Bamboo Houses to the Rescue

Over time, poor countries don’t experience more natural disasters than rich countries, but poor people — even those living in rich countries — suffer more in a catastrophe. Since the dawn of civilization, infrastructure has played a crucial role in deciding who and what survives a flood, earthquake, tropical cyclone or other natural disaster. And the wealthy really are different from you and me; they have more infrastructure.

Beyond increasing per capita income — the goal of many, if not all, development projects — what can be done to provide better infrastructure and reduce the death toll of natural disasters in developing nations? According to a set of specialized architects and builders, one answer involves permanent bamboo housing. They argue that bamboo cultivation and construction can protect people in disaster-prone areas. History suggests they may be correct.

A 7.5 earthquake in Limón, Costa Rica, in April 1991 destroyed homes built with concrete and rebar, but all 20 of the more-flexible bamboo houses at the earthquake’s epicenter remained standing. When three typhoons swept into the Cook Islands in 2005, one producing winds of 173 mph, they devoured everything in their path — everything, that is, except a group of bamboo houses on the beach.

But in the age of global warming, bamboo has a benefit beyond construction: Both young and mature bamboo plantations capture more carbon than similar stands of trees. In a 2007 paper titled “Sub-optimal Equilibriums in the Carbon Forestry Game: Why Bamboo Should Win and Why It Will Not,” energy specialist Raya Kühne said, “A non-tree species — bamboo — may be one of the species most well-suited to the Clean Development Mechanism’s goals of maximizing carbon revenues and promoting sustainable development.”

In the Japanese culture, bamboo symbolizes “the perfect man.” It is strong but flexible and was the first green plant to reappear after the bombing of Hiroshima. Bamboo has twice the compression strength of concrete and half the tensile strength of steel.

The Chinese have used it for more than 5,000 years for housing, food, furniture, medicine and “fire arrows.” In Ecuador, the pre-Columbian record includes pottery from 3,500 B.C. that depicts bamboo dwellings, and colonial-era buildings in Colombia have bamboo in their walls. Thomas Edison carbonized bamboo for use in the first successful light filaments, and an entirely bamboo airplane was constructed in the Philippines in the 1940s.

Bamboo is the largest grass in the world, and there are more than 1,000 species of the plant. Its uses range from paper products to eco-friendly textiles; its shoots are a culinary staple in much of Asia. Today, bamboo is most frequently used in the U.S. for landscaping and fishing poles, but it has also caught on as a low-cost alternative to hardwood flooring. A number of companies offer bamboo bicycles, and a small town in the Philippines has even developed three bamboo car models that run on coconut biofuel.

Bamboo 101: Sustainable Cultivation from Bamboo Living on Vimeo.

There are two types of bamboo: running and clumping, names that describe their rhizomes, or roots. Running bamboo has a bad reputation among gardeners; it has a long horizontal root network that spreads quickly and reaches far. Clumping bamboo, the less common of the two, has a rhizome network that runs more deeply underground and does not spread horizontally.

Bamboo has been used as a building material in the developing world for centuries. It (literally) grows like a weed — under the right conditions, some species grow up 1.5 to 2 inches per hour. Like poverty, bamboo is especially prolific in the tropics; perhaps what makes the concept of bamboo as a material for low-income housing most appealing is this symmetry. The International Network for Bamboo and Rattan, a Beijing-based intergovernmental organization that seeks to improve the benefits of the two plants, estimates that more than 1.5 billion people are in some way dependent on bamboo and rattan.

Not all types of bamboo are ideal for construction, and without treatment to protect against insects and mold, bamboo houses will last only 15 years or so. But as a construction material, bamboo’s advantages over wood are numerous: It is cheaper to plant, grows faster and can be harvested using less fossil fuel. While trees are typically harvested every 20 to 50 years, bamboo reaches maturity in four to six years and can be cut two or three years after that. Bamboo plants’ rhizome maps grow continuously throughout their life spans — which can be from 10 to more than 100 years — meaning that unlike tree roots, which die and decompose after a tree is harvested, releasing their stored carbon, rhizomes stay alive even after bamboo is harvested.

Costa Rica’s Bamboo National Housing Project began in 1986 and demonstrated the ability of bamboo to provide durable, seismically sound housing while contributing to reforestation. Funded by the United Nations Development Programme and the Dutch government, the project sought to diminish Costa Rica’s housing problems by planting, harvesting and building with Guadua, a locally available strain of bamboo. It helped create more than 2,000 houses in rural areas, including the indigenous communities of Terraba, Rey Curre and Boruca, before the turn of the century. (The project stopped producing houses shortly after its adoption by the Costa Rican government in the mid-1990s.)

Two homes in two days from Bamboo Living on Vimeo.

More recently, bamboo housing has gained attention for its use in disaster relief efforts. After an earthquake destroyed 80 percent of the buildings in Sichuan, China, killing more than 70,000 people, the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan built more than 100 temporary prefabricated bamboo houses in a resettlement area. Almost two years later, in March 2010, the European Union and INBAR kicked off a project to establish a sustainable bamboo processing chain in the earthquake-torn region, which is rich in bamboo resources.

Following the devastating earthquake in Port-au-Prince in January, the World Bamboo Organization, a tax-exempt trade association formed to facilitate the flow of information about bamboo, launched a pilot project in Haiti to ignite a long-term plantation and housing development. The organization, led by Jeffree Trudeau, a co-owner of Bamboo Living, is working with CO2 Bambu, a Nicaragua-based for-profit enterprise that encourages Guadua cultivation and sells pre-fabricated bamboo “casitas.” So far, the World Bamboo Organization has raised money to fund the construction of 33 pre-fabricated temporary homes in Haiti. These can be made into permanent housing through the application of stucco.

“The first step is to bring in a pilot project, which will increase the visibility of bamboo as a construction material,” Trudeau explains. “The next stage is to be planting bamboo and growing bamboo plantations, so that the Haitian people have something to base an economy on. There are certain species that will grow very well and have proved in other countries to support developing economies very well.”

Previous efforts to reforest Haiti have shown that bamboo thrives there; under the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Farmer to Farmer program, Norm Bezona brought 200 bamboo plants to the nation from Hawaii in 1999 and educated residents on the multiple uses and benefits of bamboo. After four months, 40,000 plants had been generated from the original 200. Today, approximately half of these plants are being used for construction.

Building with bamboo makes sense in the warm, wet climates where it tends to grow best; in some places, however, it’s simply cheaper to use wood. For that reason, it’s not likely that bamboo houses or plantations will overrun the United States any time soon. (The U.S. abandoned its 1890 investigation of bamboo’s potential as an agroforestry crop after only nine years.) But numerous projects incorporating bamboo cultivation and construction are under way in rural, tropical locales.

Working with the World Bamboo Organization, Trudeau has led workshops in Vietnam, Nepal, India, Indonesia and China to teach residents how to build with bamboo. He has also built low-cost housing prototypes for Bhutan, Colombia and Nicaragua. CO2 Bambu has partnered with small producers in Nicaragua and plans to plant up to 2,500 acres of Guadua bamboo there by 2016. The Hanoi, Vietnam-based Prosperity Initiative works to shift the bamboo industry there to higher-value industrial bamboo products like flooring, panels and paper, with the goal of bringing 750,000 people out of poverty by 2020. Research conducted in China shows that bamboo helped move many poor households up the socioeconomic ladder in Linan County, a part of Zhejiang Province.

One of the biggest obstacles bamboo must overcome to gain international acceptance as a building material is its reputation as “the poor man’s timber.” This reputation has been fueled by a number of factors: low-quality bamboo exports to the United States, a poor understanding of ideal building varieties and centuries-old beliefs about its suitability for construction. In the Indian caste system, for example, the highest classes build with stone, the middle castes use wood and only the poorest use bamboo.

Also, there are few construction and production standards to guarantee the quality of bamboo products and buildings. Trudeau and his co-owner in Bamboo Living, David Sands, have worked for more than 10 years to incorporate bamboo into the International Code Council’s building standards, so their bamboo houses could be sold in the United States. Trudeau is working with the World Bamboo Organization and the International Organization for Standardization to develop regulations for bamboo products around the world.

Matthew Kahn, a professor in the UCLA Institute of the Environment, Department of Economics and Department of Public Policy, believes that once standards have been developed, The World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development will help enforce them through their financing regulations.

Kahn thinks that nongovernmental organizations are an ideal vehicle for promoting bamboo homes in rural areas, but venture capitalists should build bamboo housing for a major, often-neglected demographic: the urban poor. “There are hundreds of millions of people moving to cities in Asia and Latin America, and they need new homes,” he says. “Businesspeople could get very rich by building bamboo housing developments, but there is the question of whether the new urbanites have the money to pay for the homes. Developers could build bamboo houses to rent out to day laborers.”

There are reasons bamboo is not a larger segment of Third World forestry and construction sectors. Kühne, an energy specialist with the GTZ Programme for Sustainable Economic Development in Ghana, has found that forestry planners do not often use the plant because its acceptance in the construction market is far from certain, and its carbon-absorbing capabilities do not, as yet, generate additional profits. Also, she says, there is a lack of bamboo research. Although numerous academic papers have documented the carbon sequestration attributes of different tree species, relatively little attention has been paid to bamboo.

Still, Sands and Trudeau are optimistic that bamboo plantations will be part of carbon-credit or payment-for-ecosystems services schemes, as governments around the world come to grips with climate change. “We have an opportunity here in the bamboo industry that’s not in most industries,” Trudeau says. “The resource, the raw material, has the incredible advantage of affecting climate change, so it makes so much sense to start using it sooner rather than later.”

Founded in late 2007 by philanthropist Sara Miller-McCune, Miller-McCune is a nonprofit print and online magazine harnessing hard data and breaking research to support journalism that focuses on finding solutions to social problems. Supported by a combination of grants and advertising, Miller-McCune rejects any overriding ideology, believing that the best answers can come from anywhere.