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Cane and Able – the expressive skill of building with bamboo

An increasingly used renewable local resource, Bamboo, is being innovatively used to build a primary school in Thailand

Since ancient times, bamboo has been used for a wide range of everyday objects, from huts to kitchen utensils, paper and musical instruments. Strong, light and sustainable, bamboo is an infinitely versatile yet still underexploited building material. Botanically, it belongs to the grass family and grows with astonishing rapidity; some varieties can sprout by as much as a metre in a day.

Bamboo is propagated from its root system (rhizomes), so it begins growing again soon after being harvested, as compared to timber, which, once felled, requires lengthy reforestation. Easy to plant and cultivate, bamboo canes reach sufficient maturity to be used in construction after only five to eight years and sometimes in as little as three years. By contrast, timber takes between 25 and 50 years to mature.

Bamboo is inherently structurally efficient. It is strong and stiff, with a tensile strength that matches steel. Because of its segmented hollow form, it is also extremely light and elastic, and can be bent into curved profiles. This structural efficiency is matched by functional efficiency. At every stage of bamboo’s life cycle, there is a use for the material. Processing bamboo generates virtually no waste, since it has no bark, and its leaves can be used as animal fodder.

Truss detail

Truss detail

Insect or fungal attack are the main threats to bamboo’s structural integrity, so canes are treated with an insecticide and preservative such as Borax. Typically, hollowed-out canes are soaked for a week and then dried in the sun. Little else is required in the way of processing, hence the embodied energy required to produce a unit of bamboo is extremely low: -30 MJ/m³ per Nmm², compared with values of 80 for wood, 240 for concrete and 1,500 for steel.

As bamboo is so geographically abundant, there is often no need to transport the material, saving on energy costs. Bamboo buildings can be recycled or dismantled, and individual components are easily replaced. Now re-envisaged as a regional, sustainable technology, bamboo is being gradually liberated from the stigma of ‘poor man’s wood’.

This project for Panyaden School in Chiang Mai, Thailand, employs bamboo to form lightweight curved roofs sheltering a cluster of pavilions. Designed by young Dutch practice 24H, Panyaden is a private bilingual school for 375 primary-level students.

Site Plan

Site Plan

Underscored by a Buddhist philosophy, which emphasises a respect for nature, the campus is arranged around a tree-like network of pathways. Classroom pavilions are constructed from adobe walls with roofs made from local bamboo. Larger halls or ‘salas’ for assembly and the school canteen are simply large bamboo canopies anchored by stone foundations. T

The effect is like walking through a grove of bamboo. The architects worked with local builder Chiang Mai Life Construction, which specialises in traditional materials and building techniques. Though architecture has long sought to emulate the beauty, intelligence and stability of natural forms, the systematic adaptation of such forms for construction purposes is still in its infancy.

Yet as the consequences of rapacious and inappropriate use of materials are becoming depressingly evident, there is renewed interest in natural, local substances such as bamboo. This remarkable material is capable of generating new forms of holistic, sustainable architecture that resonate with culture, place and human needs.

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