When it comes to environmental sustainability, we all want to ensure that our choices help the environment as much as possible.
Bamboo has become a popular choice for building materials in many parts of the world due to its renewable and fast-growing nature. However, how sustainable is bamboo for building?
Sustainable construction entails reducing the environmental impact of the construction industry. Therefore, for bamboo to be considered a sustainable building material, it must reduce the adverse effects of the construction industry on the environment.
In the rest of this article, I’ll discuss the sustainability of bamboo as a building material and cover its pros and cons to help you make an informed decision.
Let’s get into it.
A sustainable building material is a material that has a minimal impact on the environment throughout its lifecycle. In addition, it’s a material that is renewable, non-toxic, and energy efficient.
According to Science Direct, the lifecycle of a construction material involves the following stages:
- Extraction of raw materials.
- Processing and manufacture of the raw materials.
- Construction and retrofitting.
- Use and maintenance.
- Demolition and waste management.
- Disposal and circular processing.
By considering the entire lifecycle of building materials, we can make better-informed decisions when planning our projects. This helps us ensure that our choices don’t contribute to environmental damage any more than absolutely necessary.
Let’s dive into the pros and cons of bamboo as a sustainable construction material.
One of the qualities of a sustainable and renewable material is that it must regenerate quickly after harvesting.
Bamboo is the fastest-growing plant, with some species, like the Chinese Moso being able to grow up to a meter in 24 hours.
The rapid growth rate means that bamboo can be harvested and regrown much more quickly than other trees and plants.
Since the construction industry is a big user of natural resources, bamboo is an ideal renewable material due to its rapid growth rate. It can be regenerated faster without undue pressure on finite natural resources.
Embodied energy refers to the energy used during the material’s production, transportation, and manufacturing.
Bamboo has a low embodied energy due to its very nature. This plant belongs to the grass family and requires much less energy to grow and process than timber.
Moreover, bamboo doesn’t need much energy to transport. You can even carry it by hand if you’re not transporting it far.
Bamboo has a perfect blend of fiber and parenchyma cells, making it highly flexible. The excellent flexural properties of bamboo contribute to its high versatility, and it can be easily bent into any form or shape.
Due to its versatility, bamboo can be used in many construction applications, including roofs, floors, walls, columns, and beams. It can also be used to build furniture such as tables and chairs. This makes it an excellent choice for many construction projects.
Bamboo’s high versatility means it can often be used as a substitute for other materials with a larger environmental footprint.
Contrary to popular belief, bamboo is incredibly strong and can sustain high pressures and forces.
The compressive strength of construction material is its ability to withstand loads tending to reduce size.
It might surprise you that bamboo can have a higher compressive strength than some types of concrete.
Some bamboo species have an average compressive strength of 14,000 pounds per square inch. On the other hand, some concrete has a compressive strength of about 2,500 pounds per square inch.
The excellent compressive strength of bamboo makes it an ideal renewable construction material. It doesn’t require much reinforcement compared to other materials like timber or steel due to its inherently high strength.
You probably know about the negative impacts of cement and steel production on the environment.
Cement production has a substantial environmental footprint, from dust pollution to ground-level ozone due to nitrogen oxide, and the manufacture of steel requires a lot of energy, resulting in carbon dioxide emissions.
On the other hand, bamboo is much more environmentally friendly than conventional construction materials like concrete and steel. The harvesting of bamboo doesn’t require large amounts of energy or fuel.
Moreover, bamboo can be harvested without causing damage to the environment.
Cement production generates approximately 0.9 pounds of carbon dioxide for every pound of cement. This is a high carbon footprint that contributes significantly to global warming.
One benefit of using bamboo is its low carbon footprint. Due to its fibrous nature, the production process generates less greenhouse gas, resulting in a lower carbon footprint.
It’s also worth mentioning that bamboo-assembled components have low carbon footprints. For instance, a comparative carbon footprint analysis of bamboo and steel scaffolding revealed that bamboo has a lower carbon footprint than its steel counterpart.
A key point about carbon footprint is that bamboo is an excellent carbon sink – it accumulates and stores the carbon dioxide emitted by our daily activities. A hectare of bamboo and its products can store 306 tonnes of carbon for over 60 years.
The lightweight nature of bamboo makes it the best building material in earthquake-prone areas. How is this possible?
According to science, force is calculated by the equation below:
Force (N) = mass (kg) × acceleration (m/s²).
The above equation means mass and acceleration are proportional to the resulting force.
Since you can’t alter an earthquake’s acceleration to reduce the resultant force, reducing the mass of a structure is the best way to reduce the force on a building.
Bamboo’s lightweight nature makes it an ideal construction material for earthquake-prone areas because it results in minimal lateral force when struck by an earthquake. This explains why bamboo houses withstood the 1999 earthquake in Armenia City, Colombia.
Heavier materials like concrete and steel have higher chances of succumbing to an earthquake due to their high mass.
Bamboo is a natural material made up of plant matter formed from organic elements.
The organic elements in bamboo start deteriorating when exposed to water or high humidity.
Also, the fluctuation of moisture content in bamboo leads to cracking and deformation, a situation that weakens the structural integrity of the house.
Bamboo’s high sensitivity to moisture makes it unsuitable for some parts of the building. For instance, foundation and basement areas may not be fit for bamboo unless it’s correctly treated first.
Although somewhat fire-resistant, bamboo is a flammable material that can ignite when exposed to flames and wind-blown embers.
The ignition temperature of bamboo ranges between 172 and 233°C (341.6 and 451.4°F). This low range makes it catch fire easily compared to other types of wood. Therefore, you must treat bamboo and make it fire-resistant before using it for construction.
Boron is an excellent chemical to treat bamboo and make it fire-resistant. Borates are effective at increasing fire retardancy when used in high concentrations.
Bamboo is an organic material that’s susceptible to the elements, pests, and fungi. These factors increase the rate at which bamboo degrades, which reduces the house’s lifespan.
After harvesting, bamboo needs treatment before it’s safe for use in construction. You can use traditional or modern methods of bamboo preservation. Although the former is inexpensive, it’s less effective than the latter.
Some conventional bamboo preservation methods you can use include:
- Smoking and heating
- Saltwater/seawater immersion
Modern bamboo preservation methods use chemicals to increase durability. Although this approach is effective, it may not be eco-friendly due to the leaching of the chemicals.
The chemicals used in modern bamboo preservation include:
- Zinc chrome
- Copper chrome acetic
- Boric acid borax
- Copper chrome arsenic
- Copper chrome boron
Modern training institutions focus on conventional construction methods that use materials like concrete and steel.
The lack of formal training and education in bamboo construction slows its adoption as a sustainable construction material.
It’s worth noting that skilled labor is necessary to make bamboo construction safe and to meet the relevant building codes. However, due to the barrier of insufficiently skilled bamboo laborers, most people who might have ambitions to build such homes end up shelving their plans.
The quality of any building material is vital to the house’s durability.
Conventional building materials are usually graded to ascertain their quality and durability. However, this is not always the case with bamboo.
Since bamboo is considered an alternative construction material, it lacks a consistent grading system.
Typically, retailers rely on intuition and arbitrary judgment to sort bamboo for quality. Such a process doesn’t always accurately reflect the quality of these materials.
Unlike traditional building materials, there are few established standards for bamboo construction.
Building standards establish consistent protocols universally understood and used in construction to achieve quality standards.
The lack of defined building standards for bamboo makes it difficult to ensure consistent quality and safety.
Throughout our discussion, we’ve referred to bamboo as a renewable and sustainable construction material.
However, will bamboo still be a sustainable material if it has to be shipped thousands of miles from other countries? Unlikely.
Shipping bamboo burns a lot of fossil fuels, making it far less sustainable and non-eco-friendly.
Some parts of the world, such as South America and Asia, are blessed with favorable bamboo growing conditions. These parts of the world have a ready local supply of bamboo, but other regions where bamboo is not grown on a large scale have to import this material for construction.
Final Thoughts On The Sustainability Of Bamboo For Building
Bamboo has enormous potential as a sustainable building material. However, it’s essential to consider its pros and cons before deciding whether to include it in your projects.
As consumers, we have the power to support the sustainable production of bamboo. We should also encourage the development of standards and regulations to ensure bamboo’s safe and effective use in construction.
Now that you know how sustainable bamboo is for building, check out these 11 coolest bamboo houses for inspiration.