In building and construction, the debate over bamboo vs. steel rages on. They are two materials that have been used for centuries and have very similar properties.
Both materials have unique benefits and drawbacks, and the choice between bamboo and steel will depend on several factors.
When building with bamboo, you need to consider the species and maturity of the bamboo, as well as the treatment and preservation methods used. When building with steel, the grade and quality of the steel and any potential corrosion issues are vital factors you need to consider.
In this post, you will learn about the pros and cons of steel and bamboo as building materials and why bamboo has been slow to catch on in the United States.
Keep on reading to learn more.
If you’d like to learn about a wider range of sustainable building materials that you could choose from, please read our article “23 Sustainable Building Materials You Can Use Today.”
What are the Factors to Consider With Bamboo vs. Steel In Construction?
Steel and bamboo are both used widely across the world in the construction of all kinds of buildings.
When trying to decide which material to use, the following factors are those that you should consider.
Regarding resource use, bamboo is a more sustainable option than steel. Bamboo plants are a rapidly renewable resource that can grow to maturity in just 3-5 years, while steel production requires significant use of natural resources such as iron ore and coal.
Additionally, bamboo requires less water and fertilizer than traditional lumber trees, making it a more efficient choice of building material in terms of resource use.
In terms of carbon footprint, bamboo wood is also considered to be a more sustainable option than steel.
Steel manufacturing is a highly energy-intensive process, and steel mills are known to release significant amounts of greenhouse gases.
In contrast, bamboo production has a lower carbon footprint as it does not require the same energy and resources as steel production. Additionally, bamboo forests absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping to offset the emissions from their production.
It is worth mentioning that the sustainability of bamboo can vary depending on the way it is harvested, processed, and transported. Bamboo should be sustainably harvested, minimally processed, and transported locally to minimize its carbon footprint.
Durability and Strength
In terms of mechanical properties, steel is popular in construction for its ability to support significant loads and resist deformation.
It is a strong and durable material that can last for decades when properly maintained.
However, bamboo is also a strong material, with impressive mechanical and physical properties and boasting a higher tensile strength than steel, meaning it can withstand more pulling force before breaking.
Bamboo is also a highly flexible material, making it more resistant to natural elements such as wind and earthquakes. However, although bamboo has a high compressive strength, it is lower than steel. As a result, bamboo products also have lower fire resistance when compared to steel.
Bamboo is a natural material composed of cellulose fibers, which can decay over time if not treated and protected. Therefore, it must be treated before use to prevent rot, which can take as little as 3 to 5 years to set in without proper preparation.
In terms of durability, steel can last for decades if properly maintained, while bamboo needs to be regularly protected from insects, humidity, and sun exposure for maximum longevity.
As for building codes and regulations, the use of bamboo as a building material in the United States is still relatively new, and there are few specific building codes or regulations relating to its use compared with other building materials.
However, bamboo is referenced in ISO 22156:2021, and some European countries have started to develop building codes and standards for bamboo but they are still not as comprehensive as those for steel.
On the other hand, steel is widely used in construction and enjoys practically universal acceptance by every major building code worldwide.
Cost and Availability
In terms of cost, bamboo is generally a more cost-effective option than steel when it comes to building materials, provided it is available locally.
Bamboo is relatively inexpensive to source, as it is a fast-growing and renewable resource that can be grown and harvested locally in many regions.
The cost of bamboo can vary depending on the location, species, and quality, but it is still less expensive than steel.
The production cost of bamboo is also relatively low, as it does not require the same energy and resources as steel production. Additionally, bamboo is relatively easy to process and shape into building materials, which helps keep costs down.
As for availability, steel is produced in many countries and easily procured worldwide. Bamboo, on the other hand, outside of the areas it is indigenous to, is more challenging to source, which can cause problems for projects with tight deadlines.
Bamboo is used for residential and commercial construction, particularly in developing countries.
Examples of bamboo construction include houses, schools, and community centers.
Bamboo Structures and Design Features
Bamboo is also used for scaffolding, temporary structures, and other non-permanent building applications. In addition, bamboo is seeing increasing use in flooring, furniture, and decorative elements in buildings.
In future applications, innovations in bamboo construction techniques and preservation methods are being developed to improve bamboo’s durability and fire resistance, making it a more viable option for permanent building construction.
This will have the added benefit of increasing the odds of building code approvals in the US.
There are also many movements across the United States to standardize the building codes and approve certain bamboo species as a structural material.
Additionally, research is being conducted on using bamboo as a reinforcement in concrete construction, which can increase the strength and durability of buildings.
On the other hand, steel is widely used in the construction industry for many applications, including high-rise buildings, bridges, and other structures requiring high strength and durability.
Steel frame homes are also becoming popular due to their fast construction turnaround.
Steel reinforcement of concrete is also critical in construction, with many structural components of modern buildings, including the concrete slab that forms the floors of many buildings, relying heavily on reinforced concrete for their structural integrity.
Bamboo fibers are used in the production of engineered bamboo products such as flooring and even structural members via a process similar to that used in the production of standard glue-laminated timber products.
Horizontally laid fibers can add visual appeal to the finished products, which enhances their aesthetic qualities and gives them a more natural and pleasing look.
Bamboo Reinforced Concrete
Thanks to its amazing tensile strength, which surpasses even that of steel, bamboo can be used as reinforcement in concrete.
In some parts of the world where the bamboo market thrives locally, it is commonly used as a substitute for steel rebar.
It performs well in this use, provided it has undergone the proper treatment and is therefore protected from moisture penetration.
The concrete mix for bamboo reinforced concrete is exactly the same, with the only difference being the use of treated bamboo instead of rebar concrete reinforcement.
Bamboo fibers can also be used in the concrete matrix itself and have been shown to improve the mechanical properties of the concrete.
Is Bamboo Used as a Construction Material in the US?
Bamboo is not widely used as a construction material in the United States for several reasons.
One of the main reasons is that bamboo is not as well-established in the US as in other regions, such as Asia and South America, where it has been used for centuries.
This makes the cost of sourcing and transporting bamboo relatively high.
Another reason for the lack of popularity is that building codes and regulations in the US are not as developed for bamboo construction as they are for other materials such as steel and lumber.
Bamboo is a relatively new building material in the US, and building codes and regulations have not yet begun to accommodate its use on a wide scale.
Finally, there are also concerns about the structural properties and durability of bamboo as a building material.
Bamboo has lower compressive strength and fire resistance when compared to steel, which can make it less suitable for certain types of construction.
Additionally, bamboo is a natural material that is susceptible to decay over time if not properly treated and protected.
However, bamboo is now being increasingly researched and studied in the US, and new developments, and a better understanding of bamboo’s properties and capabilities, are being made to help adapt bamboo to the US market.
|Bamboo Pros||Bamboo Cons||Steel Pros||Steel Cons|
|Highly sustainable material||Low compressive strength||Incredible strength||Significant carbon footprint|
|Lower carbon footprint||Susceptible to decay||Fire resistant||Highly resource intensive|
|Cost-effective||Not widely available worldwide||Proven durability||Market influenced cost|
|Superb flexibility||Doesn’t meet all US building codes||Building code compliant||Susceptible to corrosion|
|High tensile strength||High transportation cost||Wide availability||Extremely heavy|
While bamboo has yet to gain widespread approval in the US, the future is bright for this sustainable material that offers many environmental benefits.
Its demonstrable strength and versatility as a building material have been on show for centuries worldwide.
Thanks to the many ongoing green construction initiatives, there’s a good chance we will see more widespread use before long.
Check out our ultimate bamboo home guide if you’d like to learn more about building with bamboo.