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Scientists Test Bamboo as Building Material

  • George Putic

Bamboo is not just for pandas anymore. One of the most sustainable natural materials may finally be on track to be accepted as a building material in the developed world.

Building codes everywhere require strict standardization of tests for all materials, such as timber or concrete. But tests for bamboo have not been standardized, because it's not manufactured, but grown. So scientists at the University of Pittsburgh are testing several varieties of bamboo with mechanical properties that approach and even surpass those of softwood lumber. Their aim is to standardize the tests so that bamboo can be safely used in buildings.

Types of bamboo that have excellent strength-to-weight ratio grow mostly in tropical regions where they have been used in building for thousands of years.

The strength of at least three species is comparable to steel. Uses range from scaffolding and support columns to walls and floors. Bamboo can even be forced to grow in certain structural shapes, such as arches.

But construction companies in other regions use bamboo mostly in engineered form, as plywood and other laminated byproducts.

Professor Kent Harries, who is leading the research, says the developed world should overcome the view that bamboo is a poor man’s construction material.

“If we standardize it, if we provide essentially documentation for test methods which the engineers can hang their hat on, we… I don't like the word legitimize, but we bring the material into the mainstream,” he said.

Bamboo is remarkably strong and resilient, can grow up to 20 meters tall and can support heavy loads. Its harvest cycle is only about three years compared to softwood, which requires about 10 years, and hardwood, more than 30 years.