the first Bamboo U Online Course. I joined it as soon as I could. During the online course, I learned that bamboo is globally available, that it acts as a carbon sink and that it can also be a water reservoir, making bamboo a powerful yet ecological solution to global deforestation and drought. I had to present a final project for the course, and with the knowledge and confidence gained from my online training, I decided to bring this project to life and make a large-scale model in Ecuador in the summer of 2021.
The Bamboo Building Concept
The concept idea of the project I wanted to build during the Bamboo U Online Course was what I called a ‘Kyrgyz-Andean Bamboo Yurt. With a living space of 25 meters squared and with the goal of having it act as emergency housing, long-term retractable housing and shelter.
The first modules of the course introduced me to bamboo sourcing, sustainable harvesting, and taxonomy which came into play when I traveled to Santo Domingo de Los Colorados, a mid-altitude tropical region of the Andes with optimal conditions for bamboo growing. Here I met with Nancy Concha, owner of a plantation complete with a bamboo forest. This was my first time up close and personal with bamboo (pictured left). Here everything began to make sense.
After visiting the site and inspecting for Bent, Small, Broken, Old and Diseased (B.S.B.O.D.) bamboo, I determined the forest was healthy and suitable for sourcing material. The task of determining how much bamboo was required was only possible after making a small-scale bamboo model. This skill was taught toward the middle of the online immersion modules and again I was applying what I learned to a real-life project. The next step was to figure out prices, and logistics and to bring this awesome material to the construction site for processing. Nancy Concha was kind enough to listen to my story and understood that by helping us she would be helping the community and humanity as a whole. She welcomed us into her home, to her bamboo wonderland, and gave us a generous amount of bamboo for the price we could pay. We could not have completed this project without Nancy’s kindness, expertise, and blessing.
The bamboo was harvested, loaded up on a small truck, and sent to Quito. Once we had the material onsite, the bamboo was cleaned and processed to bring out its natural shine and to ensure its longevity. Together with my family and friends, we got to work on this task. Once the bamboo was sparkling it was time for the next challenge: getting the bamboo to bend.
The Final Prototype / 1:1 Model
The real strength and uniqueness of the Kyrgyz yurt comes in at the middle of the structure, where it bends at a specific angle to form the roof. This angle sets the original yurt design from Kyrgyzstan apart from the other yurts out there (Turkish, Mongolian, etc.). This yurt has a wide open space inside without any pillars or support beams. This information came from Edwin Usca Santillán, who studied yurt construction with masters in Kyrgyzstan. Today he directs a workshop for building yurts in Ilalo, La Merced, Quito, Ecuador. This was the contact that Silvia sent me, she had visited Edwin’s yurt many years ago after her father had met him at a permaculture workshop. He told her then and repeated the story to me about how he had brought the yurt from Kyrgyzstan by ship to Ecuador in 2015.
Edwin’s dream was always to marry the cultures of the Kyrgyzstan people with that of the Andean people. When I reached out to see if Edwin was still in Ecuador, he invited me to visit and to learn from him about the construction of this type of home. My only condition for working together was that it had to be built entirely using bamboo. Edwin agreed right away, stating, “I’ve never worked with bamboo, in fact I used to hate it. But now that you tell me about its powers I want to learn more about it and incorporate it in my constructions. Let’s learn together and exchange our knowledge.” Thanks to Edwin and his family and friends in Kyrgyzstan we asked for permission to use this design, which is their cultural heritage, for our humanitarian goals with bamboo. The moment I brought Edwin to Nancy’s plantation, he looked up and out into the bamboo forest in awe. He turned to me and said, “Mateo, today you have changed my life.” From that day on Edwin welcomed the project into his workshop and we have been working diligently to create our first bamboo model and prototype.
Mateo is a professional emergency medicine provider and an entrepreneur with project design and management experience. His passion is to bring medicine to the underserved parts of the world and to create deployable & ecological buildings that connect people to nature and the outdoors.
October 20-31, 2023
The 11 Day Bamboo Build & Design Course in Bali
In 11 days, we'll show you how to build bamboo structures we’ll share all that it takes to build with nature.