Stronger than steel, low in cost, minimal environmental impact, and plentiful in supply — these are just some of the positive attributes given to bamboo that has attracted the attention of building material researchers around the world.
Bamboo in its natural state has been used as building material in tropical and subtropical areas for centuries — floors, ceilings, walls, windows, doors, fences, housing roofs, trusses, rafters, as well as scaffolding and bridges.
However, it’s the potential of engineered bamboo that excites Professor Dirk Hebel of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH).
Hebel’s lab has developed ways to extract bamboo fibres and mix them with organic resins to form a moldable material, such as rods that can be used as a reinforcing matrix in concrete. The happy coincidence, according to Hebel, is that bamboo is prolific in regions where the highest levels of construction are predicted over the next several decades, namely developing countries.
“This has the potential to revolutionize our building industry and finally provide an alternative to the monopoly of reinforced concrete,” Hebel told the World Architecture Festival 2015. “We can produce a material that in terms of tensile capacity is better than steel. Our material is only a quarter of the weight of steel. In terms of strength to weight, it performs better than steel.”
There’s good news for the environment too — unlike trees that take years to mature after replanting, bamboo regrows naturally and rapidly after harvesting.
Engineered bamboo has potential far beyond concrete reinforcing rods. According to a paper published in the Journal of Material Science Research authored by Pannipa Chaowana, “With modern techniques and adapted technologies, bamboo can be processed into a wide range of products which successfully compete with wood and other raw materials. Many see it as a substitute for Oriented Strand Board, Glue Laminated Timber, Parallel Strip Lumber and Oriented Strand Lumber.”
The process for creating engineered bamboo products from raw bamboo is similar to glue-laminated timber products. Continued research into processing techniques and species-specific selection has also found ways to eliminate of some of bamboo’s previously acknowledged shortcomings, like insect attack, shrinkage, and degradation in the presence of water.
An article written by British university researchers suggests that engineered bamboo products used in standardized sections such as sheeting have properties comparable to or surpassing those of timber and timber-based products. In fact, decorate sheeting and flooring products manufactured from bamboo fibres have already found their way into residential and commercial projects.
However, Canada is likely decades away from including engineered bamboo as an approved structural element within the National Building Code.
“We have not seen anything come our way whatsoever,” Bruno Di Lenardo, Evaluation Officer with the Canadian Construction Materials Centre (CCMC) told the Daily Commercial News. He explained that the CCMC’s role is to evaluate innovations seeking entry into the Canadian building marketplace. “Building officials rely on our reports for their approval.”
Di Lenardo has learned of various university research projects and certain ISO standards concerning engineered bamboo, largely through industry interests making preliminary inquiries regarding the Canadian approval process. However, he is not aware of any major tests underway in Europe or among the CMCC’s sister agencies.
The Canadian approval process for engineered bamboo would be identical to any other new building material, said Di Lenardo. “It is performance-based. We first look at things in terms of strength and durability. Fire resistance is usually the last thing.” In fact, he listed several steps ahead of fire testing — qualifying the adhesives used in the bamboo, design criteria, and component connections.
Before any approval process could begin, Di Lenardo said that industry representation willing to fund such exhaustive Canadian investigation and testing would have to come forward. It could cost millions.
However, some countries have already integrated bamboo into their building codes. Colombia is considered to be the most advanced, followed by Ecuador, Peru and India.
Yet despite engineered bamboo’s promising future, Canada will simply have to wait.
John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont. based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.