Juergen Ernst, 65, has spent his life constructing and renovating restaurants and hotels around the world. Born into a German hotelier family whose members include famed painter Max Ernst, he's lived in 17 countries, most recently Spain. Now based in Chengdu, Ernst heads Maxxdesign, a company that holds the Asia-wide patent for Easyblock, a revolutionary construction system for pre-fab buildings developed by the University of Zurich. Maxxdesign also produces the modules—think life-sized Lego blocks made out of bamboo parquetry—essential to the system. With his background in vacation homes, Ernst is concurrently working on projects in Nepal, India, and Vietnam. In China, he is working on a project of 350 vacation houses, including 120 in a mountainous area 45 minutes from Chengdu.
How did you end up in China?
In Spain I got in contact with Chinese [who were] trading TVs and mattresses, all kinds of stuff. We started making business, first small scale to make sure everything goes alright, and I met some people and decided to come to China. So I came to China and I was impressed. My picture of China in this time was a little bit different, a lot of people had a different picture. Many thought Chinese were wearing straw hats and working in rice fields.
How did you end up working with bamboo?
My idea was never to work in this field, but with the years, green building became a big issue. Basically I became hooked to this material. It's one of the most amazing materials, it's almost unlimited available, it's 60 times stronger than any other kind of wood on this planet, you don't have to fertilize bamboo. When I came here the only thing I remembered was that my teacher hit me with a bamboo stick, and my mother used bamboo to support flowers. Now technology is on the market to produce bamboo panels. I think bamboo panel is an amazing material for any kind of furniture. You can do everything with bamboo. [But] in the past in China, bamboo had a negative image. For example, if you say somebody lives in a bamboo house, it means he's poor. This system was never designed for the Chinese market. It was meant to be produced here, give farmers the chance to produce something. But for the Western countries.
What is the concept of the Easyblock system?
It's green, it has no design limit, that was the basic idea. You push it to a threshold anchored in the foundation, and you put it together. You don't need screws, glue, nails, nothing, only pins are coming in here. The whole structure is earthquake-proof. The structure is designed so you don't have to be a rocket scientist to do this. First, the shape makes sure that every wall is absolutely straight and doesn't depend on your craftsmanship. We are building a 120-house project in Nepal. We are only sending three supervisors down, and the rest of the people come from the street. At the end it only takes one week to complete the house. I don't think there is system on this planet that can deliver a high-end system and finish in one week for 350 Euro a square meter. Maybe already 10 companies have tried to copy us. But they didn't understand what the system is; they see only bamboo.
We are working with another company on foundations that have zero effect on the environment. [When you build a] house, everything under it dies, but we try to mirror the ground on the roof, so what you lose underneath, we are building on top. There is no impact on the environment.
Our goal is zero-energy houses. And it's possible. But if you start ignoring installation like they do here, just put up a brick wall and plaster it inside and outside, that has nothing to do with energy saving. People have to be more educated. Our houses are 100 percent green and energy-efficient. Period.
What difficulties have you faced?
I have so many bad experiences. I was threatened with a knife in China by a guy, and he stole 1.5 million RMB. He stole all the CDs and computer material and tried to open up a company with another Chinese guy. In the beginning I was very angry. But last week I said, "You know what? I come to a different conclusion. Without these failures, I wouldn't be here with a solution."
Would you recommend China as a place to set up business?
I think China is an amazing place, an El Dorado. The problem is there are so many people trying to do something the wrong way, the crook way. But if you are ambitious, if you are educated, if you are willing to do something, I think there is no better place than China. But it's not an easy place. It's not like you dig the ground, and then you find gold.
Are you going to learn Chinese?
No. I think at my age and the projects I'm working on, I'm not that perverted to start learning Chinese. I have an assistant who speaks English.
What's your next goal?
Right now I'm creating a partnership to surround myself with young people. I think it's my last goal to set up this company. What I'm doing right now is building the structure, trying to get young, ambitious, talented people interested, and my partner is Chinese, he's an aluminum profile producer. He has a son, 24, and he's the right guy to succeed. So the next generation is taking over. Then I do something else. I have 100 ideas in my head.
This interview was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife, issue 27, October 2009 ("Faces"). Photo by Dan Sandoval.