Architects have called it ‘green steel’. Bamboo, the fast-growing grass plant common to Africa, Asia and Latin America, has been used for thousands of years to build houses, bridges, and scaffolding.
Yet, despite its excellent mechanical properties – bamboo is flexible, durable and has the tensile strength of steel – this plant remains something of a forgotten solution in the construction world. Part of the problem is bamboo’s association with cheap, low-quality housing: a ‘poor man’s timber’.
One organisation is fighting to change this perception. Founded in 2015 in Bali, Indonesia, Bamboo U offers training courses that promote bamboo as a green construction material. The 11-day ‘build and design’ course takes participants on a hands-on journey through the life cycle of bamboo: from harvesting and treatment, to design and construction. Participants then get to bring their own designs to life, or help create bamboo structures, under the supervision of a team of architects and designers.
‘I wanted to create a space for people to come together, to empower themselves to approach issues of sustainability,’ says Orin Hardy, who co-founded Bamboo U with his wife, Maria Farrugia. The hands-on nature of the course is an essential part of this: participants visit bamboo factories, harvest their own poles, and learn how to plan and put together their own bamboo designs from scratch.
Balinese craftsmanship is a large component of all Bamboo U courses. Participants on the course all learn to use traditional hand tools, and receive training from some of the craftsmen and designers who created its buildings, including designers at the pioneering architecture firm Ibuku. According to Hardy, ‘We want everyone to use a chisel and a saw – not because we expect people to go home and use these tools, but because it’s important to develop an appreciation for the craft.’
A five-minute stroll from Bamboo U’s campus, in the lush Indonesian forest, can reveal some incredible feats of bamboo construction: six-storey houses, schools, and bridges that can hold the weight of a car. Many of these buildings are part of Green School, the famous bamboo school created by Hardy’s father in 2008.
Bamboo construction may not be new, but Bamboo U is giving much needed impetus to an old craft. In recent years, concerns about the unsustainability of building materials, including a growing shortage of key materials such as sand, have prompted a fresh look at ‘natural’ construction. Research by the International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation, INBAR, shows that bamboo can provide a low-carbon, renewable alternative to timber, steel and cement: the plant stores more carbon than certain species of tree, and can be used to create everything from drainage pipes to wind turbine blades. As INBAR’s construction expert, Liu Kewei, puts it: ‘Bamboo is the sustainable timber of the future. We just need everyone to realise it.’
Since 2015, Bamboo U has welcomed more than 400 people through its doors. Alumni have gone on to teach bamboo construction workshops in Ecuador and the Philippines, create architecture installations in Belgium and the USA, build bamboo kitchens, and set up new bamboo plantations around the world.
Nonetheless, not everyone can build their house with bamboo. According to Hardy: ‘We don’t believe that everyone needs to go away and build structures like ours.’ Bamboo U is ‘more about an understanding of the place you’re in. We want to remind people that nature can, and should, be in the built environment.’