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  • Earl Sullivan

Green Building - Considering sustainability in the build-out of a surf camp in remote Sumatra

After falling in love with Asu Island, the wave out in front, life in the simple, wooden bungalows, the local family that became our business partners, the surrounding islands and abundance of waves in the area, the speedboat rides across perfectly blue water, the abundance of fresh fish, and the absolute nature that surrounds and astounds every day…we decided to build our home there.

We ran Asu Camp for 9 seasons out of the old camp. A couple of bungalows built in 1999 from good wood that lasted the test of jungle time for almost 20 years. We lived close to the jungle, within the nature, and under the coconut trees. A guest once said to me that he really liked our accommodations because they mimicked the nature of the island; reef stone foundations supporting wooden posts and beams that are shielded from the tropical rain by thatched coconut leaf roofing. I had never noticed the similarities between the simple bungalows and the surrounding nature, and it was so nice to notice, and it just made so much sense.

Old Asu Camp


So, when it came time for us to build our ‘dream home’, it was based upon this simple design concept that we started to form our ideas and then our drawings. Then a series of amazing events aligned to bring our concept to life.

New Land and building site


The first event was the land opportunity. Our original partner, who owned the land of the old camp, didn’t want to share his land with us and our master plan to build something nice. He liked his land and didn’t see the benefit of splitting it with us and our investment plan, so he opened the door for us to go out on our own. Rule number one in business, never take a partner, so there we go, we were on our own, just me, Samantha (my partner in life), and Folo (our Indonesian partner). We had always really enjoyed our position on the point at Asu, in front of the wave, no neighbors for as far as the ear could hear and eye could see, the peace and tranquility of isolation from the main village and other camps on the East side of the island. So, we looked into moving west to the next available land. As it turns out, there was a lovely piece of 68m beach front land that went 100m deep into the jungle and abutted directly against another 100m of land that I had loaned money to Folo to buy years ago. It was all too perfect. We had a major upgrade from 60x60 to 68x200!!! Sweeeeet. And all of that for a mere 10% of our total projected budget. We went from being at the tail end of the wave to right in front of the take-off zone. This had dual benefits, we were no longer gazing up to the top of the wave and directly into the sunset in the afternoons and we established a greater level of insulation from the foot traffic that comes up from the camps on the East side of the island. We also picked up our favorite swimming tide pool right in front of our ‘Living Room’ which is the driftwood palapa that we rebuild on the beach every year for lounging in the shade and watching the wave from as close as you can get without getting wet.

The New Living Room ticks all the boxes


The second event was that our island neighbor (and my partner’s brother-in-law) got a contract on a huge piece of land on the back (West side) of the island. The contract was to remove all of the hardwood trees and plant the land up with coconut trees, spaced evenly every 4m, the main economy of the island being the harvesting and smoking of the coconut meat for processing into oil over on the Sumatran mainland. This meant that all of the wood that we would need for the project to build a generator house, well house, kitchen, our family home, 3 bungalows, a recreation center, and employee housing…could all be harvested locally and transported sans carbon emissions to our building site. I pumped out the first lumber list, with dimensions of what size boards we were going to need, of what would eventually be 26 cubic meters of lovely teak family hardwoods. The lumber was chainsaw harvested and milled and then hand and foot delivered on top of shoulders and heads to our doorstep for drying. Carbon footprint minimized.

Carbon free lumber delivery


Walls…If you walk around Asu you will invariably see the ruins of previously run and abandoned surf camps and backpacker hostels, as we are in effect the 10th camp (of only 4 still functioning) on the island since tourism came here in the 90's. The only pieces left of the abandoned constructions are the concrete walls. That is because steel rusts and wood rots. So, we knew that if we wanted a building that would last, we would need the lower part of the walls and the foundations to be in concrete. Then we cheated a little bit, we added Bintang beer bottles into the walls instead of the standard local style of using concrete formed bricks. This saved a lot of sand, gravel, and concrete, and thus transport of the concrete from Nias to Asu. We also used a lot of coral reef stones in the base construction to minimize the need for concrete. The local builders were pretty wary of this design, but after some persuasion and then trials on smaller walls, they started to believe in the concept.

Bintang bottle walls


Reef stone walls


Our clientele is mostly Australian, and everyone knows that Aussies have a penchant for beer, and Sumatra has a tradition for Bintang beer being served in the large 650ml bottles. As a result of our remote location, it is more expensive to transport the bottles back to Nias than the return on the redemption value of the bottles themselves, so over time we have collected a mountain of large Bintang bottles at the back of our property. These bottles measure 9cm wide which when placed in the center of the wall and buried in 2cm of concrete on either side, followed by 1cm of plaster on either side to finish out the wall, makes a perfectly dimensioned 15cm thick concrete wall. The exact measurement that local carpenters like to build their walls here on Nias.

How's that clam?


Asu Island has risen out of the depths of the ocean over the last 2000 years, rising approximately 1-3m every 200-250 years as the continental plate of Australia slides north and slips underneath the Asian continental plate, violently nudging these lovely coconut and coral reef fringed islands ever skyward. Thus, Asu is laden with coral reef and limestone in the making from the beach to the center of the island. When we dug the foundations for our generator house, 180m back from the current shoreline, we found an intact giant clam shell measuring 80cm in length that must be at least 1000 years old.

To use, or not to use, the beach sand? If you do enough research about building with concrete you will invariably find lots of information about how you can’t use beach sand for building. While that might stand true for making sky scraping hotels in Dubai, it certainly isn’t true for building surf camps on the edge of nowhere. From my research, most of the reasoning behind this comes from the fact that beach sand has generally been rolled and smoothed into little balls that have a very low bonding surface when considering the strength of the finished concrete. I was advised to use river sand, as the salt and alkaline properties of white coral reef sand have a tendency over time to break down the steel buried inside the concrete. When I brought the idea to Folo, he looked at me like I was a madman. He brought me to the site of one of the 20-year old ruins from an old camp and we examined the concrete. It was good everywhere except where the builder had left the steel sticking out of the concrete. He assured me that the concrete had been harvested directly from the beach. He was there, he had done it. And here it was, 20 years later, strong and solid as can be.

Carbon free sand delivery.


Upon further examination of our beach sand, I realized that the sand on Asu is so young, it hasn’t had the time yet to be rolled into fine marbles of round beady sand. It has a lot of edges to it, it has shells and nubby bits from where the parrot fish bit it off of the coral heads before they pooped it out and it washed ashore with the waves. It would work for us.

Coconut palm leaf roofing.


The roofing we chose is the same roofing that has been used for ages on Nias. It is called ‘atap’, and it is harvested from a variety of palm tree that has an extraordinarily long leaf and only grows in the more inland parts of the island, near rivers and in soil that is richer than beach soil. The leaf stem is cut in the middle and the leaf is doubled over a stick of bamboo and then stitched together with cheap plastic rope forming 120cm long sections of roofing that are doubled up to maintain strength and resist the strong Sumatran rain. The atap is then started from the bottom of the roof, overlapped with the atap to the sides of it, and layered up until the peak of the roof. It takes about 10 pieces to cover 1 square meter of roof and each piece costs about 10 cents per piece, so it’s about as cheap as you could ever find to roof a house, and the lifetime of the leaf is about 7 years.

We harvest our water from the aquifer that sits below us. Asu has an incredibly strong aquifer of clean fresh water just 4m below the surface. We have gone 6 weeks without seeing rain in the dry season and the level of the well doesn’t even drop. The water is lovely and clear, but when we first dug the well we suffered from a very fine silt for the first 2 seasons. We had to consistently clean out our water storage tank, we had to add external inline filters, and we had to replace the finest filter in our reverse osmosis drinking water filter system every 6 months because of it. After 3 years of use, it is starting to slow down, and we’re seeing less and less build-up of the silt in our tanks and pipes.

Our well and generator house in the background.


The best part about having such a strong aquifer is that we don’t have any plastic bottled water and we don’t have to transport drinking water from Nias where it is readily available from the standard Indonesian system of refilling the large plastic water bottles for re-use on the dispensers. We encourage our guests to bring their own drinking bottle, but we also have some around the camp to lend for use during your stay.

We have eliminated plastic straws from our camp and we use only glass, bamboo, or stainless steel straws. Yes!!! It's so easy. I wish everyone would do it, and so do the turtles...

Reusable straws, an immediate benefit to the environment and our bottom line.


Our trash management system is still based upon the age-old Indonesian tradition of fire. Burn baby burn... We try to minimize the trash that comes out to Asu, but it is inevitable. We collect the paper and plastic trash and burn it in the back of the camp when the wind is onshore. We also do beach clean ups and collect as much rubbish from the beach as we can, stacking driftwood on top of it, and then adding stacked up dried coconut palm leaf on end reaching toward the sky. This teepee of sorts has flammable characteristics volatile enough to satiate the appetite of any pyromaniac and we put on some great fire displays with flames licking the sky up to 20m high. It’s simply fantastic and the embers that go swirling off the top of the flames are what I call 'Indonesian fireworks' and put on a light show that is simply remarkable. Everyone loves the fire party night.

Fire Party, wooooh, get funky, wooooh...


We run around in 2 6.25m moulded plastic speedboats that are powered by Yamaha 40hp 2 stroke engines, the standard of Indonesia. These boats are durable and simple and efficient. We put 3 surfers in each boat, plus surf guide and photographer and they get around pretty good. A trip down to Bawa or over to the port of Sirombu is just 30 minutes in good weather conditions. Spending a lot of money on a much larger boat with bigger engines that will cost 8x as much to operate and get you there 15 minutes faster is just not in our budget… Hopefully someday, but first things first, let’s enjoy the ride.


A glassy and bro-mantic sunset cruise home from Bawa, no extra charge... ;-)


This is our main road on Asu...


There are no roads and no public power station on Asu. We use single cylinder diesel generators to provide the power that we need to run the lights, refrigerators, water pumps, fans, AC, and the rest of the gadgets we have grown accustomed to using these days. We buy Japanese brand Yanmar for quality and endurance. Maintained properly these machines will run for many years, 20, even 30 years is not out of the question. They are simple and efficient, burning about 30L of Diesel fuel a day. We looked into doing a solar system out here, but to meet our electrical demand for the shower water pumps and the AC units, the solar system was going to cost around $80,000USD. ROI was about 15-20 years, and maintenance was a big unknown, as well as durability of panels against the elements and battery life with offseason down time. It just hasn’t been feasible for us yet.

The hydroponic veggie garden.


In 2019 we started our hydroponic veggie garden and we look forward to pumping out green leaf lettuce and fresh herbs that are nearly impossible to source from our standard markets on Nias, not to mention surviving the car, boat, and trolley rides all the way out to Asu Camp.

So, in summary, we are doing what we can with what we’ve got. We’re trying to minimize our carbon foot print. We’re trying to care as best we can for this little island that we love. It’s all we can do. Long live Dog Island.


Not a bad view from either side...


The New Asu Camp layout, not a bad seat in the house...

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