December 19, 2018
By Marc-Antoine Dunais

Dreaming up the new Catalyze basecamp (stage 1)

Whereby Catalyze discovers the joys and tribulations of designing a new office with a gentler footprint on the planet.

One of my longest-held dreams has been to design my own studio. Not just forming the teams and processes that make up a creative ecosystem, but crafting the actual workspace where both of these essential elements would interact. As a kid, I distinctly remember looking out of our car window during one of those endless holiday drives as we were passing by an abandoned factory somewhere in Italy and thinking: maybe one day I can own a workplace that looks as cool as that. For most sensible business owners, the right time to do this would probably be signaled by comfortable revenue and a fast-expanding team. This was not quite our case, but we decided to bite the bullet anyway – call it a strategic indulgence. :-) It went something like this.

Working with nature

It was unfathomable to me that our new home would be anything but a shining example of ‘responsible’ design. For an agency that takes pride in moving forward the sustainability agenda, our office would have to be everything that most of Bali’s recent developments isn’t: designed to work with nature.

Easier said than done. Building an environment-friendly building is a paradoxical process, in that the first step is the inimical clearing of a (usually) open space. This can be avoided by purchasing built land and then repurposing the existing structure. But, in our case, no viable options were forthcoming in the area we were interested in.

Securing the land

Serendipity put in our way a modest banana plantation whose owner was visibly not investing much effort in its upkeep, which was mostly frequented by the local mongrels. At the time of writing, this was part of a rapidly-shrinking patch of farmland skirting an expanding ripple of developments in the area surrounding Denpasar. It was only a matter of time before the land got snapped up to be transmogrified into a villa, a workshop or a shophouse. If the area was fated to be built on anyway, we saw it as our responsibility to try to set an example by doing so.

We tried to mitigate any environmental ‘damage’ by getting more land than we would build on (about 1,000 m2), leaving nature’s designs to work on the rest. That also provides us a comfortable buffer from the inevitable construction projects that will follow around us, and a space for trees to grow and shade us.

Designing the space

With the land secured, we could get into the fun bit – figuring out what we wanted in our new basecamp. In March 2018, we piled into a van and headed to Bali’s highlands to play around with design ideas. Cinta, our Human-Centered Design specialist, led the way in encouraging our team to dream up how they visualized the space. Inevitably, jacuzzis and a rooftop veranda made their way into the wishlist. At the same time, some consistent ideas bubbled up. Somia, the architecture firm we had just hired for the project, was also at hand to get a sense of Catalyze.

To put Somia on the right track, we came up with a number of principles to shape the design:

  1. Blend in: The space needs to be aligned with the local ‘feel’ of the neighbourhood. The construction should be modern while integrating traditional and natural elements.
  2. Natural flow: All development must minimally disrupt natural processes from previous land use. Rainwater and air flow must be preserved.
  3. Reversible: It should be possible to convert the site back to farmland within two weeks.
  4. Circular: Building elements must as much as possible be reused, reusable and locally sourced.
  5. Collaborative: The arrangement of space needs to be conducive to communication and bonding, while providing private space too.

In addition, non-negotiable items included a solar photovoltaic installation to power the entire building, and wastewater filtering and reuse through an artificial pond. Exciting stuff.

Negotiating the potholes

With this type of project, you need to start with lofty dreams, because reality checks come in fast and thick as soon as the design process gets underway. We had a budget for this enterprise, and within the first few design iterations we realized we were going to sail past it pretty quickly. To rein in costs, we chipped away at some of the original features (goodbye exhibition space), reduced the footprint of the built space and substituted some materials.

When you’ve committed to principles from the outset of such a project, the challenges of sticking to ‘green’ design become quickly apparent. For example, regulations on solar power installations feel like a moving target; finding environmentally-responsible building materials is a constant struggle; and a general lack of experience with sustainable approaches to construction means that it’s a learning process for all involved. We were also conscious that we were never going to be as low-impact as a pure bamboo construction, such as Green School. Each concession along the way was disheartening, but also brought us one step closer to realizing our vision.

As of January 2019, we have what we feel is a fantastic design thanks to Somia and our team’s inputs. Time for the next stage in our adventure.

About the author

Marc-Antoine Dunais,
Founder and Managing Director

Inveterate jack-of-all-trades with one foot in sustainability, another in communications and marketing, and a more recent appendage in behaviour change design.

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