Chiangmai Life Architects and Construction designs and builds amazing structures in bamboo and earth. By combining these traditional materials with modern technology, they create sustainable buildings that fit today’s requirements. We interviewed Markus Roselieb, principal at the company.

Can you tell us something about the history of the company?

We started in 2009 when we moved to Chiang Mai from Bangkok and my wife found that there was no school that delivered a rounded teaching. So she decided to start Panyaden School and told me to build it for her. At that time we had the World Bamboo Congress in Bangkok and I was already reading about earth architecture and I decided to combine these 2 materials and started Chiangmai Life Construction.

You believe in the functionality of natural materials like bamboo, earth and rocks. In what ways are these materials superior to modern building materials?

I have been building all my life and previously renovated a beach house near Bangkok. There were always 2 problems with conventional construction materials: heat and corrosion. When you use conventional roof tiles that are usually some cement composite or clay tiles, you create an oven as these tiles are great heat transmitters. So you have to put insulation on the inside. As this is doesn’t protect 100% and is very ugly, you need to put a ceiling in between the roof and your room. Now created a box without natural airflow and need to put in an air-conditioner. The upper floors of most modern houses cannot be used without strong air-conditioning during the daytime and early evening.

If you use a natural material like bamboo, because its uneven densities it is a natural insulator and as we have a triple overlay with tar-sheets for water-proofing and further heat insulation in between, the heat insulation is quite good. The inside of this roof shows the bamboo structure and is a pleasure to the eye so no need for a ceiling. Thus you have a high room with additional possibilities of natural ventilation that cools the room further so no need for air-conditioning.

If we look at walls: what do we want from a wall: thermal insulation, noise insulation, a homely space, safety. When we compare concrete and earth:

Concrete walls Earthen walls
Thermal Insulation No Yes
Noise insulation No Yes
Homely space No Yes
Safety Yes Yes

Earthen walls have a great thermal mass. They protect against noise and create warm room feelings. And if you look around the earth you will find earthen houses that are hundreds of years old in every climate from Saharan Africa to China, Mexico to England, Germany to Japan.

Do you use these materials as they are or do you treat them to further improve on their properties?

The most important aspect for making bamboo a strong and lasting construction material is the right age selection. If the bamboo is too young it is full of sugar with little fibers. After about 3-4 years that ratio changes in favour of fibers and it becomes a strong construction material. Next is treatment with a borax salt. No chemicals just a salt that preserves and also increases fire resistance.

For earthen walls again material knowledge is essential for high quality and lasting results. We use three techniques: adobe bricks, rammed earth and wattle & daub. Each of these techniques has its particular characteristics and advantages under different circumstances and needs specialized preparation and knowledge, but no additives. We never “stabilize” our walls with cement. That is ignorant behaviour.

To what extent can the materials for your designs be sourced locally?

For us its 100%. For others it depends on whether you have bamboo and a treatment plant in the area.

Are there also parts of your designs where you deliberately choose a modern material?

Yes. I like the combination or juxtaposition of these natural materials with high-tech or clean modern items. From big glass walls with modern frames to built in TV screens, chrome lightings, modern bathrooms etc.

Did you find that the traditional craftsmanship to work with earth and bamboo was still available in Thailand or did you have to rediscover it?

There was never a tradition of earth or bamboo architecture in Thailand. The traditional architecture was wood based. So we had to learn from all over the world and train our staff. As I am mainly working with so called hill-tribe or displaced minorities as workers, they have grown up with bamboo and understand the material, even though for them it was never a material of choice. So I still had to teach them how to build in a high quality way.

Can you give a few examples of the type of buildings that you design and build?

Our first and most famous project is Panyaden International School. We built classrooms, support structures and now the famous Bamboo Sports Hall. We built landmark structures for resorts and companies, structures that capture the eye and imagination. We built a research center and lecture hall for a university and of course we design and build houses, rather on the high-end side like the Trika Villa.

Are your clients mainly in Thailand or do you also work on other countries?

Our company has to independent units:  architecture and construction. At this point we are open to design projects anywhere but our construction is restricted to Thailand and soon Burma.

What is your design philosophy?

We want to introduce clay and bamboo as mainstream construction materials for the human being of the 21st century. So we aim at a light, modern design that looks clean and appeals to the upper middle class to high-end customers of today’s world. We have to fight the perception that these are the poor man’s materials or commonly bamboo structures don’t live longer than 3 years as they are eaten by bugs or earth houses have a hippie feeling associated with them or dark, dirty and musty image. But all these images are not defaults inherent in the materials, these are results of ignorance or a certain mind-set of the designer or builder. So we try to design and build in a way that makes people smile and feel attracted through the eyes and the heart. They can see and feel and touch the quality and attention to detail. The walls are smooth and cool and no dust comes off, the ceilings are high and beautiful to behold.

Regarding the form, we let the location and the materials guide us. We don’t believe in boxes and prefer organic, flowing designs that we learn from nature. We try to fit the building into its environment and not impose it. That creates a more comfortable living atmosphere for the owner.

How important is it to design with the location in mind?

We live in the tropics where weather can be quite extreme. From intense sunshine to heavy monsoon showers – their direction and origin must be understood. Flood prevention is essential with earthen structures, what kind of animals might want to join the space? So design starts with function and location. We want to design structures that are actually used. They are used because their design and beauty is so convincing that there is no thought of an alternative. Unlike many houses in gated communities whose owners spend more time in their cars than in their houses because these are not liveable spaces. Come weekend they all leave their house to drive around. We want a house where the owners don’t want to leave because it is their dream place, they rather invite all others to join there. Or a school that children don’t want to leave in the afternoon like at Panyaden, where parents have to run after their children to fetch them to go home as the children love it there.


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Photo’s: courtesy of Markus Roselieb Chiangmai Life Architects and Construction