Indonesians Discover Bamboo and Wood Beat Concrete and Steel

Written by Darius Rubics

As villagers attended the first Friday prayers after a week marked by two major earthquakes and aftershocks, they returned to Karang Baro Mosque which was so damaged they gathered outside for worship.

Joined by volunteers and Indonesian National Police officers, about 300 people heard a sermon by Guru Lalu Ahmad asking for strength in facing the disaster and patience, sorely needed by the faithful who had been waiting through construction for the official opening of their mosque now too dangerous to enter.

Across Lombok, officials estimate the major earthquakes August 5 and August 9, magnitudes 6.9 and 5.9 respectively according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), destroyed more than 100,000 homes. In the village of Prawira, it looks as if most of the houses built of concrete, like the mosque, are close to collapse, if not felled.

But Raden Prawangsa Jaya Ningrat, a youth cultural activist in Prawira, said that most of his neighbors still have their homes because they understood the wisdom of living in traditional wooden houses.

Geographically, Indonesia lies on several active tectonic plates, making it one of the world’s most active seismic zones. The so-called Ring of Fire is the zone surrounding the Pacific Ocean, where some 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes occur.

That means in Prawira, little earthquakes occur almost daily, those with a magnitude of 5 or higher are weekly events, and when big ones occur, wooden houses move while concrete ones don’t.

Although a number of traditional local homes in Prawira have been renovated, even then builders used natural materials such as wood and bamboo, according to Prawangsa, who added that the sight of collapsed concrete buildings have made local residents appreciate their architectural heritage.

“The traditional buildings, traditional houses are still standing,” Prawangsa told VOA Indonesian. “The others, built from concrete, collapsed. So we must pay more attention to the construction. We are located on the Ring of Fire. The most suitable materials for housing are natural materials such as wood, bamboo, woven bamboo walls because our area is prone to earthquakes.”

Indonesian construction experts like Yulianto Prihatmaji, who earned a doctorate in engineering at the State Islamic University in Yogyakarta, agree.

“During an earthquake, the wooden construction is able to move [and does not immediately collapse] and gives enough time for the occupants to escape safely,” he told VOA during a phone interview. Prihatmaji, who specializes in Indonesian traditional timber structures, surmised the builders in Lombok may not have used earthquake-resistant concrete.

In a traditional home, the main front entry is low, the techniques used to connect elements of the frame result in a strong but not rigid construction, and the thatch or woven coconut leaves used for the roofs are lightweight. The combination withstands earthquakes well, even, as residents pointed out, the big one of October 20, 1979, which the USGS registered at 6.2 magnitude.

Haji Fuadzi said the earthquake of 1979 damaged fewer houses.

“The houses back then were not damaged, the roof was made of reeds, the walls were of bamboo,” said Fuadzi, a Prawira resident whose concrete house displayed cracked walls that looked close to collapse. “It’s very different from the current buildings. The floor at that time was ordinary cement.”

Rummaging through the debris, he found the deed to his land and hoped to find “all the items that I can still use but I’m afraid to enter because it could collapse at any time,” he told VOA.

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Darius Rubics