John Hardy: The Greenest School on the Planet

The Green School is not like any other school found in Indonesia. The idea to build it was born in August 2006 out of a desire to do something to save the planet after co-founders John and Cynthia Hardy watched Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth with inspiration derived from reading Alan Wagstaff’s Three Springs.

The original dream was to create a school that included having a carbon-negative footprint, was off the grid with solar power and hydroelectricity generated on site, involved students running gardens and caring for animals to supply the on-site kitchen and had students engaged in community classes.

Inspired debates and a joining of creative minds and artisans eventually saw the Green School start to take shape, built from sustainable materials, predominantly bamboo. The parents actively participate in initiating and running environmental programs, including recycling, up-cycling and composting. All the water at the school is spring water filtered using a reverse osmosis process on site. Even the swimming pool is a natural spring pool on the banks of the Ayung River.

The classrooms and offices have no walls so as to encourage natural air flow and be close to nature; the tensile strength and flexibility of the bamboo has been used to create stunning hand-built structures that soar into the sky. Most of the electricity is supplied from solar panels and the “vortex” is expected to come online to supply hydropower sometime this year.

Starting with 97 students in 2008, the school now has more than 400 students from pre-kindergarten to senior high school and from up to 40 countries; new elementary school classrooms are currently being built to allow for additional enrolment.

The third cohort of seniors will graduate at the end of June. Asia Dreams was delighted to have the opportunity to speak to Green School co-founder, John Hardy.

Q: First of all, I have to say I’m totally impressed with the incredible scope of Green School’s environmental reach. In your TED talk you say you were inspired by the Al Gore film, An Inconvenient Truth. Did you ever envisage that you would make such a large impact when you started and how did you go about building this unique concept from the ground up?

A: When I started thinking about a school, I started visualizing what could probably be appropriate for a green school. It all just started coming together. It was like “build it and they will come”, so we just started building. If you put a gate on the front of the building site and don’t let certain materials in, except for those you want, it helps push the builders to be creative. We only have cement on the ground or under the ground.

Q: One of the things that blew me away was the innovative architecture of Green School. Can you tell us the story of Green School’s architecture? What inspired you to conceptualize this design and how was it realized?

A: Architects and builders came from all over the world. People heard about what we were doing and when we started building, smart people made their way here. In general, architects get such a beating in architect school and are told everything they can’t do. So, if artists and designers and idea people do the buildings, you end up with incredible buildings. The great buildings of the world were built by artisans, the great cathedrals. I can’t think of a building that I like, with the exception of Frank Gehry’s, who is exceptional, that was built by an architect. So instead we used artisans. The buildings are fantasy.

What they say is if you make the roof high, people will grow into it. If you make the roof 8 feet tall, people will never grow. The other thing about building is that if you don’t want to have dinner with the people who are building your space, then you’ve got the wrong people.

The Heart of the School (the main building) is a double helix. The original building was inspired by a [Leonardo] Da Vinci helicopter and then our designer wanted to do something else, but I stopped him and said I want the other half to go the other way and then the two sections to come together in the middle.

Q: I heard you only use renewable energy sources. Can you please tell us a bit about that?

A: I was standing in the parking lot one day and a guy said to me, “Nice school. I’m in the wind business.” I felt sad because we don’t really have enough wind, but eventually he sent me 108 solar panels. Solar panels are ugly, but artists and kids placed them on the land contours and decided to make them a feature. Now it’s a sculptured chicken farm – we let our chickens roam underneath. The second part is the Vortex, which has been an incredible challenge to build. It’s our hydro-electricity generating system. We’ve diverted a section of the Ayung River to drive a turbine and then the water flows back into the river. We expect to be able to take the school off the [electricity] grid when it comes online.

Q: Looking at the video, I bet your students think of the school as their second home! I’m curious, what does it take to run a really successful school such as this?

A: I think happy kids are the answer. If kids are happy, they learn; scientific studies have been done proving this. Here they are learning to be a whole person.

Universities are inundated with students who have perfect regurgitated test scores. So nowadays, universities are more and more looking for people that have a spark, who have done something interesting. Our kids are getting into fabulous schools. The days of knocking on doors with a perfect test score are becoming a thing of the past. One of our young ladies has got into the best photography school in England. She asked them if they wanted to see her GCSE results and they said, “No, we don’t need to look at them. What difference would it make? We think you’re brilliant.”  We’re pushing more and more towards learning by doing: project-based education. That seems to be statistically very, very positive.

Q: How many students do you cater for and how big a role do the parents have in striving for a completely holistic educational experience for the students?

A: We’re looking for 500 students next year. We’re building a big new elementary school, so there’s space and we are accepting enrollments.

60% of the students at the school came to Bali specifically to go to the school. Their parents moved to Bali to enroll their kids at Green School. We would like to think that the parents who move here to put their kids in the school are very green and most of them are, but perhaps some are more interested in being in a culturally rich area where they can do yoga and drink cappuccino.

A lot of parents are very involved in the school. We’re doing a strategic plan right now and there are a lot of people involved with that project. A lot of parents come to the school and hang out there; we’re an open school. We don’t keep people out and segregate the kids in a secure area.

Q: Can you describe how different it was for you between managing your own globally successful, high-end jewellery brand and owning an ecologically responsible school in one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations?

A: Bill Gates decided to wipe out malaria. It’s cost him billions and he’s doing a pretty good job. He spent billions trying to fix education and totally failed. Education is incorrigible. It is so ingrained. It’s like trying to change a union or an old religion, it’s very difficult and it has to be done in very small steps. Anything is easier than a school! Brain surgery is easier than a school!

Q: How closely involved are you in the general operational and decision-making process of Green School these days?

A: I think about the school every day. I’m not running it, but I’m involved with it every day.

Q: I’m aware of the eight iRespect values that are Integrity, Responsibility, Empathy, Sustainability, Peace, Equality, Community and Trust. How did you come to put these values together and how are they being instilled in the students’ day-to-day activities?

A: All the iRespect values are great, but if the parents scream at the staff, then the children will do the same. It’s something that the school can’t fully change; if the parents are telling a different story, then the kids will be influenced by that. It’s part of the problem for schools: we only have the kids part of the time.

Q: What are some of the most rewarding aspects that you’ve personally experienced in relation to establishing and running the Green School?

A: Have you seen the work that the Bye Bye Plastic Bags girls are doing? That’s enough reason right there to build the school. There are a lot of them at school; it’s not just these two. We have a dozen kids who can speak like they do and it was worth building the school just for that.  You know, in Green School, we’ve developed a cure for coconut beetle disease. The beetles eat the heart of the palm and once they’ve done that then the tree is dead. Losing 60 year old coconut palms is a crime. We’ve just treated two infected trees at Green Camp and sprayed them with bacteria that affect the beetle negatively and the beetles just leave. It just took two sprays in a 10-day period. We then put lots of compost in a hole at the tree base and now they’re recovering.

Q: Could you share with us some of the most difficult challenges as well and how you’ve managed to overcome some of these?

A: It’s like herding cats – independent, free-thinking people seeing an image of something and having their own ideas of what utopia is makes things complex. So when we’ve done this strategic plan, we’re going to be able to see much more clearly what we are and what we aren’t at Green School. We’ll be able to draw people to develop further.


Girl Power


Green School couldn’t be prouder of Isabel and Melati Wijsen, two Green School students who are campaigning loud and hard for their own Bye Bye Plastic Bags (BBPB) initiative. This kid-driven social programme was born out of Isabel and Melati’s feelings of horror at the amount of plastic waste covering their beloved island of Bali. Deciding to be proactive, they wrote to Bali’s governor, Mangku Pastika, asking him to completely ban the use, sale and production of plastic bags in Bali by 2016.

They also initiated a petition on avaaz.org, which currently has almost 68,000 signatures. Once there are 1 million signatures, the petition will be taken to Bali’s government to help create a new regional law banning plastic bags from the island. The BBPB team, which now has in excess of 25 volunteers, mostly school children, is also working with 300 elementary school students in Pererenan village, engaging in educational games to teach local residents about the environmental benefits of not using plastic.

Late last year, sisters Isabel and Melati attended the INK conference in India, where they received a standing ovation for their presentation about their struggle and goals. They also had the chance to discuss their campaign with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon. BBPB now has the support of the local government and the team continues to work to educate schools, villages and businesses about the dangers of plastic pollution.

www.facebook.com/byebyeplasticbags