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Bamboo Architecture and

Construction with Oscar Hidalgo


Architect Oscar Hidalgo has dedicated his life to bamboo

research, and teaching the world about the limitless possibilities
of this remarkable plant. Born in a bamboo house in Chinchina,
Colombia, bamboo construction was common in his state, where
many residential and public buildings were constructed using this
cheap and widely available material. Like most homes, in his
Colloquium: house the bamboo was hidden beneath plaster, and indeed, it
• Introduction looked like it was made of brick.

The Context: After he left the university, Oscar was intrigued by the possibilities
• Natural Building of using bamboo in construction, and embarked on a project to
• The Building Codes
• Societal Impact Matrix construct a country club kiosk 23 meters in diameter using this
• Return of The Village material. Five days before the opening ceremony, there was a
• Habitat For Humanity hurricane which distorted the building extremely, moving the
• Earthmother Dwelling
• Intuitive Design kingpost 90 cm off-center. After only two hours of working with a
• Curves of Breath & Clay winch, however, the structure was successfully moved back into
• Feng Shui place without collapsing. He was sold on bamboo. Amazed at its
structural integrity and aesthetic possibilities, he embarked on a
The Art: program of research which has taken him to Asia, Costa Rica,
• Overview of Techniques Brazil, and elsewhere to study this plant and to create
• Nature, Earth & Magic
• Hybrid House experimental structures.
• Barefoot Architecture
• History of Cob The Bamboo Plant
• Cob Q & A
• Natural Composites
• Compressed Earth Blocks The largest of the grasses, there are over 1600 species of
• Adobe Oven bamboo, 64 percent of which are native to Southeast Asia. Thirty-
• Earthen Floor
• Earthbags three percent grows in Latin America, and the rest in Africa and
• Honey House Oceania. In North America there are only three native species of
• German Clay Building
• Straw-bale Dome
bamboo as opposed to the 440 species native to Latin America.
• Earthen Plaster & Aliz
• Natural Paints Of the two types of bamboo, the "running" type occurs only in
• Bamboo temperate climates or in the high mountains of the tropics.
Running bamboo produces both a culm (the above-ground
Technology: vertical shoot) and long horizontal underground shoots called
• Solar Distiller
• Solar Water Heater
rhizomes. Tropical bamboo is almost always a "clumping" type,
• Composting Toilets which tends to produce larger-diameter and thicker-walled culms.
• Watson Wick But its rhizomes are very short, so the bamboo plant stays more
• Solar Ovens
contained in a "clump."

Bamboo reproduces almost exclusively from its rhizomes, and is

extremely fast growing. Under ideal conditions, for instance, a
culm of the Guadua angustifolia species with a diameter of 22- 24
cm (9-10 inches) will grow to its full height in 3-4 months. It can
produce an incredible number of culms per hectare (2.2 acres):
native to Colombia, Guadua ang. produces 7-10,000 culms per
hectare, while some Guadua species from Brazil can produce
60,000 culms per hectare.
Home Page:
networkearth Bamboo flowers in three different ways. Some bamboos bloom
and produce seeds annually. Sporadic flowering occurs when a
few plants will bloom. The type of flowering peculiar to many
bamboos is gregarious flowering, when most of the plants of a
species flower at about the same time around the world. This
blossoming occurs at 10-145 year cycles, depending on the
species. Bamboo is particularly fragile at this time, as after the
flowering occurs, all the existing culms die off, and the bamboo
seed is only viable for six months. This can cause great problems
for people or businesses dependent on a constant supply of

Different species of bamboo have different wall thickness, with a

couple species being entirely solid. Bamboo is a natural
composite. The walls are composed of "vascular bundles" of
which there are five types. The outside portion of the culm wall is
dense, containing about 5% silica. It has an exterior waterproof
film which occurs on the softer interior portion as well. Bamboo is
particularly strong at the node, where there is an inner disc called
the septum which connects the outside walls, strengthening the
stalk and separating in into compartments. Bamboo is widest at
ground level, but is quite consistent in diameter throughout its

Using Bamboo

Bamboo is useful for different things at different ages:

<30 days it is good for eating

6-9 months for baskets
2-3 years for bamboo boards or laminations
3-6 years for construction
>6 years bamboo gradually loses strength up to 12 years old

Bamboo for construction is best cut right after new shoots have
started to grow, as the plant will have given all its starch to the
new culm. It is important to cut bamboo just above the node at
the base.

The age of the culm is very important to know in order to select

culms with the greatest strength for bamboo construction. One-
year-old bamboo is an emerald color with the sheaths just
beginning to fall off. Bamboo 2-3 years old has white spots on the
culm, indicating the beginning of lichens. At 5-6 years these
lichens can be clearly seen. Branches also tell the age of a
bamboo plant. Every year each culm of bamboo loses its
branches which are replaced with new branches. Old bamboo is
attacked by insects from the interior of the plant, which can be
difficult to detect.

Height can be determined in species over 5cm in diameter by

multiplying the base circumference by 58.2. If culms are found to
have a ratio of less than 58.2 the bamboo is of lesser quality. In
Colombia, the best examples of Guadua angustifolia grow at
elevations between 900-1,800m. In Ecuador, the same species
has much lower strength characteristics.

For longer lasting structures it is important to treat bamboo

against rot and insects. One method is to cure the bamboo by
standing cut culms on a stone for a month amongst the living
culms. The leaves are left on as they continue to remove starch
from culm. When air curing bamboo it is best to keep it vertical,
as it takes half the time to dry as horizontal storage. Once the
bamboo is cured it is soaked in water for approximately four
weeks. It is then soaked in the fumes of a .3 solution of caustic

Perhaps the best way of treating bamboo is to force a solution of

3-10% of half borax and half boric acid through bamboo using an
air compressor to create 20-30 lb of pressure. The bamboo is left
on a slight incline with the base closest to the tank (though it is
also possible to do it in the other direction) and the chemicals
gradually move through the vascular system.

To protect bamboo from fire use plaster. For structural bamboo it

is important not to penetrate the septum as it is the crucial part of
the bamboo for strength. Small diameter holes can be put in the
sides of bamboo, however. To avoid problems it is important that
the bamboo is dry before used in construction.

History of Bamboo Construction

The ancient Chinese created "fire arrows," which were made of

bamboo filled with gunpowder, to get more distance to their
arrows. These arrows eventually evolved to become the rockets
and firecrackers we are familiar with today. More recently,
Thomas Edison used carbonized bamboo for the first successful
light filaments. It has been used to make paper, cloth, and even

Bamboo's tensile strength has been essential in the development

of bridges. The Chinese invented suspension bridges using
bamboo to cross rivers. Using only the exterior part of the
bamboo, which is four times as strong as the interior, they
created tension cables up to 120 meters long. Bamboo bridges
were also constructed in India, and by the Incas in South
America. In both cases, the structural cable was strung above the
walking surface, which hung from it. And in Colombia, tension
bridges were created using this amazingly strong material, with
tensile strengths of up to 3,200 kg/cm2 for the species Guadua.
Similar building techniques have also been used to create
gabions to dam rivers and streams, where a long basket of
bamboo is filled with stones with each end secured to the banks.

It has been crucial to the development of many inventions.

Bamboo has been used to build boats and zeppelins. In
aeronautical research, structural members of kites and early
planes were constructed using the material as it is light and
extremely strong. A plane made completely of bamboo was built
in the Philippines, while the Chinese commonly used it in their
planes during World War II. Plans for bamboo planes were even
available in "Popular Mechanics" magazine.

Bamboo also has a long history of use in buildings, being

common to the vernacular architecture of China, Southeast Asia
and Central and South America. The Chinese could span up to
ten meters with their corbelling technology, and bamboo has
been used extensively all over Indonesia, especially in the
Celebes Islands. In Hong Kong, all scaffolding for highways
construction is built of bamboo, and tied with bamboo strips only
1 mm thick. Although they have a great history of building with
bamboo, today the Japanese use it only for their traditional tea

Structural Characteristics of Bamboo

Bamboo is unique in that it is strong in both tension and

compression. While tensile strength remains the same throughout
the age of the bamboo plant, compressive strength increases as
it gets older. There is some controversy in determining proper
testing protocols, as it is important to test bamboo which is at
least three years old, and that the test should occur on a piece of
bamboo with an entire internode and two intact nodes. Some
testing research has not used these criteria, and thus the results
are not as useful.

To utilize bamboo to its best capabilities, several conditions are

important to consider. One consideration is that bamboo grown
on slopes is stronger than bamboo grown in valleys, and that
bamboos that grow in poor dry soils are usually more solid than
those grown in rich soils. Bamboo will shrink diametrically, so
Oscar does not recommend tied connections. Bamboo takes at
least four months to dry, and should not be kiln dried, as the
moisture inside leaves mostly through the ends.

There are certain limitations of the use of bamboo in construction.

The starchy interior is attractive to insects. In addition, because
bamboo has a slick waterproof coating, it cannot be painted.
However, this coating allows bamboo to be used as water pipes.

As bamboo is extremely flexible from 6-12 months of age, it can

be used to create a number of curving forms. In India, curving
roofs called Chocals were developed, and bamboo domes have
been built in New Guinea. A parisian architect named Friedman
built some beautiful ringed buildings in India, but they were
unfortunately destroyed by insects within a few years, as they
were not treated. Indeed, the type of bamboo construction used
can greatly affect the longevity of buildings. Architect Gernot
Minke of Germany has developed a catenary arch using
laminated strips of bamboo.

Bamboo Joints
In standard bamboo construction, joints are difficult to make. In
bamboo geodesic structures, joints are formed by creating "flaps"
at the end of a culm by incising the bamboo radially. The soft
inside of each "flap" is cut away, allowing them to bend easily.
These flaps are then bent over a cone with a threaded rod
sticking out of the tip. An additional cone is place on the outside
of the bent flap area and secured with a bolt. Besides increasing
structural strength, this external cone protects against insect
entry. This results in an end which can easily be attached to a
central hub.

Bamboo Roofing

A number of cultures have used bamboo for roofing materials.

The Chinese used bamboo for roofs with the ends covered with
round tiles. In the Philippines, roofs of interlocking split bamboo
are created with the part receiving the water being the soft inner
surface of the bamboo. Unfortunately, this technique encourages
mold, fungus and splits from ultraviolet exposure, and roofs made
in this fashion rarely last more than a year. These roofs can be
made to last longer if the upper pieces, where the denser exterior
of the bamboo is exposed, are laid close together, protecting the
more vulnerable pieces underneath. These roofs are perhaps
most appropriate as temporary roofing solutions.

It is imperative that bamboo roofs are treated to extend their

longevity. A boric acid/ borax solution is used to preclude fungus
and insect infestation. Roofs can also be treated with lime to
protect them. Long lasting tiles made with bamboo utilize a
bamboo strip reinforced fiber-cement laminate where the bamboo
strips are weaved into a web for additional strength.

A variety of techniques have been developed to create roof

support systems. These include a prefabricated triangular truss
system comprising of units eight meters long. These trusses can
be carried by only four people, and only deflect 2 1/2 centimeters
along their entire length. These frames are then covered with
bamboo boards, lath and plaster to create a waterproof roof.
Additional systems include A-frame and space-frame roof

An excellent system utilizes bamboo rafters with bamboo boards.

This is plastered on both sides, and fired clay tiles are used to
waterproof. Besides structures built of whole bamboo, truss
systems have been developed using flat bamboo strips which are
connected with bolts.

A roof for a kiosk made by "uneducated" Ecuadorian Indians is an

umbrella-like system with a tension ring surrounding it at the level
of the eaves. A different radial roof concept with numerous peaks
and valleys is held up by tension cables which connect across the
structure where the valleys end. Geodesic domes can easily be
made with bamboo, as can emergency temporary housing for
homeless in the case of earthquake, flood, etc. These roofs are
simple bamboo framing with bamboo strips between the main
structural members. The roofs described above can last up to 15
years with periodic maintenance.

Bamboo as Concrete Reinforcement

Many studies have been done to determine the feasibility of using

bamboo to reinforce concrete. The problem is, however, that
bamboo soaks up the water in the concrete, causing the bamboo
to swell then shrink, the process of which can break the concrete.
In addition, adhesion between the bamboo and the concrete is
poor. Oscar has experimented with braided bamboo as
reinforcement, but it takes an excessively long time to braid.

Feasible uses of bamboo with concrete include making stirrups

with 9 month old bamboo. Also tanks can be made by applying
cement plaster to bamboo baskets. These can be used for toilets,
water storage or boats. Waffle slabs of concrete can be formed
utilizing bamboo baskets to create the void spaces. Woven
bamboo mesh at 6" on center can be used to reinforce a 5"
concrete slab. All-in-all, Oscar does not recommend the use of
bamboo with concrete in house construction, with the exception
of it being used as reinforcing for slabs on grade.

Laminated Bamboo

Many of the problems associated with bamboo can be alleviated

by creating laminates of bamboo strips. These are formed by
simply dividing the length of the culm into individual strips which
are then laminated together to create a number of products. In
1942 a study was commissioned by the US government
regarding the use of bamboo laminates in ski poles.

Currently, bamboo laminate products include floor tiles with one

type being particularly good for heavy floor traffic as only the end
grain is exposed. The softer strips of bamboo from the interior of
the culm can be safely used in the interior portion of very large
glu-lam beams.

There is really no limit to the uses of laminated bamboo. It can be

used for chairs and other furniture, plates and utensils. In fact it
can be used just like laminated wood, with the advantage that
bamboo laminates are much lighter in weight. To create the strips
used for lamination, the interior soft part of the bamboo is
removed with a plane, leaving the hard exterior for the lamination

Architectural Design Considerations

There are many ways to design using bamboo. Commonly in

Colombia, structural bamboo is used as studs in walls, covered
with bamboo "boards" or lath, then plastered on both sides. The
bamboo boards are created by smashing a culm with a hammer,
then splitting it open and flattening it. Lath is made from bamboo
strips, 2-3cm wide.

With proper joinery, bamboo can be used to create incredible

spans, most dramatically evidenced in the work of Colombian
architect Simon Velez. Spans of 3.5 meters (11 ft.) are easily
possible in simple structures use 12cm (4-5 in) diameter bamboo.

In Latin America, Guadua angustifolia bicor is the most prized

species for construction. Guadua de castilla and Onion Guadua
(G. cebolla) are also a good construction species. To create
special effects, bamboo can be bent or straightened by heating
and clamping until cool. Square bamboo is a unique product used
for decorative purposes that is created by training the culms into

Bamboo Construction in Latin America Marizales, a coffee

growing region in Colombia, used to have many bamboo
buildings. As recently as the 1930s, all houses in Caldas State (of
which Marizales is capital) were made of bamboo. Many public
buildings and apartments were made of bamboo as well.
Although now bamboo is limited to residential construction, there
continue to be many beautiful bamboo houses in rural areas. The
most common construction method is to use platform frames with
reinforcing diagonals in the walls. Some houses built with this
technique on steep hillsides have five-story understructures.
Because of the difficulty of leveling the varying dimensions of
bamboo, lumber is often used for beams and joists.

A typical wall section is created with bamboo studs where

spacing is determined by the thickness of the bamboo boards
applied to the studs. For example, when a 1 cm board is used,
stud spacing is 40cm. The bamboo boards are attached, and two
layers of plaster are applied. The first layer of plaster is 1:3
cement to sand mix and the second layer is a 4:5 cement to sand
mix. The plaster is aesthetically essential as visible bamboo is not
acceptable to Colombians.

Another wall system uses bamboo studs as described above with

smaller pieces of bamboo attached with 1 1/2-2" nails. This is
then plastered with a clay/straw mixture on the outside. This
system is much heavier than the previous example. Bamboo was
often used as scaffolding in Colombia, but is now largely replaced
by rented metal systems. In Ecuador the bamboo is smaller and
the bamboo boards are applied vertically.

A prefabricated bamboo house system utilizes wall panels built

on the floor, resulting in better construction. This system allows
for homeowners to build their own houses through sweat equity.
An additional feature is to locate the kitchen and bathroom
directly over water tanks, which allows water to be easily hand-
pumped to where it is needed. Oscar established a prefab house
building program in Costa Rica, the Costa Rican "roof-floor"
program was one in which the government provided a floor, roof
and sink. Oscar then built pre-fabricated bamboo panels for these


Besides Oscar, there are a number of other important bamboo

architects in South America. These include recently deceased
architect Carlos Vergara from Cali, who made houses entirely of
bamboo. He created a multi-column system where the loads are
carried by the septum of the bamboo. He also used bolts through
concrete nodes to create joints. He was able to achieve spans up
to 24 meters with his techniques. Jorge Arcila of Marizales did a
series of "stacked houses" and is currently writing a history of
bamboo in America.

Simon Velez, an architect who mostly practices in Colombia, has

built a number of extraordinary bamboo structures. These
projects have ranged from a horse stable, residences, a
observation tower and a country club. His structures feature
massive cantilevers and he was the first to use multi-culm beams.
He uses a unique bolt and concrete system in the internodes to
create extremely strong joints, which has allowed him to create
cantilevers as large as 7 meters (37 feet).

American efforts include those of Doug La Barre, who is setting

up a manufacturing facility for creating laminated lumber from
imported Guadua. The Trus-Joist corporation is also doing work
to create nontoxic adhesives for laminated bamboo.

Issues in Bamboo Construction

As bamboo architecture has reemerged in Colombia, many new

architects are making avoidable mistakes. It is important that the
ends of joints not be cut too short and that all connections use the
concrete-filled internode/bolt system. Additionally, columns must
be raised above grade or floor level. Multi-culm beams should be
made of culms of the same diameter, and bolted vertically at least
every meter on center. In temperate climates it is better to use
the smaller, stronger bamboos, and if the structure is protected it
will last longer. The strongest of the temperate bamboos are
Phyll. bambusoides and Phyll. mequinods.

Neither Oscar or Simon Velez use engineers in their building,

having developed an intuition about the capabilities of bamboo.
Oscar knows, however, that many architects do not have the
years of experience he has, and so wants to establish the norms
for the mechanical characteristics of bamboo. Much work in this
regard has been done by Jules Jannson, and research and
testing continues in his native Netherlands.

Another major problem is that in many places bamboo is

disappearing, just like our world forest resources. In Brazil there
were 85,000 sq km of bamboo in 1976, while in 1983 there were
only 32,000 sq km. It is feared that within a decade all bamboo in
Brazil will be gone. Guadua is among the threatened species
because it only grows at tropical latitudes. But this dire situation is
common all over the world.

The biggest problem affecting the adoption of bamboo

architecture in those areas which have a vernacular history of
building with this material, is the perception that it is considered
"poor people's" housing. In India, the highest castes use stone to
build, the middle castes, wood, and only the lowest castes use
bamboo. Thanks to Simone Velez, however, bamboo is
becoming a building material of choice for the wealthy. Oscar
believes that if those needing shelter see rich people using
bamboo, so will they.

Cassandra Adams is an architect and professor of architecture at

UC Berkeley specializing in construction methods and materials
with a focus on environmental issues and traditional Japanese

Also about Oscar Hidalgo

From DESIGNER/Builder, September 1997

...the most exciting technology Hidalgo has developed is to

deform the bamboo plant as it grows to create incredibly strong
pre-stressed arches. A form of wood and plywood with a
predetermined arc is placed over a bamboo shoot. As the
bamboo grows, it assumes the shape of the arc, permanently.

"You can make any type of construction member when you

deform the bamboo," Hidalgo says. "To make one curved
laminated beam could cost $25,000. But to grow the equivalent in
bamboo would cost only $100."

A cross and longitudinal section of a bamboo plant reveals its

amazing properties and the strength and resilience the mature
plant gains from its vertical fibers and horizontally reinforced
chambers. A bamboo plant is fully formed as it starts up from the
ground, its future chambers compressed against one another like
an accordion. As the plant matures, the shoot expands and these
chambers spread out, beginning from the lowest internode. And if
the shoot is deformed on the way up, it assumes its new shape

"The most expensive thing is the form," Hidalgo says. "But once
you have a form you can grow many of the same arches for a
very low price. You tell me what kind of a structure you want and I
will deform the arcs for you."

Excerpted with permission from DESIGNER/builder magazine,

copyright 1998. DESIGNER/builder is published monthly at 2405
Maclovia Lane, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 87505; (505) 471-4549.
Annual subscription: $28.

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