It reads almost like a riddle: what grass is stronger than steel, growing wild, not  forged?

The answer will surprise you. It is bamboo, which has romantic associations of ‘primitive’ huts, and the beautiful early 19th century furniture of the English Regency, sometimes even gilded.

But bamboo is more than romantic. It possesses a tensile strength 3X that of steel, and compressive strength greater than that of  wood, brick, or concrete. Unlike the wood from trees, which may take decades to grow and is therefore not easily replenished--not to mention the decimation of rain forests and other forests-- bamboo can grow up to an astonishing four feet per day. When it is harvested, it regrows without having to be replanted.

And, its growth is beneficial to the environment, releasing almost 35 percent more oxygen and absorbing almost 35 percent more carbon dioxide than most trees. It is reusable and easily transported and assembled to construct emergency shelters in many regions of the world affected by disaster.

You may also have heard of the wild popularity of kits now available through Kickstarter for assembling homemade bamboo bicycles in a mere five hours!


But now architects are beginning to research and discover in bamboo a potential for permanent as well as emergency structures, even envisaging whole cities constructed from bamboo. The Beijing- and Vienna-based firm of Penda, founded in 2013, are creating a hotel from modular bamboo units--including towers!-- inspired in part by Native American tepees. The main construction component is an X-shaped bamboo joint fastened with rope which can be used both horizontally and vertically. Erecting a bamboo building is simple, and even the scaffolding need for a bamboo tower can be made of bamboo.

Penda’s vision is grand in scope, encompassing whole new cities built from bamboo modules. Employing designs from the hotel project as its nucleus, and  with the plan of harvesting from 250 acres of bamboo, Penda claims that a city of 200,000 inhabitants is possible by 2023. In late 2015, Penda built its first prototype, called Rising Canes, for Beijing Design Week.

A bamboo city sounds visionary, utopian, do-able, and, yes, romantic, a visually exciting prospect as well as a practical one which could potentially help multitudes of homeless to find an abode.

But there are also smaller, yet important, businesses sprouting up (like bamboo itself!) which, like the bicycle kit, offer individual homesteaders the opportunity to build a bamboo home for themselves.

Ibuku, headed by American fashion designer Elora Hardy, and based in Bali, is one such enterprise. In 2010, Hardy left a career in New York fashion to return to Bali, her childhood home. There, she and her team of Indonesian designers and architects have built over forty new bamboo structures, including Green Village and parts of Green School. Hardy uses boron, a natural substance, to treat the bamboo, rendering it indigestible to insects.

The planning and construction methods used by Hardy’s team are absolutely fascinating. Instead of using blueprints, her bamboo builders construct a 1:50 scale structural model from bamboo. No heavy machinery, cranes or bulldozers are necessary. Walls are woven on site, and craftsmen make hand-whittled bamboo pins instead of nails. Many of the craftsmen are descended from wood-carving Balinese families, and are happy to be creating houses using a venerated vernacular technique, instead of having to make tourist items for a living.

All in all, bamboo in the 21st century has surpassed rustic romanticism, and promises to offer us an exceptional building material that as durable as it is beautiful.

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