The Houses Bamboo Built

After the Colombian earthquake of 1999, architect Simón Vélez
quickly built a temporary cathedral in Pereira that offered
grounding to a community that had just lost its place of worship,
in a country that had lost more than a thousand citizens. The
bamboo church seemed to grow from the earth itself. And the
material, with its light weight, strength, and flexibility, carried
an added assurance: Bamboo structures, typically associated with
the poor, had fared far better in the quake than concrete
structures like the church Vélez replaced. According to Darrel
DeBoer, a California architect who has closely studied Vélez’s
work, when the cathedral was destroyed a few years later to make
way for a concrete one, it couldn’t be knocked down; it had to be
blown up.

Bamboo has emerged in recent years as a kind of
wundermaterial. The hearty grass has the same tensile
strength-to-weight ratio as steel and is stronger than concrete,
without all the weight. It grows much faster than trees, allowing
harvests in about four to six years, and doesn’t need to be
replanted. Bamboo even helps in the fight against climate change:
The plant is highly efficient at sucking carbon from the

An estimated 1 billion people worldwide live in homes that
incorporate bamboo, and though it’s been gaining a foothold in
North America as a trendy, ‘green’ alternative for flooring, bamboo
has yet to be adopted as a structural building material. DeBoer
hopes that innovations by Vélez, featured in
Américas (Feb. 2006), and his close friend and
collaborator, Marcelo Villegas, will change that. The two have
strengthened joints by bolting and filling them with concrete and
used a nontoxic treatment to keep bugs from lunching on the poles.
The results of their work are on grand display in Colombia,
especially among the society’s upper echelons, and in 2000 Vélez
made an international splash at the World Expo in Hanover, Germany,
where he built the sprawling ZERI Pavilion (the interior of the
Colombian test run is shown on this page).

Back in the United States, where myriad codes
and market forces can slow the adoption of new materials, builders
have been reticent to experiment with bamboo. As one of them told
DeBoer, ‘I don’t do new.’ Plus, according to Environmental
Building News
(March 2006), some kinks must still be
worked out before bamboo merits a full-fledged ‘sustainable’ stamp
of approval. Most bamboo used here is shipped from China, burning
fossil fuels; pollution from pesticides and fertilizers can be a
problem, as can toxic preservatives; and scientists are concerned
that some forests-typically more biologically diverse than bamboo
groves-are being cleared or invaded to plant the more profitable
bamboo crops.

Nevertheless, DeBoer and others say the bamboo gospel is worth
spreading, for the material’s sustainability, structural capacity,
and-perhaps most importantly for designers-beauty. ‘You have a
carved, ornamented, interesting, character-filled, finished piece
without having to do anything,’ DeBoer tells Utne. ‘You’ve already
started with something you want to end up with.’ –Hannah

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