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Green steel

Sustainable architecture: Building with bamboo

Stronger than steel, more robust than concrete and more flexible than wood – bamboo could become the construction industry’s new miracle material. In Asia, Africa and South America, this sustainable resource has been used to build houses for centuries. And with good reason.

Bamboo canes in a row side by side in the jungle

It’s hard to think of another raw material that’s proven to be as attractive as bamboo in recent years. (Photo: Paulina Saez on Unsplash)

Bamboo: the sustainable miracle plant

Native to tropical climatic regions, bamboo now covers an area of around 37 million hectares worldwide. The plant belongs to the Poaceae family of grasses and encompasses numerous different genera. Depending on the species, this incredible plant grows between 3 and 30 centimetres per day. This makes bamboo one of the fastest growing plants in the world. Many species are fully grown after only a few months or even weeks, at which point they may measure up to 40 metres in height.

For a long time, this impressive plant was underappreciated and, in Europe and North America, mainly used as a privacy screen in gardens or on balconies. But bamboo has since developed into a sustainable and versatile solution for multiple needs, gaining a foothold in our everyday lives. From toothbrushes to coffee mugs to furniture : in these times of climate protection and conscious consumption, this renewable raw material is making a big impact as its great potential is revealed – especially in sustainable architecture.

Eco-friendly construction using bamboo

Look at any city with a high population density and you will see structures made from stone, steel and concrete. Although these construction materials have stood the test of time, gravel and sand are in short supply, and wood is expensive. Since the beginning of 2021, the price of construction timber has almost doubled – a figure that presents the entire building industry with new challenges. Wood is currently still the go-to alternative building material, but bamboo’s characteristics put it in the shade.

The plant can be cut down and processed after only three years, whereas oak, maple and beech need to grow for several decades. Although bamboo poles are hollow on the inside, they’re similar to timber from trees in terms of stability. Unlike wood fibres, however, bamboo fibres are always arranged lengthwise, which makes them particularly sturdy, resilient and flexible. It’s bamboo’s combination of the compressive strength of concrete and the tensile strength of steel that makes it so attractive as a building material. Thanks to its structure, it’s often even able to withstand hurricanes and earthquakes without any difficulty.

And the raw material has another decisive advantage in that it’s one of the most sustainable building materials available today. Its sustainability credentials start with its growing conditions. Because bamboo is very resilient, environmentally damaging pesticides and fertilisers are not needed. When the bamboo plant is harvested, it isn’t killed. Instead, part of the stalk is left in the forest, stimulating the root system and prompting the plant to regrow. Because it grows so quickly, bamboo is an almost infinitely renewable resource. In addition, unlike building materials like steel, concrete and even wood, bamboo has a negative carbon footprint. The plant absorbs up to four times more CO2 than some tree species. As a result, bamboo is paving the way for eco-friendly construction of a kind that has previously been virtually impossible and is thereby helping to advance the field of green architecture.

Luum Yoga Temple made of bamboo in the middle of the jungle of Tulum, Mexico
3D model of a skyscraper made of bamboo and wood.
The gymnasium of the Green School Bali, built only from bamboo

Natural shapes and materials have been brought together in the heart of the Mexican jungle. The impressive Luum yoga temple demonstrates the flexibility of bamboo as a building material. The architects from the CO-LAB design office chose this raw material because it’s sustainable and can withstand the power of a hurricane. (Photo: Co-Lab Design Office)

A modern twist on bamboo: a tower block containing 200 flats is due to be built in Vancouver, Canada, this year using modular construction methods. What’s special about it is that it will be built largely from bamboo and wood. (Photo: Urban Agency)

All the buildings at the unique Green School in Bali were constructed almost entirely from bamboo. The Arc, designed as a community wellness zone and sports hall, is composed of a series of intersecting 14-metre-high bamboo arches spanning a 19-metre space and connected by gridshells. (Photo: Tommaso Riva, IBUKU)

Green architecture: challenges facing the construction industry

There are always challenges associated with progress. And eco-friendly construction using bamboo is no exception as it calls for new building techniques. Because it’s a natural raw material, bamboo culms are irregularly shaped and not of uniform thickness. The individual poles also vary in length. Researchers, engineers and furniture designers have taken up this challenge and developed modern techniques that will make building with bamboo easier in the future.

For example, Kyle Schumann and Katie MacDonald from the University of Tennessee have developed a milling machine that’s no bigger than a microwave. It’s a portable tool local craftspeople can use to produce bespoke components without leaving the building site. After all, one of the challenges of using bamboo for eco-friendly construction is how to form secure joints between the irregular ends of the naturally grown poles. The machine can be used to mill all manner of shapes as long as the walls of the material are sufficiently thick.

Another innovative approach comes from Mexico, where architecture firm CO-LAB has constructed an environmentally friendly building entirely from bamboo: the Luum Temple. Inspired by nature, the five vault-like roof structures give the appearance of an upside-down flower. To connect the individual bamboo poles, some of which are of different thicknesses, they started by scanning the support structure. An algorithm calculated what individual joints were needed, and these were then made from plastic using a 3D printer .

Research is also being carried out in Germany into technologies aimed at making eco-friendly construction using bamboo even more attractive. At Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Dirk Hebel and his team have developed a bamboo composite material that’s 90 per cent composed of bamboo fibres and resins. This combination makes the bamboo even more robust and less vulnerable to damp.

So, what do these innovative ideas have in common? They give a clear impression of how future construction can and will look. After all, climate change and dwindling resources demand new ways of thinking.

The green steel of the future

Natural, resource-efficient and flexible: bamboo boasts a host of advantages. In terms of sustainability in particular, it’s almost unbeatable as a building material. As an attractive alternative to wood, the plant opens up new possibilities for the building and interior design industries to use green architecture in order to flourish in a sustainable future.

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