To date construction projects are following the linear economy in which man-made resources such as brickets, metals, cement and clay are used and disposed at the end of a buildings’ life cycle. In 2017, buildings and constructions together consumed 36% of the final energy produced globally while being responsible for 39% of the global energy related CO2 emissions (Gobal Status Report, 2017). Another problem is the accumulating waste and the environmental impact of the resources extracted. In Europe, each year nearly 500 million tonnes of construction waste are created.
Besides these negative effects, it also has negative effects on the “sustainability” of the building industry itself. As we consume more, and re-use less materials, we are facing resource scarcity. Coupled with a growing population and increasing urbanization, new ways of producing buildings and building components with new materials or existing once are crucial for the survival of the building industry but also our planet. One of the many material-solutions towards a sustainable building industry is bamboo.
Throuhgout the last years, bamboo has been engineered into various products. Due to its fast growth and its tensile strenght, I frame engineered bambo as a niche product that directly competes with timber. With my Master thesis, I even concluded that bamboo boards outweight timber products made from oak, maple, walnut, birch and cherry in terms of its strength properties and durability. I also concluded that missing design choices of bamboo boards turn it into a less favorable resource for timber producers and consumers. Likewise, engineered bamboo outweights timber in terms of its properties and is perceived as excellent building material, if it is less visible or more available with greater design variance.
While I am not an engineer, I kept the latter in mind and compared the most used construction materials with existing or new bamboo innovations and materials.
My aim was to identify the versatile role of bamboo as sustainable construction material
As mentioned above cement, concrete, aggregates, metals, bricks, clay are the most common type of man-made building materials used in construction. Next to these natural materials, wood is also used frequently (Wang, 2018).
Cement, is a binder, a substance used for construction that sets, hardens, and adheres to other materials to bind them together. There is no present bamboo cement replacement.
Concrete and cement are often used interchangeably, cement is actually an ingredient of concrete. Concrete is a mixture of aggregates and paste. The aggregates are sand and gravel or crushed stone; the paste is water and cement. While it is not possible to fully replace concrete with bamboo, it is possible to produce bamboo reinforced concrete (Karthik et al., 2008)
Currently steel reinforcement is used frequently to provide additional tensile strength and energy absorption capacity to concrete members. But conventional M.S. (Mild steel) or HYSD (High Yielding Strength Deformed) bars are heavy in weight, costly, nonrenewable and un-ecofriendly material. To mitigate this concern a sustainable, renewable, ecofriendly material like bamboo can be used as steel substitute. Using bamboo reinforcement even improves the flexural performance of slab panels (Mali and Datta, 2018).
However Archila, Kaminski, Trujilo, Escamilla and Harries (2018) describe that “the poor durability and bond characteristics of bamboo require through-thickness treatment and additional surface treatment of bamboo reinforcement, respectively. Such treatments, as described in the literature, are labour intensive, costly, and often utilise materials of known toxicity .”
Metals are commonly used in the construction industry due to their durability and strength to form structural components, pipework, cladding materials and other components.
Bamboo is stronger than the metal steel, in regards to the tensile strength. Overall, the ratio of tensile strength between the weight of bamboo is six times greater than of steel. If treated and processed well, buildings can be fully engineered with bamboo. As highlighted above, bamboo can be used as concrete reinforcement and steel alternative.
Construction aggregate, or simply “aggregate”, is a broad category of coarse to medium grained particulate material used in construction, including sand, gravel, crushed stone, slag, recycled concrete and geosynthetic aggregates. Aggregates such as sand are the most mined materials in the world. According to the World Economic Forum (2019), between 32 and 50 billion tonnes of aggregate (sand and gravel) are extracted from the Earth each year. Excessive sand mining of river deltas, such as the Yangtze and Mekong, is increasing the risk of climate-related disasters, because there’s not enough sediment to protect against flooding.
I found one study, in which concrete samples were produced with 1% and 3% bamboo fibers as additives. It was concluded that the addition of bamboo fiber increases the compressive strength of concrete. Substituting coarse aggregates with certain percentage of bamboo fiber produced a decreasing trend on its flexual strength, though it increased as the bamboo fiber composition/materials increased (Manlapas , Cardenas, Anacta, 2018).
Another study incoroporated bamboo ash into fly ash geopolymer concrete. It concluded that bamboo ash can be one of the alternatives to geopolymer concrete when it faces exposure to high temperatures.
Bricks are still in common use today for the construction of walls and paving and for more complex features such as columns, arches, fireplaces and chimneys. They remain popular because they are relatively small and easy to handle, can be extremely strong in compression, are durable and low maintenance, they can be built up into complex shapes and can be visually attractive.
Different types of wood and wood materials are also used for the construction of buildings. The company SwissKrono, produces prefabricated timber construction and uses a mix of timber and non timber material on project base. Solid timber constructions involve prefabricated sturby but relatively lightweight walls, ceilings and roof modules that are assemblied on the construction site. Other materials include the construction frames which are stabilised with OSB panels. There are also penalised constructions, in which walls and ceilings are largely prefabricated.
These type of constructions can also be produced from bamboo and likely outweight timber due to its lightweight, strength and hardwood characteristics. In addition, bamboo already matures within three to five years and could therefore serve as an alternative resource next to controversial produced timber , particular from the tropics.
A barrier for a fully ecological bamboo utilzation is the type and the amount of chemicals used for the production of engineered bamboo products. If bamboo products are produced in closed loop systems or if bio-based resins are used, bamboo could serve as a truly sustainable and circular building opportunity. Another option would be to produce modular bamboo buildings or components, that can be re-used at the end of the buildings life cycle.
The future of the bamboo building industry looks promosing, particular as a result of bamboo being a strong and lightweight material. However, at the moment, it seems difficult to replace conventional building materials such as cement, concrete and aggregates with bamboo. The main potential of bamboo remains in being an alternative to steel as bamboo composite material and as major structural support for buildings. Bamboo also holds huge technical potential as “background matrial” (i.e. MDF/OSB plates/ foundation). A new option seems to integrate bamboo ash into fly ash geopolymer concrete. A study suggested that bamboo ash can be one of the alternatives to geopolymer concrete.
Overall I believe that bamboo serves as a valuable “green opportunity” for the building industry that is interested in new designs, innovation and the mechanical characteristics of bamboo. With bamboo naturally degrading in the forest after at least 10 years, we can promote the use of this resoruce and the concept of “No building is meant to last forever”.
[There is one promising bamboo innovation that I did not highlight in the article. I am looking for a serious team to explore this innovation and bring it on the construtction market. Please e-mail me if you are interested] And also e-mail me for any other questions or comments.
Archila, H., Kaminski, S., Trujillo, D., Escamilla, E. Z., & Harries, K. A. (2018). Bamboo reinforced concrete: a critical review. Materials and Structures, 51(4), 102.
Global Status Report (2017). World Green Building Council. Retrieved from: http://www.worldgbc.org.
Jöst, A. (2019). Bamboo in German Manufacturing Practices. Master Thesis. Maastricht University
Hutt, R. (2020). This is the environmental catastrophy, you probably never heard of. World Economic Forum. Retrieved from: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/04/global-demand-for-sand-is-wreaking-havoc-on-rivers/
Karthik, S., Rao, R. M., Awoyera, P., Akinwumi, I., Karthikeyan, T., Revathi, A., … & Saravanan, S. (2018). Beneficiated pozzolans as cement replacement in bamboo-reinforced concrete: the intrinsic characteristics. Innovative Infrastructure Solutions, 3(1), 50.
Mali, P. R., & Datta, D. (2018). Experimental evaluation of bamboo reinforced concrete slab panels. Construction and Building Materials, 188, 1092-1100.
Manlapas, G. O., Cardenas, L.E., Anacta, E.T. (2018). Utilization of Babmoo Fiber as a Component Material in Concrete. Indian Journal of Science and Technology. 11(47).
Wang, T. (2018). Construction Materials Industry. Retrieved from: https://www.statista.com/topics/2983/construction-materials-industry/