Building with Bamboo for Beginners
I love bamboo. It’s tough, light, adaptable, and economical. It’s ridiculously sustainable too, and grows so fast you’ll be hard pushed to outbuild it. There have been some incredible structures made entirely from bamboo; bridges, schools, lecture halls. Sadly, I’ve never lived in a country with bamboo so haven’t been able to use it, and I’ve long wondered how tricky it is to actually build with. Luckily I know a man who can. Remember Oliver Goshey from The Abundant Edge? He has kindly answered some questions on building with bamboo.
Q: How easy is it to build with bamboo? What are the pros and cons? Have you any tips for new bamboo builders?
A: Bamboo is a remarkable and tricky material. It has millions of benefits for building and also for applications in the garden and in larger landscape design. I’m still a complete novice as a bamboo worker but I chose it as the main supports in our two-storey house and for all the joists in the roofs because it’s produced fairly close by (maybe two hours drive down to the coast). It’s very light weight and flexible, and is a good bit more economical than wood of the same diameter and quality.
Q: What should beginners be aware of?
A: The tricky parts come in the treatment and joinery. To make sure that bamboo doesn’t rot out quickly (it’s full of carbs and sugars that insects and fungi love) it is usually treated with a boracic acid solution. Over time this treatment can wear off and other chemical treatments are required to ensure that it doesn’t break down prematurely. The quality of the treatment here in Guatemala varies widely because bamboo construction is still quite new to this part of the world and the facilities for treatment and the industry around it is new too.
Bamboo joinery is a bit more technical than basic wood framing. It’s easy to screw and nail standardised 2 x 4s together, but since bamboo is round you have to cut “fish mouth” joints into the connecting ends with large diameter hole borers to ensure a good connection. This requires some practice and patience and honestly, I’ve still got a ton of room for improvement. Luckily there are some very talented and proficient “bambuseros” in our community who have taught me a ton and have been essential on our house build.
Q: What are the advantages of constructing with bamboo?
A: To me the main benefits of bamboo for building is that a bamboo post will reach maturity in 3-5 years whereas a round wood beam might take 15-20 years to reach the same diameter. Bamboo also has incredible tensile strength, meaning it can span large distances without supports, making it ideal for roofs. It can also break without failing completely (unlike wood), so it’s a very forgiving material in that way too.
I would encourage anyone living in a region where construction grade bamboo grows to explore their options of using it in their buildings. It’s a ton of fun to work with and is a great alternative to industrial logging operations.
Q: How did you attach your bamboo rafters to your support joists?
A: They're perforated with threaded steel rods. The top is then bent in half so the bamboo can't come up, and the bottom (under the support joist) washers and nuts are screwed on.
Q: I’m sure I’ve seen some people lash them together. Is that another way to do it?
A: You're absolutely right. Traditionally they were tied together with natural fibre rope (often coconut fibres in Asia, here in Central America they use the fibres of the maguey cactus). We use threaded steel rods and nuts to save time, but the tied joints are always stronger.
For more information on bamboo listen to Oliver’s podcast episode with Charlie Rendall of “Return to the Forest.” Charlie has specialised in bamboo construction for many years and he talks at length about the benefits and challenges of bamboo in the interview.
If you want to learn more about The Abundant Edge you can contact Oliver Goshey and the team directly through the contact page on their website Atitlan Organics.
The team also have a host of courses starting in October 2018, including Introduction to Natural Building and Introduction to Permaculture, Ecological Farming and Agroforestry Course, and our Intermediate Natural Building Course in March, all of which you can find under the "education" tab on the website.
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