Colombian Architect Proving Strength and Beauty of Bamboo

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Fast-growing bamboo grass (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bamboo) has become a cause celebre amongst those looking for a sustainable and tough building material.

In the last five years, more and more construction projects have turned to bamboo. It has many advantages: it grows quickly, is super-strong yet also supple enough to bend in a hurricane or earthquake and has a high tensile strength (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultimate_tensile_strength) equivalent to steel. It is, of course, green since it is grown in forests, and is cheap and plentiful in many countries of the South, especially across Asia and Latin America.

It is also aesthetically pleasing and makes beautiful structures with intricate patterns.

But despite all these advantages, it has been a hard sales job to get people to choose bamboo as a building material rather than traditional woods, steel or concrete. Many people wrongly think green means not strong. But as many a construction worker knows in Asia, where scaffolding made from bamboo is commonplace, it is tough and stands on its own.

Pioneers are working hard to prove bamboo deserves respect as a building material for a greener future.

Award-winning Colombian architect Simón Vélez has designed more than 200 bamboo buildings in Germany, France, the United States, Brazil, Mexico, China, Jamaica, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, and India.

Vélez’s commissions are varied, and include a bridge for the Bob Marley Museum in Jamaica.

One of his recent projects is the Zócalo Nomadic Museum (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nomadic_Museum) in Mexico City. Another is the Crosswaters Ecolodge (http://www.asla.org/2010awards/370.html), the first ecotourism destination in China in the forests of Nankun Shan Mountain Reserve, Guangdong Province. For the Expo Hanover 2000, he designed and constructed a 2000-square-meter bamboo pavilion for ZERI (Zero Emissions
Research Initiative) (http://www.zeri.org/).

Vélez has developed pioneering joinery systems to connect bamboo poles together. This is a critical focus of innovation if bamboo structures are going to win people’s trust.

Based in Bogotá, Colombia, Vélez uses a well-trained crew to make his buildings and structures. This has the advantage of building expertise and a history of lessons learned from past successes and failures. That stability is a critical insight: many good ideas suffer from a lack of stability and longevity. He uses very simple, hand-drawn sketches on a single sheet of paper. He works with the peculiarities of the bamboo and does not treat it like wood: a common mistake.

To tackle the woeful lack of decent housing for the poor, he has developed a low-cost house that can be built by home-owners. It is highly resistant to earthquakes and is 60 square metres divided on two floors. It costs
around US $5,000 to make in Colombia.

Winner of the Prince Claus Fund (http://www.princeclausfund.org/en/index.html), Vélez’s work promotes sustainable development, introducing new ideas on ecological issues and questions. The Fund calls him an architect “whose aesthetic and technical innovations have considerably expanded the possibilities of bamboo as a building material, providing a challenge to prevailing architectural trends.”

With more than 1 billion people around the world lacking decent shelter, many see plentiful bamboo as a key part of the solution. Most people with poor quality housing live in urban areas, usually in slums and informal settlements (UN-HABITAT). Latin America has a serious shortage of adequate housing: in Colombia, 43 percent of the population needs decent housing; in Brazil, 45 percent; Peru, 53 percent.

The challenge is to provide good quality homes without significantly harming the environment – and with constrained budgets. Bamboo – cheap, strong, quickly renewable and beautiful – is an ideal solution to replace traditional wood lumber.

Bamboo is the fastest growing woody plant in the world, sometimes growing over 1 metre a day. Around the world, there are 1,000 species of bamboo. They grow in a wide variety of climates, from cold mountains to hot tropical regions.

Once called the “poor man’s timber” – a temporary building material to replace once there is more money – bamboo is now getting the respect it deserves. Bamboo for housing has a long history in Latin America, stretching back 4,500 years to ancient civilizations. In Asia, it has long been a traditional construction material. But most of the existing bamboo dwellings in Latin America are 50 to 100 years old.

The most popular species of bamboo used in South America is Guadua, which is known for being large, straight and attractive.

Thoughtful and methodical pioneers like Vélez are proving bamboo has a viable future as a building material that will tackle the housing needs of the world’s poor and the fast-growing cities of the South.

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