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The Greener Grass: Can Bamboo Help China Build Sustainable Cities?

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China isn’t called the “Kingdom of Bamboo” for nothing. It’s the world’s largest producer of the woody grass that has for centuries been used for everything from food to weapons to scaffolding to housing. But in the modern architectural world, it was long cast aside as a “poor man’s timber” — until now.

As environmental issues climb to the top of headlines and political agendas, bamboo is starting to shed that label for a new one — “green gold” — in pockets of China’s construction scene that are revaluing the plant as the savior of sustainable building materials.

A key culprit in global greenhouse gas emissions, China is also home to the world’s largest construction market, fueled by energy-intensive materials like cement, steel and timber that leave behind a huge carbon footprint.

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Championing bamboo as a green alternative, the China-based International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation (INBAR) promotes the giant grass as a tool for environmentally sustainable development globally. One aspect of that? Sustainable building solutions, which are “urgently required to support the world’s growing, and increasingly urbanized population.”

bamboo plantation INBAR

Photo: courtesy INBAR

It makes sense then that China is a locus of these efforts, as the plant is next to ubiquitous and can be seen in everything from building facades and interior design to infrastructure. “There are several advantages of using it in construction,” says Liu Kewei, INBAR’s Construction Task Force Coordinator. She sells bamboo as a sort of triple threat: it grows quickly, it’s naturally strong, and it’s degradable.

As for its mechanical properties, it’s flexible with a tensile strength that’s said to be even stronger than some steel, and its strength-to-weight ratio trumps that of both timber and brick. Plus, as it can be easily composted, using bamboo helps cut down on the country’s construction waste — which Liu says accounts for a staggering 30 to 40 percent of total urban waste.

Largely thanks to increased environmental awareness and subsequent government support — including opportunities for Chinese companies to offset their carbon emissions by buying credits in bamboo plantations — INBAR’s Director General Ali Mchumo believes the future is bright for the plant in China. “Bamboo is becoming part of the government’s focus on sustainable growth — and with 6 million hectares of bamboo [in China], that’s hardly surprising.”

Photo: courtesy INBAR

Calling technology “a game changer for China’s bamboo industry,” Mchumo suggests that the plant “is becoming a truly hi-tech material in construction.” It’s used today in a wide range of products such as flooring, railway sleepers, telescopes, storm-drainage pipes, shock-resistant exteriors for bullet-train carriages, wind turbine blades — the list goes on.

“We’re confident that bamboo could end up replacing steel, timber and plastic — and not just in housing, but also in the infrastructure around us. That’s why we often refer to bamboo as ‘green gold.'”

Bamboo is also garnering attention amongst architects who are attracted to it for its cultural significance. 2016 saw the inaugural International Bamboo Architecture Biennale, which gathered such works together in Zhejiang Province’s bamboo-rich Baoxi.

bamboo bridge biennale baoxi

Bridge by Ge Qiantao (photo: Xie Zhenlin)

Featuring the works of well-known names in the sustainable architecture field — George Kunihiro, Anna Heringer, Kengo Kuma, Vo Trong Nghia, and Li Xiaodong to name a few — the Biennale has since become the permanent home to a collection of hotels, a ceramics museum, a restaurant, a bridge, and more all designed using locally-sourced bamboo and traditional construction methods.

Artist and Biennale co-curator Ge Qiantao explains that at the heart of the project is the desire to demonstrate the capacity for “sustainable rural revitalization” without losing local culture and traditions. As rural areas are increasingly left behind in the push for urban development, Ge hopes the Biennale can help revitalize the local culture of the countryside by “returning to its origins.” That means using local, natural materials and construction methods that the villagers are already familiar with.

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Quoting exhibiting architect Heringer, he adds, “With our planet’s limited resources, it is not possible to build for seven billion people safe and good houses in steel and concrete only. The use of natural building materials is vital in order to enable sustainable and fair development.”

Nestled in the mountains of neighboring Anhui Province, in the historic village of Shangcun, architecture studio SUP Atelier and the School of Architecture at Tsinghua University also adopted bamboo as a means of rural preservation.

Photo: Xia Zhi

Led by Professor Song Yehao and Sun Jingfen, a team of architects renovated a derelict courtyard into the “Village Lounge,” a public space for people to meet and mingle. Built upon the principle of minimal intervention, the main feature is its three large bamboo canopies that blend in seamlessly with the surrounding buildings.

In Song’s mind, if China is looking for a sustainable future in rural development and protection, bamboo must play an important role. This is largely because its abundance makes it a convenient and inexpensive building material for villagers.

Photo: Xia Zhi

“Not only is it accessible,” he says, “but there are also lots of kinds of buildings in rural development — such as pavilions, shelters for stocks, and storage spaces — all of which can be made with bamboo. Farmers can also easily learn the construction techniques with simple training.”

Still, the reality is that bamboo as a construction material isn’t without its pitfalls. Unlike buildings made with concrete and steel that can stand for centuries, bamboo structures have a much shorter lifespan.

As a natural material it can be prone to issues like mold, decay, and insect infestations, especially in wet and humid climates. And then there are safety concerns, such as fire resistance and cracking poles. Treatments and solutions for all of these require more research.

Furthermore, INBAR’s Liu points out that currently there aren’t standard regulations for bamboo construction, preventing architects from exploring the material’s potential on a larger scale. But things are also moving along in this respect. “INBAR has done lots of work on international standardization of bamboo construction, as well as helping member countries set up their own national standards. In China, we work with local partners to speed up the development of a series of standards of bamboo construction.”

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There’s a long journey ahead if China is to see bamboo become a mainstream tool in sustainable construction. But amongst more and more players, hopes are high. As Mchumo puts it, “We have moved on from the days of small bamboo huts. Now we are seeing everything from quick-assembly, 3D-printed homes to tall pavilions with decades-long lifespans. We want to see bamboo replacing concrete in cities.”

Amy Snelling
    Amy is a Shanghai-based writer and editor originally from Ipswich, UK. Formerly Managing Editor of Time Out Shanghai, she now works as freelancer covering topics of culture, lifestyle, travel, and business in China. In her free time, she loves cycling around the city and developing her increasingly unhealthy relationship with liangpi.

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