Building with bamboo

Issue 28 Words: Fiona Whitelaw Photography: John Tucker

Used as a building staple in south-east Asia since ancient times, bamboo is now seen as the ecological choice for everything from floorboards to cleaning products, but just how green is this grass?

Lightweight and with the tensile weight-for-weight strength of mild steel, bamboo has been used as a building material across Asia and beyond for thousands of years. A grass rather than a timber, in the right conditions bamboo can grow up to 30 centimetres a day, and can be harvested without destroying the original plant. These qualities make bamboo one of the world’s most sustainable building materials.

Because of its fast growing time, ability to absorb carbon and its versatility, bamboo is frequently used in ‘green’ building products in Australia. It is commonly used as a laminate, for its fibre, or less commonly, as a dried, usually woven material.

Bamboo building products in Australia are almost entirely imported from Asia, predominantly due to lower labour costs in both the production of the plant and the manufacturing of the resulting products. The impact of bamboo as a monoculture, the use of pesticides and toxic adhesives in the growth and manufacturing process, as well as shipping and transport, can all compromise bamboo’s environmental credentials, so it pays to investigate available choices.

Although bamboo is used in a wide range of products in Australia it is not currently rated as a structural building material, but this could change. Architectural designer at Cave Urban, Nici Long, designs and builds bamboo structures, including temporary pavilions and shelters for special events such as the annual Woodford Folk Festival in Queensland. She values bamboo for its sustainability and ease of use.

“Bamboo is incredibly easy to work with so a whole community can get involved with a project,” she says. “It’s lightweight, with low embodied energy and it’s biodegradable.”

As a material for permanent structures, building with bamboo does have some significant shortcomings. As a grass, bamboo’s cellular structure is more water absorbent than timber, which can promote fungal growth and rot. Its high starch content makes it susceptible to insect attack, while its internal structure means that inappropriately placed holes can cause the lengths to split. However, as Nici argues, there are solutions on the horizon. Bamboo is already treated with a natural salt, borax, for powderpost beetle, and its growing popularity in the west is prompting research into alternatives, such as maximising optimal harvest time to enhance natural seasoning. This could potentially reduce or eliminate the need for additional treatments.

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Cover of Issue 28
You can read more about Building with bamboo in Issue 28 of Sanctuary magazine.

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