The Reality about Building with Bamboo

The Reality about Building with Bamboo

Grow Your Own House

What does it cost to build a bamboo house? This is the million dollar question everybody likes to have a clean cut answer too. But, make no mistake, building with bamboo requires resources! The myth (and book about) "Grow Your Own House" let people believe that building with bamboo is far cheaper than any other building material. In reality however (at present time), this is a utopia.

First of all, from the roughly 1500 known bamboo species on the planet, only a hand-full of them can be used for construction. In Latin America, the yellow striped bamboo: Bambusa vulgaris 'Vittata' occurs on almost every street corner, and since it is bamboo it must be suited for construction, right? ... WRONG!

Every bamboo species has it's own structural and mechanical properties. Most are hollow, some are solid, there are bamboos that grow up to 130 feet tall and 9 inches in diameter and there are bamboos that grow only 7 inches tall and 0.07 inches in diameter. So the first criteria for building a quality and long lasting bamboo home is the species. Valuable bamboo species for construction include species of the genus: GuaduaDendrocalamus and Phyllostachys, of which the species Guadua angustifolia is native to South America and has the best properties for construction all together.

However, Guadua as a cultivation crop still doesn't have the popularity of Teak, which is one of the most popular "reforestation investments" for foreign investors in Central America. Why? Well, what people don't know they wont cultivate, and as long as there is no abundant supply of high quality Guadua Bamboo, prices for the raw material will continue to raise. Read this article for a comparison between Guadua vs Teak plantations.

Another myth that circles the Internet; Bamboo is naturally resistant against biological degrading organisms! WRONG again, bamboo contains high levels of starch (sugars) which attract insects such as termites and powder-post beetlesWithout the proper treatment, bamboo has a natural durability of less than 2 years. Some species are more resistant in their natural condition such as Phyllostachys, still without the proper harvesting, curing and drying techniques, they won't last very long.

Still Interested in Building with Bamboo by Now?

Our goal isn't to bash bamboo construction because bamboo is one of the most sustainable building materials on the planet that provides earthquake resistant structures!

However, I prefer to offer professional and realistic advice (based on our hands on experiences) rather than writing ideological sales pitches (often based on "book" knowledge). In my opinion, low cost housing and bamboo construction aren't synonyms. Because I assume that most bamboo enthusiasts are aiming for sustainable architecture and alternative home construction with the same quality standards as a traditional house! Cheap disaster relief houses for the 3rd world are a different topic all together.

Considerations Before Building with Bamboo

First of all, the USA and Europe do not have approved building codes for permanent bamboo structures (yet)! This might change soon, because bamboo has proven its value, however, for now, bureaucratic and political agendas are standing in the way.

On the other hand, building with bamboo is slowly becoming more popular and main stream in Latin America. But based on our previous experiences, especially in the rural areas of Latin America, nothing goes streamlined or easy!

So here is a list of considerations before building with bamboo. The cost of a bamboo house or structure will depend on:

1. The Bamboo Supplier

Is Guadua cultivated locally or does it have to be imported? What is the availability and distance to a reliable bamboo supplier, prices?

2. Location and Availability of Craftsmen

Conditions of the roads and building terrain, availability of water and electricity, availability or lack of local labor, availability or lack of local materials (hardware store). Keep in mind a whole team (workers, architect and engineer will live near the construction site for the duration of the project).

AGAIN: Who's able to build with bamboo? Where to find bamboo craftsmen and building teams for bamboo construction to get the results your bamboo house deserves!?

3. Budget and Standards

What is the overall budget? What are the finishes and standards required by the client? This is essential information for the architect in order to start brainstorming about the initial design process and cost. Hard wood floors or ceramic? Natural plaster walls, or concrete blocks? Palm thatch roof or tiles? Standard bathroom or full option jacuzzi with all bells and whistles?

4. Design Shape and Grade of Difficulty

The design shape and grade of difficulty of the bamboo house are more significant and important than the total area of the construction itself. Big structures can proportionally turned out to be cheaper than smaller structures. Why is that? The answer is simple, the bamboo house shown on this page (designed by Architect Mariela Garcia) is about 150m2. The architect decided to use 6 bamboo poles for each of the supporting columns for a total of 6 columns. As a result of this, a total of 36 bamboo poles where used. All of the poles have different and very challenging angles, which in order to join together, required hiring a very talented and experienced building team.

Having all the posts up required a lot of labor, craftsmen, materials and time, resulting in a bigger investment for a structure to cover a small floor area. If she decided to make a simple single-bamboo column it would’ve had just been 6 poles instead of 36 meaning that could’ve also covered a bigger area for a smaller cost… But this is an aesthetical decision the client has to make according to their taste, ambition and budget.

5. Professional Fees

Minimum architectural and engineering fees for any construction in Costa Rica are set by the College of Architecture and Engineering. Preliminary drawings are 2% of the estimated value of the house. Constructive plans and specifications are 4% of the estimated value of the house.

6. Prefab Bamboo Homes vs Custom Bamboo Homes

Prefab bamboo homes are not cheap. Keep in mind all these houses need to be assembled, disassembled, shipped and reassembled again. Import duties in Costa Rica for example are near 30% (based on the value of the product + shipping cost).

Even with a prefabricated bamboo house you will still require the signature of an architect, building permits, preparation of the terrain, all electricity and sanitary installations, assembly of the house etc. 


Anton Schultz wrote:

In his book, Oscar Hidalgo referred to bamboo as "The Gift of the Gods". Simon Velez titled his book "Grow Your Own House". Both titles invite dreams of affordable bamboo housing. Yet the reality is a disappointment. Why?

Green Gold Miracle

Bamboo has been called “Green Gold.” For a few that may be a reality. Modern day bamboo growers have discovered the “secret” the Alchemists of old never found. Through the process of immunisation, growers have discovered how to turn “green gold” into “yellow gold.”

Bamboo is The Solution

Bamboo is not the problem. Bamboo is the solution. A growing number of bamboo enthusiasts are frustrated at the high prices of materials and construction. Our frustrations are justified. After all, we see beautiful bamboo constructions at famous resorts. We appreciate the beauty and desire the same for our homes. We remember the promise held out by Hidalgo and Velez.

Why are “the Promise” and “the Reality” Opposites?

One possible reason could be that today there is a temporary lack of qualified bamboo specialists in the Western world. The demand for high quality bamboo construction out paces the supply of experienced construction personnel. We need more young bamboo structural engineers, bamboo architects and skilled workers.

This Will Change

We are on the verge of an exciting frontier. As more young professionals take up the challenge, the affordability issue will resolve itself as it has in Asia. Belgium, Germany, Italy and Colombia are doing serious research on quality construction techniques for the growing bamboo industry. Courses are being taught at schools dealing with environmental and sustainability issues surrounding bamboo. Construction skills are growing among young people with vision. We are on the frontier of an exciting beginning.



Stephane from Guadua Bamboo replied:

I like the term "affordable bamboo housing", but it raises the question: What is affordable? What may be affordable to some can be high end to others.

For some reason, people expect bamboo to be available for them "almost" for free. However, just as with other more conventional timbers, bamboo needs to be harvested, treated, dried, transported and stored. Why is it that teak, mahogany, oak are considered timbers of "value" while bamboo is considered as a marginal building material? Because it is a huge grass that grows at an incredible speed?

My guess would be that there is still no decent awareness of the mechanical and structural properties of some bamboo species. And no, that ornamental bamboo you have growing in your back yard will most likely NOT suit as a construction material. In fact only a hand full of bamboo species can be used in construction.

Growing your own house is a great title if you aim to sell a few books, but in reality this is just a dream-catcher.

First of all, you would have to live in a tropical region, also make sure to own a property that has the right soil, elevation, humidity to grow strong bamboo rapidly. If these are the conditions, great, you are off to a good start!

Now it's time to start to educate yourself on when to harvest, how to harvest, how to cure, how to dry and store bamboo. All set and done? Perfect.

I also assume you have a background in civil engineering, specialized in bamboo construction, and have years of hands on experience with bamboo joining and terminal techniques right?! Fantastic.

Finally, where are we building this affordable bamboo house? A nice remote beach or mountain area, where you can enjoy the sound of geckos, monkeys, tropical birds, crickets,? Beautiful!

After getting all permissions and plans approved for your bamboo house, it's time to prepare the lot, is it leveled or would we need to rent a bulldozer (hopefully in a city near by). How close from the lot do we have electrical and sanitary connections available (are they available?).

Again, I assume that there are no problems regarding these issues mentioned above. So now we can finally start building the house. Oh wait, do we know a few contractors who have experience with bamboo construction, or would a traditional carpenter be able to pull this off?

I must apologize for my cynical remarks here, it is not my intent to scare any enthusiasts away, but the misconception that building with bamboo is soo much cheaper then building a home with conventional building materials is an utopia! Bamboo housing is not a synonym to marginal housing, at least, when you aim to built a home with the same quality standard of a traditional house that is!


Dave replied:

Some very good comments on the viability of bamboo construction here. I, for one, have real reservations of undertaking anything but a small project as the prospect of how to repair damage due to insects, weather or just age are quite daunting.

We have centuries of traditional stick building, we are just on the cusp of modern bamboo building. How would one tear apart a roof or replace structural supports? The challenges are many and that is why education in the techniques of bamboo construction need to be pursued and disseminated.



Mukesh replied:

I am from Assam, northeast India. We have very good quality bamboo, locally we call it Jati and Bholuka. They are wonderful bamboos for construction of a bamboo house, but of course they need to be cured and treated before use. I personally, designed a house of 50 x 36 ft. This contained walls, ceiling, beds all made of above mentioned bamboos.

Since it is not a conventional building material, it was very labour intensive. We had 6 rooms, and the roof was of locale thatch. I agree that though it gave an wonderful look cost of labour escalated the total project cost. However it was still only 1/3 the cost of conventional materials.