Bill Bensley is one of those people who are not limited by what has been, but looking to what can be. What kind of person runs a hugely successful paradigm-shifting architecture practice while making his people do their work with a pencil rather than computer? Who would turn a large, traditional animal zoo project into a massive “Zoo for People”? What sort of person would do their business pitches not on PowerPoint, but using 400lb huge scrolls of paper attached to a ballroom wall? An unexpectedly Harvard guy, Bill Bensley is exhibit A for how playful thinking can manifest as a powerfully positive force for change.
Besides being one of the most enjoyably original thinkers out there today, Bill is deeply mission driven: “My main purpose in life, besides having as much fun as possible, is to help the needy, to education, help animals, and help the planet via conservation.”
Raised on Sustainability
Based in Bangkok, for the last 30 years, he was born in California; his parents were English immigrants. His family had a small farm where they were pretty much self-sustaining, raising bees, quails, chickens, ducks, and rabbits and growing mushrooms and a huge variety of veggies in a garden complete with a compost heap. They would travel as a family in their little trailer almost every weekend to a camp spot close by and in the summers they would travel all over the States. He grew up with a great love for the wilderness and learned how to sustain the family with food. It makes him smile to hear the word sustainability used so frequently these days as though it is a new idea.
Sustainability is a hallmark of Bensley’s designs. Bill has loved and respected nature all his life. From a young age, he was inspired by John Muir’s conservation work in the Sierra Nevada mountain range of California. Bill and his friends would be the first to get permits to enter the trails each spring as they navigated deep snow and hung their food to keep it from the bears. Even as teenagers, they had a great respect for the wilderness and were careful to leave only footprints. He has always understood nature’s fragility.
Protecting the Environment Through Thoughtful Tourism
The most outstanding and most recent example of this is Shinta Mani Wild in the South Cardamom Wilderness in Cambodia which opened in December 2018 and has quickly gained worldwide attention. It is the culmination of Bill’s life’s work and exactly what he would build for himself. Comprising 15 customized luxury tents in a private sanctuary in Cambodia’s South Cardamom National Park, the camp is completely built around and blended into the natural environment with a low environmental impact and a huge impact on protecting the national park. The entire project was created in order to showcase and protect nature and wildlife in this fragile wilderness, rather than see the pristine forest sold at a logging auction.
Examples of projects where Bill has designed stunning hotels with little or minimal disturbance to nature include the Four Seasons Koh Samui in Thailand where the over 850 coconut trees on the property were not disturbed and serve as a canopy over both the human visitors and the animal life that surrounds them.
A similar strategy for preserving the forest was used at Capella Ubud in Bali where he changed the project from 120 rooms that would have obliterated the forest into a 23-tent camp with low impact and high yield, not disturbing a single tree. Imagine what it took to convince the developer to make a change like that — it took a very special, very passionate champion for making something never done before.
His own home, which he calls Baan Botanica, is located in a densely urban section of Bangkok and is tribute to the more than 15,000 species of plants growing in the gardens. There, he and his partner, a designer and horticulturist, retreat from the bustle of a busy studio with their 6 Jack Russells amidst the ever-changing and constant “rewilding” of the landscape.
“There is nothing like waking up to the chorus of the jungle”
You get a lot of inspiration from listening to Mother Nature. Are you looking at big nature or average nature? Give us a sense of how you do it.
To me, it is all nature but, as the maximalist that I am, I tend to veer towards big nature. My city garden — more like jungle (@baan_botanica) — is my refuge. As a landscape architect by training, married to a horticulturist, it is our playground and we change it constantly. Even friends who visit weekly get lost as it is an ever evolving wonderland! That is my “small” nature, which is much more than most city folk get. When it comes to big nature, I love it all. Every summer, except for this year of Covid, I have made my way to the wilderness of Mongolia with friends and designers from BENSLEY, where we hike, horse ride, fish, and live totally cut off from the world. It is magic and I return bursting with energy. Closer to home there is Shinta Mani Wild, my own tented camp in the last great wilderness of South East Asia, the Cardamom mountains. There is nothing like waking up to the chorus of the jungle, and walking out to the deck to overlook it all, knowing you play a part in protecting it. It is one of the things I am most proud of.
Analogue Design Process…With a Touch of Digital
What are the boundaries of technology in your office? We understand people must draw but how strict is the no-tech rule?
BENSLEY started off as a studio where everyone drew, sketched, painted, made models. It was truly a place for creatives. That remains today — it is a smart(DUMB)phone-free zone, and all designers have to draw a still life in the office as part of their initial interview. Almost all of our great ideas begin with sketches on the back of papers as we think through an idea out loud. Where in the early days we created our meter-long scrolls of architecture, interiors, and landscapes by way of hand drawing and watercolor, we now also use the likes of Photoshop and Illustrator, CAD, and Sketch up — but always beginning by hand, and blending mediums much as artists do. Rather than reworking our process to use technology, we kept our way of doing things, simply slotting in technology where it could help us communicate with clients even more clearly.
Watercolour, Narrative, and Business
You have done some ambitious projects. How do you pitch to clients? How do you communicate your passion and convince them that your vision may be an improvement on theirs? If they want 200 rooms and you think they really need 20 tents, that is a heavy lift. Is this full-on performance with props, or Powerpoint? How do you manage with Zoom?
For our presentations I request immense ballrooms, where we unroll sometimes 200 kilos worth of drawings — imagine scrolls from 2 to 30 meters long, on gorgeous watercolor paper, showing every detail of our designs. With drawings like that, the pages speak for themselves. I walk through them with our clients, a narrator of the story we are trying to tell — that is the other essential, the DNA or narrative. It is key to what we do as we try and teach the client something new about where their project lies through intricate research which folds into every guest room, restaurant design, and all the amenities as well. Sustainability is already included in the way we design — it is our MO — but during these talks I explain it in detail, showing that one glorious tent floating above the forest, with a unique tale to tell — such as at the Capella Ubud — can sell for as much as 10 regular rooms. That kind of logic and beauty is hard to resist!
What are you reading now? How do you intake information and inspiration?
Well, we just landed a really lovely project in Antigua and Barbuda. We have been working on the master plan for the last 4 months and last week we presented 550 meters of drawings to the Prime Minister and his Parliament. We landed a big win and, appropriately, I have been reading Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival — a hysterical story of building a hotel in the Caribbean.
Inspiration comes from everywhere — I am always reading, watching, listening. Netflix, the books I am constantly buying and leafing through, the odd Wikipedia rabbit hole a project can take me down. Often odd discoveries end up becoming the heart of a project — I just absolutely love stories, being a natural storyteller since I was young.
“One of life’s greatest luxuries is loving and being loved by dogs, and I have SIX!”
How are the dogs doing?
They are doing just great! It must be quite odd for them as usually I am away every few days traveling, and now they have seen me nearly every day since mid March. But, I think they are very happy about it as I simply dote on them and we have a lot of fun at Baan Botanica and running around the office, too. One of life’s greatest luxuries is loving and being loved by dogs, and I have SIX! I love the fact that they are all Jack Russells; their personalities are all so very very different. I know them so well now that I don’t have to see them to know who is around me. Their names are Chuck Berry, Bobby Brown, Sammy Davis Jr, Jesse James, Frank Sinatra, and young master Tommy Bahama!
Balancing City Life / Country Life
We are very interested in the dichotomy of city life/ country life, how they each affect one’s thinking. You live in a dense city, although you have “wilded” your office. Do you get out into the country to retreat from Bangkok?
I am lucky that my Baan Botanica is a wilderness in itself and is constantly evolving, so I do not feel the need to get out of Bangkok too often — I have a jungle on my doorstep! However, of late, without the usual travel schedule, I have had time to enjoy it on a whole other level and also to explore more of Thailand. The past few weekends I headed out to Ayutthaya, which we had to ourselves and was utterly magical, as well as down south to the Barai Spa in Hua Hin, designed by one of my dearest friends Lek Bunnag.
The True Heroes of the Forest
What is the Wildlife Alliance? How can we support it?
The Wildlife Alliance is a wonderful non-profit organization started by real-life superhero Suwanna Gauntlett who invested much of her personal funds to save forests and rare species all over the world. When I bought the land which is now home to Shinta Mani Wild it became clear that we needed a sustainable way to protect the forest from loggers and poachers, and started working with WA. The rangers at the Wildlife Alliance are the real deal and carry out all of their programs on-ground whether they are catching poachers, smugglers, and loggers, saving wildlife or clearing the forest of snares. They are the true heroes of the forest. At Shinta Mani Wild we built a ranger station and committed to a lifetime of assistance. From now onwards Shinta Mani Wild commits a percentage of income to keep the rangers busy 24/7. This equates in real numbers to 2000 hectares of forest and 500 wild animals saved every year — and the best part of it is, it is a sustainable model that will keep going even without me, for many many years to come. I can’t wait till Covid is over and people can travel there once again to take part in our conservation efforts.
Sustainability and Purpose
Sustainability is a word that we hear a lot, and the more we hear it the less it seems to mean. You grew up in a rural setting where sustainability was baked into everything. Coming from that point of view, what does sustainable mean to you today?
Sustainability now has evolved into something much bigger from me. Growing up it was having chickens in the yard, picking seeds for the year’s garden plot, wearing the same two pairs of pants all year and considering myself lucky — because I was. Now, it is things like the marriage between Wildlife Alliance and Shinta Mani Wild, baking sustainability and purpose into every single project we do, writing my white paper Sensible Sustainable Solutions… So the scale is much bigger, but it remains just as important, and rather much much more important as we are heading towards extinction at this rate. We simply can’t afford to ignore this problem, and need to rethink all of our daily practices to reflect this urgent need. If not, it will be very very dire indeed and, sadly, many of our leaders, be it of government or otherwise, aren’t nearly proactive enough.
“Why is it not mandatory that all new hotels include a water bottling facility to eliminate plastic bottles?”
Please tell us the story of the bottling plant you convinced the hotel to install.
At one of my most successful Marriotts, the JW Marriott Phu Quoc in Vietnam, it took 3 years to get a water bottling plant built even though it was only 32k with a 14-month payback. Added to a $200 million investment that is well on its way to a 7-year payback, it would have been peanuts and eliminated the need for so many plastic bottles!
Why is it not mandatory that all new hotels include a water bottling facility to eliminate plastic bottles when we know the pay back of such an investment is less than 18 months? This is one to add to the list of things to do while the hotel owner is in “spending mode”, without a doubt!
Shinta Mani Hotel and Covid
You have made a point of hiring local, training people, bringing modern medical people to the places you are working. Covid has massively impacted the travel industry. How is this affecting your people?
We are doing our best to keep things running as they always have. For my BENSLEY offices in Bangkok and Bali, we had a bout of working from home and Zoom calls, which I thought would be disastrous but actually worked quite well as I got to really see where the gems lie in my offices and get down into the details of our designs like I haven’t been able to in years. At the Shinta Mani Hotels, no one has been fired. Our brilliant GMs have graciously taken pay cuts and while we wait for travelers to return, are training our teams in other departments — housekeepers learning engineering, waiters learning front office… We have a hospitality school there which is most successful so we are perfecting their skills as we wait for some kind of return to normal — which we are very close to here in Bangkok, by the way.
A Holistic Approach to Protecting Nature
Last question, almost done… Cambodia. Your big piece of land in the Cardamom Mountains, the camp, and the custodianship you are leading there. What is your long term vision for that project?
Shinta Mani Wild was purchased as part of a government sale of logging land, saving it from becoming a titanium mine. It included some 875,000 trees, 4.5 kilometers of wild river, and 3 magnificent waterfalls. It was clear to me that we had to protect this corridor of rainforest the size of Central Park — in what is now the biggest and last great forest in Southeast Asia. And so we created a high-yield low-impact camp, with the main mission being a sustainable way to support the policing of the forest via Wildlife Alliance. We funded their work — the legal capacity to enforce and, most importantly, prosecute offenders — through 15 luxury tents. So far we have confiscated almost 3000 chainsaws and protected hundred of hectares. I think we are quite close to the vision — a tented camp that welcomes travelers who care about Mother Earth, and a model of protection and conservation that is sustainable, and will remain long after I am gone. Protecting the forest for future generations, and teaching locals to be stewards of their beautiful land. In the 7 years of building Shinta Mani Wild took, there were frequent and ongoing meetings with local village leaders and members to convey the need for conservation rather than extraction. This awareness has proven to be difficult but something Wild continues to encourage. The next step is to create a paid community service of policing the forests, similar to what Nick Marx has done in Chi Phat with Wildlife Alliance. But, in the post-Covid age there is definitely a lot of work to be done, and poaching is on the rise despite China’s ban of wildlife consumption. So we just have to keep on keeping on.
Bill’s white paper on sustainability is free here.
See Bills work here.