Bamboo: Sustainable Super Grass

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 11.00.05 AM.pngBy Kary Vannice

I’m sure you remember that children’s story about the three little pigs. The one where the wolf huffs and puffs and blows their straw house down. Well, no offense to the pigs, but they used the wrong grass! There is, in fact, a grass that is just as structurally strong as the brick house that fended off that nasty wolf.

You’re probably wondering in what crazy science lab they are cooking up this new super-grass. But humans have been building structures out of it for centuries.

It’s bamboo! It’s often called ”guadua” or ”otate” in Mexico.

Giant species of bamboo are the largest members of the grass family. They are exceptionally strong and flexible, even able to bear the tremendous forces imposed on a house during earthquakes and hurricanes.

Structural bamboo has twice the compression strength of concrete and nearly the same strength-to-weight ratio of mild steel. And, because it’s hollow, it’s actually 1.9 times stronger than a solid wood beam, when used correctly.

Of course, all this depends on how you use the bamboo when building a house. The type of structure and how the bamboo is fitted together are crucial to get the best benefit from this super-sustainable super-grass.

Bamboo has been used in construction since the Maya and Aztec people ruled Mexico, but in more recent times, it became seen as a “poor” man’s material. Many of the old building techniques were forgotten and nearly lost. With the resurgence of interest in eco-construction, workshops and trainings have sprung up around Mexico in places like Veracruz, Chiapas, and Mexico City to bring back this ancient wisdom and combine it with today’s modern architecture.

And the results are stunning! One only has to google “bamboo construction” to view thousands of breathtaking and sophisticated architectural designs. Tack on the word “Mexico” and you’ll likely be adding a few locations to your “must see” list!

Structural bamboo takes about 3 to 4 years to mature, and Mexico has some of the best climates in which to grow this valuable cash crop. As more and more people look for ways to live a more sustainable life, bamboo is finding is stride among the new “green” generation. It’s estimated that globally the annual revenue from sales of bamboo will surpass will surpass $50 billion USD in 2017.

Some savvy, green-thumbed entrepreneurs in Mexico are looking to cash in on this growing trend. Why savvy? Well, in the right regions, it only takes about 5 years before they see a return on their investment, and it’s an investment that just keeps on giving. Most plantations can harvest the same stand of bamboo for nearly 60 years without having to replant. Why? As a grass, it grows in clumps, sharing its root structure. If you cut one stalk down, another will spring up from the roots!

Compare that to a stand of trees that will be used for home construction, and you can see why structural bamboo is so sustainable. It takes anywhere from 25 to 40 years to grow most tree species to maturity (some even longer). Then, once you cut them down, you have another 25 to 40 years before you can harvest again, and those new trees will require more land, they won’t be springing up from the roots like bamboo!

To date, Mexico has over 200 thousand hectares of bamboo being cultivated for sale for use in a variety of ways in home construction, furniture making, trusses, posts, columns, and many other unique ways.

Bamboo is also a powerhouse when it comes to helping the surrounding environment. Studies in Mexico show that bamboo cleans the surrounding air of massive amounts of carbon dioxide, prevents soil erosion and actually contributes to soil creation through biomass production. And, in some species, one hectare of forest can store over 30,000 liters of water in its clumps during rainy season that it gradually deposits back in the soil during the dry season.

Production of bamboo in Mexico is boosting the economy, creating jobs, helping heal the environment, and manifesting itself in more Earth-friendly and eye-catching architectural design.

Somebody ought to tell those three little pigs!

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