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: Guadua, Dendrocalamus 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 beetles. Without 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 expensive. Keep in mind all these constructions 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!).
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. To make a long story short,... a custom bamboo house will have more flexibility and will be cheaper than a prefab imported bamboo house.