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Global Ideas

Despite green credentials, bamboo still ignored in West

Bamboo is flexible, light, robust and it grows exceptionally fast. Nonetheless, the spectacularly useful bamboo plant has yet to be taken seriously as a building material in the industrialized world.

A bamboo forest

The future is bamboo

For centuries, mankind has been using bamboo, one of the most versatile and sustainable building materials available.

"Not only is bamboo light and flexible, it's also exceptionally stable," 43-year-old Colombian architect Francisco Gallo said. Gallo hails from Pereira, a region of Colombia known for its traditional bamboo farmhouses.

He trained in Spain to be an "environment administrator," writing his dissertation on the development of engineered bamboo for use in construction materials for sustainable buildings and setting up a project called "Bambhaus."

In 2009, the initiative garnered him first prize in the renowned Altran Foundation for Innovation competition.

Sustainable building

As Gallo explains, bamboo is superior to conventional timber in many ways. It grows at the unusually fast rate of up to 15 centrimeters a day, which amounts to some 35 meters in 6 months. It therefore takes only three years for a bamboo tree to be stable enough for use as a construction material.

Moreover, bamboo is a high-yield renewable resource which, if harvested correctly, will sprout new shoots and grow back from the same plant – unlike most trees.

Bamboo scaffolding around skyscrapers in construction in Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong

Bamboo scaffolding is a common sight in Asia

Gallo pointed out that bamboo has other environmental advantages too.

"Were we to start using bamboo instead of bricks, cement and steel, we would cut carbon emissions by over 200 tonnes per hectare," he said. 

Bamboo forests also help conserve biodiversity and prevent erosion, regulate groundwater and are biodegradeable. "One hectare of bamboo alone recharges enough groundwater to supply 150 people," says Gallo.

"Planting" houses

Bamboo can grow on every continent apart from Europe, where the ground is too cold. But not all the 600 different types of bamboo that exist are equally useful as a construction material, since not all of them have the same properties as guadua, for example, which is so ideal that it's the main natural building material used for houses in Colombia.

"In Columbia, we talk about 'planting' our houses," says Francisco Gallo.

The Manizales Pavilion built with Guadua Bamboo

Guadua bamboo is exceptionally strong

There seems to be no reason why this 'vegetable steel' – as it's often referred to in South America – shouldn't become increasingly common in construction.

But industrialized nations still need to wake up to its potential, said  Gallo, and conceded that extensive validation tests need to be done before it can be widely embraced.

"With a building component, it's crucial to know exactly how sturdy and weatherproof it is," he stressed. "These tests still need to be done on bamboo."

However, these necessitate new technologies, and various legal obstacles need to be overcome before bamboo can be certified to comply with strict EU standards, for example. In this respect, its traditional use in industry gives standard wood an obvious advantage.

Not taken seriously

Bamboo playwood

Bamboo might soon bcome more popular as a building component in industrialized nations

The trouble is, bamboo lacks a strong lobby in industrialized nations.

"When you mention bamboo, most people associate it with tropical regions and romantic islands dotted with holiday beach huts,"  Gallo said.

Bamboo's environmental credentials need to be promoted if it's to gain greater popularity in mainstream use, Gallo said, pointing out that in the long run it makes economic sense.

"For the time being you can't say that building with bamboo is cheaper," he admitted. "But long-term, a bamboo construction is a sound economic choice because it insulates well and helps reduce heating costs."

Both for countries that produce bamboo and for emerging nations, building with bamboo can have tangible economic benefits. 

Gallo said a thriving bamboo industry would create jobs. Statistics show that the construction sector plays a key role in the economies of emerging nations, generating 21 percent of gross domestic product – almost 3 times the global average.

"A bamboo industry requires neither major machinery nor a well-developed infra-structure," Gallo said.

In coming decades, emerging nations will be concentrating heavily on expanding their cities. If they started 'planting' them, their economies might soon start to blossom.

Author: Emili Vinagre (jp)
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar

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