Bamboo: Pitt team building school in India from the material

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When deciding on construction materials, builders often overlook the tried-and-true in favor of what's new and different.

That can be a mistake that can cost thousands of lives, Kent Harries said.

For a decade, the associate professor of engineering at the University of Pittsburgh has led research on a material that has been used in house construction for centuries but overlooked by modern builders.

Bamboo, it's true, is nothing new, but something worthy of review. And don't be bamboozled by its reputation as the poor person's building material.

"Let's go backward and see what did work," Dr. Harries said. "We have a bad habit of not using the lessons of the past and seeing the value of doing it that way."

To demonstrate bamboo's value, Dr. Harries and a team of Pitt students are involved in a project to build a bamboo school and community center in Mungpoo, India, near Nepal. Pitt also is studying and promoting bamboo construction in Brazil.

Bamboo, a grass, is lightweight but strong. It grows quickly. Its tubular shape is nature's strongest structure, with a rigid outside wall.

Dr. Harries' interest arose years ago when a student produced what he described as a remarkable piece of research on bamboo construction. Since then, Pitt research has documented bamboo's forgotten advantages in house construction, especially in regions threatened by seismic activity and earthquakes.

The study of bamboo and its structural properties also has provided "remarkable opportunities" for students to get international experience in solving real-world problems. Over the past two years, four Pitt undergraduate students and one doctoral student have done bamboo research leading to the publication of two academic journal articles.

Bamboo's importance reduces to simple physics.

Lightweight materials in hillside construction limit slope failure and building collapse. Even on flat ground, flexible bamboo better withstands earthquake stresses. If a bamboo structure does collapse, its light weight is less likely to cause injury than steel, concrete or masonry.

In recent times, people of China, India and Nepal have followed world trends in building with concrete, brick and masonry. The result has been undue stress on slopes. It also is difficult to transport heavy materials over bad roadways.

Those problems have taken their toll.

In October 2005, the Great Pakistan Earthquake in Kashmir killed about 80,000 people, with most deaths occurring in homes and schools. Poor building construction was blamed for the high death rate.

A May 2008 earthquake in the Sichuan Province of China caused 85,000 deaths and left up to 11 million people homeless. The temblor accentuated problems with modern construction practices in earthquake zones.

Dr. Harries offers bamboo as a solution. It can be grown where it's used. Lighter bamboo structures place less stress on hillsides, Dr. Harries said, equating its strength with fiberglass.

"We're looking at ways to improve residential housing stock in a sustainable manner," Dr. Harries said, noting that the Pitt research is done in affiliation with Pitt's Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation. The center studies and promotes green technologies.

"Bamboo is a wonderful material, and we're starting to look at it again."

On campus, the Pitt team has been breaking and crushing bamboo to test its strength.

Dr. Harries said his team's goal is to develop building code and material standards for bamboo that they hope will be adopted by ASTM International and the International Standards Organization. Those organizations provide standards for products and materials, including steel, lumber and concrete.

Once a standard is set, builders would have more confidence in the safe use of bamboo in construction while insurance companies could set premiums to insure bamboo structures.

Of the 1,000 species of bamboo, the characteristics and availability of the Tre Gai species make it ideal for construction. Bamboo is not indigenous to the United States, but grows abundantly in Asia and Central America.

"It's a remarkably resilient plant that can be grown in most places in the world," Dr. Harries said.

But its variable size, thickness and quality pose certain problems for builders. One solution would be a grading system similar to one used for lumber, he said.

Bamboo also must overcome a worldwide reputation as a building material used only by poor folk, he said.

"If we can formalize building standards for bamboo, it will remove the stigma," Dr. Harries said. "The 85,000 people who perished in Sichuan indicate the reasons why we are going in this direction."

Eric Beckman, Mascaro Center co-director, said Pitt's bamboo research is "straightforward and very cool."

"Reinforced concrete has been studied by 100,000 people over decades and decades, and we know how it performs," he said. "If we knew as much about bamboo as we do concrete, people would feel comfortable using it."

The most fascinating potential for bamboo, he said, will occur when developed countries realize its potential as a building material.

"We can get started on something that I think will play out and be very interesting," Dr. Beckman said. "What if we export this technology to the developing world, then export it back to the U.S.?"

Bamboo buildings atop Mount Washington? "I think that would be the neatest part of the whole thing -- to see that and see the ultimate home run," Dr. Beckman said.

David Templeton can be reached at or 412-263-1578.


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