Researchers gathered in Cambridge to study architectural uses of bamboo.
On October 3, 2013, an INBAR-organized meeting in Cambridge, United Kingdom, showed that some of the world’s leading research institutions such as MIT, the University of British Columbia, the University of Cambridge, and University College London (UCL) are now joining international efforts to enhance bamboo’s use as a structural material in modern buildings.
Across the world, people have been using bamboo in construction for millennia. As a renewable material, with incredibly fast growth rates and properties similar to wood, bamboo has the potential to play an important role in meeting construction needs for a rapidly urbanizing world in an environmentally sustainable way. Today, current building practices are a leading cause of climate change. However, despite its inherent advantages, bamboo has yet to achieve its full potential as a green construction material for the 21st century. This is due to a combination of factors, with construction professionals and developers often unsure of bamboo’s natural properties and lacking the capacity to design and build with the material. However, as the research presented in Cambridge suggests, this could soon change.
In total, 21 participants from 11 institutions representing the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, Colombia and INBAR attended the workshop entitled “Research Group Meeting: Bamboo Construction for Inclusive and Green Development.” The research presented covered a range of topics on bamboo as a structural material and highlighted that there is growing international interest in enhancing use of the material.
Bamboo housing in Ecuador.
For example, a team from the University of Cambridge, MIT and the University of British Columbia presented G8-funded research on engineered bamboo. In recent years, engineered bamboo products, similar to plywood, oriented strand board and glue laminated wood products, have been developed and used in several demonstration projects in countries such as China and India. Following successful completion of this G8-funded three-year project, the research team hopes to take engineered bamboo products to the next stage, making it into a truly mainstream construction material. Prof. Greg Smith, Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia and Principal Investigator for the G8 project, explains, “Widespread use of engineered bamboo products is currently hampered by limited knowledge of their manufacture, structural and thermal behavior, and lack of appropriate building codes. The goal of this project is to develop modern structural building materials from renewable bamboo in order to place growth in rapidly developing countries onto a more sustainable path.”
On a similar theme, researchers at the University of Bath are developing engineered Guadua angustifolia Kunth bamboo panels through a process of thermo-hydro-mechanical modification. These panels have the potential to standardize construction with Guadua, which is commonly used in its round culm form in Latin American countries. Hector F. Archila, a third year PhD student at Bath told the workshop, “From my own experience on construction with Guadua in Colombia, I found that current building practices require great skill, are labour-intensive, and present numerous challenges associated with the natural variability and durability of the material. The idea of these novel panel products is to develop a product that is easy to manufacture and use, while also being highly durable and suitable for use in modern buildings.”
Dr. Juan Francisco Correal Daza, Chairman of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Los Andes in Colombia, also presented research at the meeting that suggests bamboo panel products may be superior to equivalent wood products in terms of their physical and mechanical properties, as well as their seismic performance. He stated that, “our research at Uniandes has proved that shear walls sheathed with glued laminated Guadua bamboo could be a suitable replacement for wood or wood-based panels in wood-frame systems. This could play an important role in addressing our national housing crisis shortage of 4.8 million housing units”.
In addition to work on engineered bamboo, the workshop heard from researchers at Coventry University, the Timber Research and Development Association (TRADA), University College London, and the National University of Colombia, who all aim to enhance use of round culm bamboo for construction. Traditional, round culm bamboo construction plays a crucial role in supplying homes to millions of people across the world, while recent advances in countries, such as Colombia, has seen new modern structures developed by architects such as Simón Vélez. However, round culm architecture is often perceived as a poor man’s timber in many developing countries, with the highly skilled nature of construction proving a barrier to wide-scale uptake and safer designs. Prof. Jose Fernando Munoz Robledo, an Architect and Associate Professor at the National University of Colombia, who has documented traditional Bahareque bamboo architecture of the coffee region of Colombia, told the workshop that, “Today Bahareque architecture is not doing well in Colombia. The people aspire to live in houses made of mainstream construction materials like steel and concrete, despite their high cost and often poor suitability for our highly seismically active region. We need to re-educate the people as well as develop new designs and technologies for bamboo that not only borrow from our past traditions, but meet the needs of the 21stcentury.”
In response to this call of the 21st century, researchers at University College London are now trying to enhance round pole culm design through a new international collaboration project on bamboo that links partners from Mexico, the UK and China. As Rodolfo Lorenzo, the principle investigator for UCL, told researchers, “The idea of our project is to come up with a new way of design, which maximizes the advantages of bamboo as a construction material.”
To promote wider use of round culm bamboo in construction, INBAR and Coventry University have also now commenced another international research project with partners in Colombia and Ecuador. The project aims to develop new, quick and relatively cost-effective ways of determining the strength grade of round culms using non-destructive mechanical tests. As David Trujillo, the principle investigator and senior lecturer at Coventry University explains, “At present, we can only infer the strength of bamboo culms used in construction from destructive batch tests that are conducted on a small sample of bamboo, while visual grading for bamboo is not scientifically-based. Therefore, the current status quo for round pole bamboo construction means the material is either used very conservatively in buildings or, alternatively, it is not used conservatively enough.” Therefore, mechanical strength grading of bamboo culms can potentially improve connection design and make buildings safer.
This workshop highlighted that a sea-change is now taking place in perceptions towards bamboo as a construction material, with traditional research institutes in the global north now playing an active role in bamboo research. These new North-South partnerships linking traditional leading research centers with local knowledge and skills have the power to lead to innovative breakthroughs in the bamboo construction sector. As Prof. Jose Fernando Munoz Robledo aptly stated, “Looking at the caliber of institutions, such as Cambridge, now working on bamboo construction I am sure we will do great things in the future.” INBAR now plans to organize further meetings of researchers and expand the network in coming years, with the aim of ensuring that research is coordinated and well targeted to the needs of the sector.