Bamboo: Home Construction Material of the Future

Believe it or not, the 50 houses depicted on this site were constructed with bamboo. Surprising, right?

Bamboos are members of the grass family of plants with varieties that are among the fastest growing plants in the world. They are native to warm, humid tropical and temperate climates.

Bamboo is an excellent, fast-growing, low-cost replacement for wood. It is a renewable, self- regenerating resource that is often called the 'poor man's timber'.

In Nigeria and most African countries, the most popular construction materials for the superstructure or carcass of houses have always been things like mud blocks (in earlier times) and more recently cement blocks. In comparable tropical climates like Southeast Asia, bamboo has always been very popular as a primary building material.

Beyond Asia, the popularity of bamboo has been on an upswing in the global construction industry. It is now being used for housing construction, production of accessories like carpets, blinds, toothpicks, sate sticks, viniculture poles, parquet floors, paper, furniture etc.

This article discusses some reasons why we should take a second look at bamboo as a primary construction material in Africa.

Reason 1: Bamboo is Locally Available

Bamboo is widely available in Africa where it grows profusely in the wild. Most local bamboo suppliers simply forage in the bush for free stands of bamboo which they then cut and transport into urban centres for sale.

Experts have proposed development of bamboo plantations to boost economic activity in rural populations of Asian countries. Bamboo plantations have already been established in many countries like China, Nicaragua and South Africa, and Australia. There is a significant economic opportunity for local development of bamboo plantations in Africa countries to meet the expected increase in local and global demand for high quality bamboo. Establishment of plantations is important because natural forest bamboos are realtively low-yielding- they yield just 20% of the yield of well managed bamboo plantations. Some bamboo plantations have already been established in Ghana.

Reason 2: Bamboo has High Strength

There are two common measures of the strength of a material: compressive strength and tensile strength.

Compressive strength measures the ability of a material to resist loads which tend to reduce its size or push it together; while tensile strength measures ability of a load to stretch, elongate it or pull it apart.

When compressive strength is considered, bamboo is stronger than wood, brick, or concrete. When tensile strength is considered, bamboo has a higher specific tensile strength that steel.

Reason 3: Fast Growth/Sustainability

The world record for fastest growing plant is held by a member of the bamboo family which was found to grown at the rate of 91 cm (35in) per day. This fast rate of growth means that usage of bamboo is more sustainable than timber or tropical hardwood which take far longer to grow. This is also means that more bambo can be produced at a faster rate per hectare than tropical hardwood. This is particularly important for African countries that are suffering the negative effects of deforestation.

Reason 4: Affordability

Bamboo is more affordable than many other building materials because of its plentiful supply, ease of harvesting and fast growth. You could say that its as cheap as grass. In fact, it is a type of grass!

Reason 5: Low Skill Requirement

While manipulation of bamboo can be labour intensive, it requires less skill for harvesting, preparation, processing and finishing than many other building materials.

Tools and equipment for working with bamboo are simple and readily available locally. Examples of tools and equipment include things like cutlasses and basic carpentry tools like chisels, tri-square, tape measures, hammers, bar clamps, hack saws, electric hand drill, planer, orbital sander etc.

Best Practices for Using Bamboo

Bamboo is fast gaining attention on the international stage as a good housing solution for tropical cities. This means that scientists and researchers are beginning to develop modern processing techniques for bamboo. These new techniques are helping to overcome the inherent disadvantages of bamboo such as its durability. Bamboo requires special treatments to remove moisture and enhance its durability.

Even if you don't build your entire house from bamboo, you can still use it for critical components like fencing, furniture, flooring, windows, ceiling or as a support material for super structure.

Bamboo is also a great material to use in construction of structures like pagodas, farmhouses, resorts and beach houses.

Here are some resources on best practices for using bamboo in construction:

  1. Designing and Building with Bamboo by Jules J. A. Jansen (Eindhoven Technical Institute). Download the PDP here.
  2. Video: Cutting Edge Bamboo Construction Technology

  3. Guadua Bamboo- Examples of Spectacular Bamboo Construction, Structures, Resorts, Residential Homes and Architecture from Around the World

  4. Video: Bamboo Engineering by Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  5. Video: Bamboo: 21st Century Steel by David Trujillo, TedXCoventryUniversity

Have you tried bamboo as a building material before? Would you recommend it?  Do you have any tips or techniques for those who might be considering it?  Please let me know in the comments section.