Is Bamboo a Sustainable Building Material?

Published Categorized as Sustainability
Bamboo Grove

The construction industry contributes nearly 40% of carbon dioxide emissions on an annual basis, significantly affecting climate change due to the greenhouse effect. One proposed way to reduce these emissions is to shift to building materials like bamboo.

Bamboo is a sustainable building material because it is renewable, durable, light, and eco-friendly. Using bamboo in construction ensures that the building will have a smaller carbon footprint.

In this article, we’ll discuss why bamboo is a sustainable building material and take a more in-depth look at why the construction industry should shift to using bamboo and bamboo-based materials.

Why Bamboo Is a Sustainable Building Material

Bamboo is a sustainable building material because it is renewable, eco-friendly, durable, and naturally available. Moreover, it is a light material that does not require a lot of energy to produce.

Bamboo Is Renewable

For a piece of building material to qualify as “sustainable,” it should be replenished or replaced at the same rate as it’s used. In other words, the supply of the material should not be running out anytime soon.

Bamboo grows rapidly, reaching maturity within three to five years. That makes it a renewable resource. In contrast, most other trees take up to 30 years to mature.

Moreover, bamboo can be harvested sustainably. Sustainable harvesting is achieved by cutting 20% of mature stems. Since new bamboo shoots replace these stems annually, there’s no significant loss in soil fertility. 

Also, after harvesting bamboo, the root system is still intact, and the plant continues to grow.

According to Research Gate, bamboo is a suitable plant for afforestation. That means it’s a plant that grows quickly, drops many leaves that replenish the soil, and can grow on marginal land (i.e., areas that are normally not suitable for agriculture or other means of mass production).

Bamboo Is Eco-friendly

The eco-friendliness of a building material is determined by its effect on the environment during its production, installation, use, and disposal. Let’s see how bamboo stacks up in every step of its conversion into a building material.

Bamboo Production

The National Library of Medicine categorizes bamboo as a low-carbon emitting plant. That’s because bamboo’s production doesn’t require fossil fuels or produce gasses like methane and nitrous oxide.

Instead of emitting carbon dioxide, bamboo is an excellent carbon sink that helps to mitigate global warming. One study found that a one-hectare bamboo plantation can store 306 tonnes (612,000 lb) of carbon for 60 years.

Concrete production, on the other hand, is a major contributor to climate change. The production of concrete results in large emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide. The material also emits fumes and fine particles that harm human health.

Installing Bamboo

According to Science Direct, more than 30% of the total weight of building materials delivered to a construction site ends up as waste. Wood makes up a large percentage of the waste from construction sites.

The material often produces a lot of waste because it’s challenging to install, heavy, and requires a lot of energy to transport. This results in more carbon emissions, which is bad for the environment.

Moreover, a lot of sawing is needed to shape wood into their required shapes. The cutting process produces wasted parts and dust, which are usually thrown into the ground fills, polluting the soil. It also employs power saws that emit fumes and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Bamboo, on the other hand, is lightweight and easy to install. The plant is also hollow in the middle, which makes it easier to work with. There’s less waste because it can be molded and carved into thin strips without discarding any parts.

There’s also no need for adhesives or nails during bamboo installation because bamboo can be interwoven or bolted together. This makes it easier to disassemble and recycle the material.

Bamboo Use

Once installed, bamboo doesn’t require a lot of maintenance. The material is termite and pest-resistant, which reduces the need for chemicals harmful to the environment. Bamboo is also an excellent insulator.

The plant’s hollow nature helps trap air, making it a good material for regulating indoor temperatures. This means you won’t have to use a lot of energy to heat or cool your home, saving on energy costs and reducing your carbon footprint.

Bamboo is also an excellent biofuel. The plant is burned to produce energy that can be used for cooking and lighting. This is an eco-friendly way of generating energy as it produces less carbon dioxide and other harmful gases.

When bamboo is no longer needed, it can be easily disposed of. The material is biodegradable, meaning it will decompose and return to the soil without causing pollution.

Concrete, on the other hand, takes a long time to decompose. Moreover, breaking down concrete produces harmful gases that pollute the environment.

Bamboo Is Durable

Value for money is a crucial consideration when building a house. You want to use materials that will last long and won’t require much maintenance. Bamboo is one of the most durable building materials. The plant is strong and flexible, making it resistant to damage from earthquakes and high winds.

Also, the tensile strength of bamboo makes it more durable. Bamboo poles have fibers that run axially, making them very strong. Therefore, bamboo is ideal for construction in areas prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes.

Bamboo’s strength is famous enough that it has an entire saying around it. It goes like this: “When you’re faced with challenges, be like the bamboo rather than the oak tree. The oak tree stubbornly stands against the wind, which eventually causes it to break. Bamboo, on the other hand, bends with the wind, meaning it can stand back up once the storm has passed.”

Bamboo Is Light

Transporting and installing building materials can be challenging, especially if they’re heavy. This is because you need to use a lot of energy to move them around.

Bamboo is one of the lightest building materials, making it easy to transport and install. The plant is also hollow in the middle, which reduces its weight even further.

By reducing the energy used in moving and installing, bamboo helps reduce a construction project’s carbon footprint. Furthermore, it saves extra costs that could have been used for heavy machinery.

Building with concrete requires a lot of energy. Concrete combines sand, stones, cement, and water, all of which are heavy materials. The paste created by combining these materials is then placed into a mold where it hardens.

Heavy machines that rely on carbon fuels lift the heavy concrete to the construction site, emitting carbon and nitrogen gases. These gases contribute to global warming due to their combined greenhouse effect.

Bamboo Is Naturally Available

Bamboo is the fastest-growing plant in the world. The Chinese Moso is one of the fastest-growing bamboo species and can grow up to 3 feet daily. The fast growth rate of bamboo makes it readily available.

This is in contrast to other building materials such as concrete and steel that must be mined, transported, and processed before being used.

The availability of bamboo helps reduce the carbon footprint of a construction project as there’s no need to transport the material over long distances.

What’s more, bamboo doesn’t require a lot of processing. The plant can be used in its natural state without the need for chemicals or other treatments. As a result, bamboo is a more sustainable building material as it doesn’t strain the environment during its production.

The Availability of Bamboo Across the World

Another characteristic of a sustainable building material is that it’s easily obtainable within (or near) the area where the construction is taking place. Therefore, bamboo has to be fairly distributed to be a sustainable building material.

According to Springer, bamboo is relatively spread out across the globe. The plant grows naturally in all continents apart from Europe and Antarctica. That said, some bamboo species have been introduced in Europe to ensure their availability on all continents to aid green building.

China has 626 bamboo species, the highest in the world. It’s followed closely by India at 102 species. Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Indonesia are the other largest bamboo producers. Therefore, Asia has the highest number of bamboo species in the world. 

Africa comes third with 115 bamboo species.

There are three basic types of bamboo based on the climatic conditions in the countries where they grow. They include:

  • Tropical woody bamboo (Bambuseae)
  • Temperate woody bamboo (Arundinarieae)
  • Tropical herbaceous bamboo (Olyreae)

How To Use Bamboo in Building

Bamboo isn’t used as a building material the same way it’s harvested. Some modifications are done to attain the right length, shape, and bend for the material. 

The main bamboo modifications for building purposes are:

  • Splitting: The bamboo canes are split longitudinally into two or three strips using a chisel or a knife. The thickness of the split bamboo strips depends on the intended use. For example, a bamboo cane can produce between four to eight segments. These segments can be split further to make building strings.
  • Shaping: After splitting, the bamboo segments are shaped into the required form using a knife or an adze. The shaping creates either a round or a rectangular cross-section. It’s possible to shape bamboo because it contains fibers that can be curled.
  • Bending: Bamboo segments can be curved to create arcs and circles of different diameters using heat. The bamboo is placed over a fire until it’s pliable enough to be bent into the required shape. After bending, the bamboo is cooled in water to set the new shape.
  • Peeling: Bamboo segments can be peeled into strings. The strings are then used to make mats, nets, and ropes. Again, the thickness of the strings will depend on their intended use. Bamboo can also be peeled into thin strips and used as laths or thatching materials. Once the bamboo has been split, shaped, bent, or peeled into the desired form, it’s ready for use as a building material.

Bamboo Preservation

Preservation is key to enhancing the durability of bamboo. Specialized bamboo preservation is needed because bamboos have a low resistance to biological degradation.

Both traditional and modern methods are excellent at preserving bamboo.

Traditional Methods

Traditional bamboo preservation methods are cheap and don’t require specialized skills. They include:

  • Soaking: The bamboo canes are immersed in water with stones on top immediately after harvesting. After a week or more, the rods are removed and dried in the shade.
  • Clump-curing: After cutting the bamboo culms, they’re left in a vertical position to enhance the evaporation from leaves. The evaporation reduces the starch content and the risks of beetle attack.
  • Smoke-curing: The bamboo canes are hung above smoldering charcoal for some time to harden.

Modern Methods

Modern methods of preserving bamboo are relatively expensive and involve the use of skilled professionals. 

They include:

The Use of Chemicals

Building companies use different chemicals to preserve bamboo. The most common chemicals are:

  • Copper-chrome-arsenic-composition (CCA)
  • Boric acid
  • Borax and boron

Bamboo is added into a trough or drum pre-filled with the chemical. The bamboo needs to be cut into the desired length before being added to the chemical to avoid preserving unnecessary bamboso.

Butt Treatment Method

The butt treatment method for bamboo follows the steps below:

  1. Freshly cut bamboo is immersed into a drum with preservatives. The bottom ends of the bamboo are immersed first. When cutting, leaves are left intact to aid in transpiration.
  2. After approximately one week, the preservative reaches the top of the bamboo. The leaves change color to indicate that the process is complete.
  3. The bamboo is then removed and dried in the shade for some time.

The butt treatment method is excellent when the bamboo is needed for construction as soon as possible.

Boucherie Method

This method uses pressure to force the preservative into the bamboo. A tank with the preservative is raised on a tower and connected to bamboo ends by tubes. Finally, an air pump creates the pressure that forces the chemicals into the bamboo to preserve it.

Final Thoughts

Bamboo is one of the most sustainable building materials available. It’s a fast-growing, renewable resource that doesn’t require chemicals or pesticides to grow.

You may, therefore, want to incorporate bamboo in your construction projects if you’re looking for a way to foster sustainability and protect the environment from the greenhouse effect.


By Giovanni Valle

Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.

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