Bamboo as a Solution For a More Sustainable Planet

The use of bamboo as a building material has occurred for many years, mostly in traditional houses in Indonesia and Asia.

Given its unique qualities and characteristics, in recent years, architects, engineers and academics have been exploring new ways to use Bamboo in modern construction. Furthermore, taking in consideration issues such as global warming and sustainability, bamboo is an eco-friendly choice that is widely discussed and reviewed nowadays.

One of the main advantages of bamboo is that it can be cultivated and harvested in a considerable short amount of time and it can be reused for multiple purposes. Moreover it has endless possibilities as a structural as well as roofing material, making structures flexible, earthquake resistant, lightweight and relatively cheap. Being extremely strong yet lightweight, it can be used in various building works.

In this year’s Time Space Existence various projects investigate the possibilities that bamboo owns as a building materials. Lucila Aguilar Arquitectos presents Ixua a village at Palazzo Bembo designed entirely out of bamboo in the southeast of Mexico. The project ties together both the ideology and the skills that the firm has been developing over the years. CRU! Architects has been working with bio-based materials such as bamboo, rammed earth and hempcrete for the past two decades, since he believes that bio-based materials have all within to provide the architecture for the future generations. In the exhibition the studio showcases at Palazzo Mora recent works executed in Brazil as well as a piece of a 25m high bamboo tower that is going to be built in Belgium. Digital Building Technologies at ETH Zurich built the Digital Bamboo pavilion at Giardini della Marinaressa, which explores the innovative combination of a bio-sourced material with digital fabrication.

Art Gallery by CRU! Architects. Photo credits: Sven Mouton

We caught up with Lucila Aguilar (Lucila Aguilar Arquitectos), Sven Mouton (CRU! Architects), and the research team behind Digital Building Technologies at ETH Zurich to find out more about their projects and how they believe that the use of the organic material can be an important solution for a more sustainable planet.

How do you integrate bamboo into your projects?

Lucila Aguilar: We always start with an investigation into the cultural, social and environmental aspects of the location in order to ensure that the project fits harmoniously into the landscape and inspires its future users. Based on our findings, we decide the best way to integrate bamboo. Bamboo is a versatile material: it can be used as the main structure, finishing, flooring, lattices, furniture, ceilings (as seen in the Madrid airport), among other things. Whenever possible, we strive to integrate bamboo as the main structural element, employing whole bamboo culms, which have the lowest environmental impact.

IXUA at Palazzo Bembo. Photo credits: Federico Vespignani

Sven Mouton: Our mission is to employ bamboo only in a structural manner. Where normally a steel, concrete or wooden structure would be used, we replace these materials with bamboo. As such, bamboo’s strengths are utilized optimally. In load bearing capacity, bamboo is comparable to steel, but the inverse of its pollution. When bamboo is used, it even has a positive impact on the environment because bamboo sequesters high amounts of carbon yet this is only captured in the stem when harvested. If a bamboo stem dies, all carbon sequestered during its lifetime is released back into to atmosphere.

CRU! Architects seeks to join the bamboo in a modern manner with steel or wooden connector pieces and avoid to make traditional joints or use bamboo for decorative purposes. These joints and structures are made in a prefabricated, modular and circular (screw-unscrew) manner, and therefore cost- and energy efficient without compromising the durability, which we have studied in a Life Cycle Analysis.

CRU! Architects’ project at Palazzo Mora. Photo credits: Federico Vespignani

Digital Building Technologies: Our project for Time Space Existence attempts to exemplify a system where the CO2 impact of buildings is minimized. The combination of biomaterials like bamboo with bespoke 3D printed connections offers a quasi waste-free production. The first can be used unprocessed and the latter can be fabricated through additive manufacturing without any need for moulds or excess material. Only the material necessary for the structural integrity is 3D printed in an efficient supply chain through industrial machines that can be found in the vicinity of the construction site, minimizing the transportation effort.

In existing bamboo space frame construction steel reinforcement or cementitious mortar is often used with great environmental impact. However, with the proposed system no other material is required for reinforcement as space frames distribute axial forces parallel to the fibers of the bamboo. Digital Bamboo proposes an example for local economic growth as well as the expansion of local craft and know-how. It showcases how to combine vernacular building craft and modern technologies for a sustainable and efficient construction system.

Digital Bamboo at Giardini della Marinaressa. Photo credits: Federico Vespignani

What do you think are the benefits and challenges of using bamboo as a building material?

LA: Structurally, it is light and flexible, but resistant and equal to steel in tensile strength and to concrete in compressive strength, making it an ideal construction material. Environmentally, bamboo absorbs approximately 50 tons of CO2 per hectare per year, it regenerates the soil and helps disperse rain and sunlight. For these reasons and more, building with bamboo can not only be carbon neutral but carbon negative. Aesthetically, it can create inspirational spaces that make us feel more connected to nature. There are a few challenges however, since it is a new and burgeoning field, there is a lack of research and knowledgeable workforce. Additionally, since bamboo is a natural material, the culms grow in varying heights, widths and curvatures which makes it a difficult material to standardize. Finally, building codes were mainly created around materials such as concrete, steel and wood and have yet to be adapted for bamboo and other new materials.

SM: The environmental benefits of bamboo are beyond any other possible construction material, even in comparison to wood. Bamboo grows abundantly in nature, is mature after four years, its rooting system is excellent against erosion and clearcut is not necessary as only the mature bamboo stems are cut. Bamboo is moreover a cheap material and when done right  building time efficient. The challenge here is to steer away from the classic manner of building with bamboo which is often done artisanal and structurally complex, and foresee a logical modular prefabricated system with screw-unscrew principles.

Photo credits: Sven Mouton

DBT: According to the EIA’s International Energy Outlook 2017, it is expected that by 2050 half of the energy consumption of buildings will be already in place before they are in use. This is because of their high embodied energy: most of the materials, their manufacturing process, and transportation account for approximately half of the total CO2 emissions of a building’s life cycle.

The use of bamboo in construction targets grey energy consumption by proposing a novel system for spatial structures based on unprocessed bio-sourced materials. Biomaterials that are sourced locally limit significantly the carbon footprint of production and transportation, while they are renewable. Specifically bamboo, according to certain measurements, can have a negative carbon footprint in a building’s life cycle.

In addition to the positive environmental impact, bamboo has significant advantages as a building material: it has a fast growth and can be harvested on average every three to five years, it can be used unprocessed in space frame structures because of its natural shape, while the direction of its fibers allow a good distribution of the dominant forces in the axial direction. The latter is possible due to the superior strength in the longitudinal direction and high strength-to-weight ratio that bamboo poles display.

As with many natural materials, there are specific challenges associated with using bamboo unprocessed. The poles are non uniform as their section profile differs not only from one bamboo to the other, but also within the same pole. These deviations prohibit widespread adoption of the material in a highly industrialized setting.

Furthermore, there are only a few recent initiatives to grow and sustain bamboo plantations in the European region. Bamboo is mainly cultivated in certain regions in Asia and central America, and thus, its use in different regions and continents still requires significant transportation effort with a high environmental footprint. The latter combined with the lack of knowledge and craftsmanship of using bamboo in such regions, like Europe, pose considerable challenges in adopting it as a building material.

Details of Digital Bamboo. Photo credits: Digital Building Technologies at ETH Zurich

What are the misconceptions about the use of bamboo in architecture? 

LA: The biggest misconception about bamboo in architecture is that it doesn’t last. It is true that if left untreated, bamboo poles can be eaten from the inside by insects. Additionally, bamboo needs to have a “hat and boots” meaning it needs to be protected from the sun and moisture. However, if these factors are considered in the design, then bamboo buildings can last for a long time and be very strong and sturdy structures.

SM: One of the largest misconceptions is that bamboo architecture should be organic and bent with many arches. Whilst this type of architecture certainly has its aesthetic benefits (and therefore also has a right to exist), it is not the most cost-efficient construction method nor more ecologic. Bending for example requires either a large amount of energy by heating the fibres or the stem is weakened when making cuts in order to achieve a bended bamboo that before was fairly straight. Furthermore, a higher quantity of bamboo poles is required to produce the same surface area compared to an orthogonal bamboo structure.

Finally, another common misconception is the fact that there exists an infinite liberty of structural design when conceiving a bamboo building. Bamboo is a relatively vulnerable material to weather conditions and bio agents. Bamboo therefore needs to be lifted from the ground against upward moisture uptake, protected against sun radiation and precipitation. A large roof overhang that prevents the sun, rain or moist to reach the poles is a necessity.

DBT: A lot of misconceptions are associated with the use of bamboo in architecture. The most common being that bamboo is a cheap material used by laypeople for informal buildings. To the west world, where construction is highly industrialized, bamboo like many other natural materials is considered an element of ephemeral architectures not to be seen in urban settings, as it is misconceived as not strong or durable enough.

Lastly, the lack of knowledge on different bamboo species and range of diameters leads many people to imagine only one type of bamboo with a large diameter to be used for construction. However, the range of species and diameter thickness of bamboo allows for a wide range of applications in architecture with different qualities, hierarchies and levels of refinement.


How do you think the use of bamboo can be a solution for a more sustainable planet?

LA: Currently, the construction industry is responsible for roughly 40% of our carbon emissions. Bamboo is a material that can revolutionize and reverse the negative impact that the construction industry has had on our planet. It is a tool through which we can meet various of the sustainability goals set out by the United Nations. This is because bamboo can improve the environmental, social and economic sectors of a population. Environmentally, it grows quickly, and in the process, it cleanses the water and fertilizes the soils. It regenerates rapidly after being harvested and captures 50 tons of CO2 per hectare annually. Socially and economically, bamboo is locally abundant and simple to use without the need for complicated tools.

IXUA at Palazzo Bembo. Photo credits: Federico Vespignani

What can architecture look like in the future without compromising the planet’s preservation?

SM: Architecture in itself needn’t particularly be changed, but the materials and techniques should, simply because the resources are finite, and the pollution and energy that comes with the production of materials cannot be sustained in the future. Nature will re-direct when its capacity is exceeded, collapse could be a consequence if care isn’t taken. Even though architecture itself needn’t change, the use of renewable materials and the maintenance there-of will most likely lead to a paradigm shift, also in form and conception. Like in the great mosque of Djenné, where a yearly maintenance festival and sticks that serve as a scaffolding are elements that secure the life expectancy of the building, or in a more modern way the cranes atop skyscrapers that provide means of washing the window (which can be designed as a key aspect of the building). This renewed look at material could lead to a whole kind of architecture altogether.

Community Centre. Photo Credits: Sven Mouton

How do you combine technology and natural materials in your research and projects?

DBT: The Digital Bamboo is a result of an ongoing research on additively manufactured connections for bespoke spatial structures at the chair of Digital Building Technologies at ETH Zürich. The motivation of this research is two-fold and relies on the symbiotic relationship of natural materials that are not highly industrialized and new technologies like additive manufacturing, which allow the integration of those irregularities and inhomogeneities within the design process of architectural components.

The research focuses on connecting parts as the connections are a small fraction of the volume of the overall structure. If optimized for printing volume and weight, their transportation from the manufacturing facility to the construction site can happen with a very small CO2 footprint. Moreover, in the case of transportable structures only the connections can be shipped with a small impact.

Therefore the marriage of local unprocessed materials with small but smart connecting pieces, that carry all the intelligence for assembly, allows a sustainable but yet efficient approach to the design of bespoke structures.

Detail of Digital Bamboo. Photo credits: Federico Vespignani

Can you tell us more about how you imagine a possible involvement of the local community in your project IXUA?

LA: The involvement of the local community in our project is very important to us because we want to make sure the spirit of community will be alive in IXUA. Cooperation will be central to creating this balanced ecosystem where the talent of each person adds to enrich the community as a whole.

There will be many opportunities for the local community to be involved. We plan to have a mosaic of artisans, painters, cooks, chefs, musicians and artists from the southeast of Mexico. They will have their workshop, business or restaurant spilling out into the portico directly under their home. This will allow them to have an exceptional quality of life with international exposure and interactions with other artists.

The neighboring towns will be incorporated into the fabric of our community through a scheme of embassies. IXUA will house 28 embassies, where representatives of the regional towns will live. The selection of these ambassadors will be made by each town, who will nominate 3 families to live and trade in IXUA. These embassies will function as nuclei where the towns will be able to carry out commerce and will also be the channel through which they will be able to sell their crafts and promote their cultures without intermediaries. The integration of the ambassadors will extend to their communities and these associations will evolve organically into cooperatives. We hope to give the local community a sustainable economic growth that is not dependent on the seasonal tourism or the train time tables.

IXUA by Lucila Aguilar Arquitectos

How do you combine modern architectural design with bio-based materials and approaches when working with bamboo?

SM: CRU! Architects often works with a combination of a bamboo structure with rammed earthen walls. Also bio- based materials such as hemp and mycelium bricks are excellent options for the walls.

How do you envision the use of bamboo in the future in the architecture and engineering industries?

DBT: In order to adopt bamboo as a construction material in the architecture and engineering industry some necessary steps need to take place in relation to supply, regulations and industry standards. Cultivation of bamboo has only recently begun in Europe with small initiatives, but is still far from reaching industry scale demand. However, as interest in bamboo construction grows and the concern of the environmental impact of the industry hightens, we believe that we will witness an increase in bamboo cultivation sites in regions around the globe where the climate allows for it.

At the moment, it is difficult to plan and design for an unregulated natural material within highly regulated and norm-conforming industrial standards. The different countries will need to adapt to the current challenges and develop new guidelines and regulations that include natural materials like bamboo. We have already witnessed a similar process already happening with new composite and 3D printed materials. Once those regulations exist, it will be possible for designers and engineers to consider bamboo as a primary building material.

However, we do not envision that the widespread use of bamboo is the final target of future construction. Our building systems have been developed in the last fifty years on entirely different materials such as steel and concrete. The adoption of bamboo poses a question on those very systems. The future of sustainable construction relies on our capacity to reinvent construction systems designed specifically for bamboo or other combinations of materials. Such a case is the new system developed for Digital Bamboo.

Looking into the future, we hope that ongoing research and build projects will provide a collective database on bamboo properties, species and building methods. Such a database, if available to all designers and engineers, can lay the foundation for a different building culture that does not rely on misconceptions around the use of bamboo in architecture.

Digital Bamboo at Giardini dlla Marinaressa. Photo credits: Federico Vespignani

You can discover more about their projects on the catalogue of Time Space Existence 2021 – download here – or by exploring our Virtual Tours: Palazzo MoraPalazzo BemboGiardini della Marinaressa – Levante.

Intro and interview by ECC Team.

Bamboo as a Solution For a More Sustainable Planet

The use of bamboo as a building material has occurred for many years, mostly in traditional houses in Indonesia and Asia.

  • Published: 22.07.2021
  • Category: In Focus
  • Subject: Participants
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