Bamboo is a renewable and versatile resource, characterized by high strength and low weight, and is easily worked with simple tools – making it the building material of choice for many rural communities across the Global South, particularly in the construction of low-cost, affordable housing.
The tradition of using bamboo culms dates back millennia. Different cultures have found in this material an economical system of building, offering sound yet light and easily replaceable forms of shelter, making it ideal in earthquake-prone regions. The methods, activities and tools are often simple straightforward and accessible to even the young and unskilled.
Strengthening the durability of bamboo as a building material
Although the natural durability of bamboo culms is low – culms directly exposed to soil and atmosphere only have an average life of 1-3 years – practical preservation techniques can strengthen resilience.
Many of these techniques have been developed by rural communities. They include smoking – which helps to dry the culms; whitewashing – using slaked lime which prevents moisture entering the culm; and elevating structures – ensuring that the culms remain dry and the chance of deterioration due to fungal attack is reduced. Modern research has also seen the introduction of highly effective chemical treatments.
Improving structural integrity
Strong construction depends on effective jointing. But, because of its round, tubular form, the jointing of two or more bamboo members requires a different approach to that adopted for, say, solid timber.
Bamboo is also characterized by a tendency to split – the use of nails, pegs, notches or mortises can therefore result in considerable reductions in strength. Connections must also cope with variations in diameter, wall thickness and straightness.
Clearly, these limitations have not presented an obstacle to the use of bamboo in traditional forms of construction. And with improvements in jointing technology – it has even made possible the building of structurally efficient, more durable and possibly larger and more economical bamboo structures.
By building on traditional methods and exploiting the strengths and advantages of bamboo, a number of jointing techniques have been developed which offer more structurally efficient solutions to jointing problems.
Improving bamboo culm processing
A major advantage of bamboo is its ability to be worked by hand using very simple tools. If, however, the commercial potential of bamboo as an engineering material is to be realized, then there will need to be developed efficient handling, machining and production methods.
By continuing to develop these methods, great potential exists to develop more formal value chains around traditional vernacular bamboo architecture and use this as a driver for improved housing and economic development in many rural communities and rapidly-growing urban centers.