The Many Benefits Of Building With Bamboo

Drawing inspiration from his childhood in Colombia, architect Mauricio Cárdenas is convinced that the age-old material also has a bright future.

Bamboo is resistant, light, flexible and cheap. And more...
Bamboo is resistant, light, flexible and cheap. And more...
Miguel Jurado

BUENOS AIRES — Bamboo has been used in construction for centuries, especially in places where it grows abundantly, like in hot and humid Southeast Asia. And yet, as Colombian architect Mauricio Cárdenas has discovered, there's still much to learn about the age-old material, and new, innovative ways to use it.

Earlier in his career, Cárdenas — the guest of honor at the upcoming Buenos Aires International Architecture Biennale (beginning Oct. 15) — focused on "typical" materials like steel, concrete and glass. Shortly after graduating, the Colombian worked for five years in Paris for the prominent Italian architect Renzo Piano, creator of the Pompidou Center among other memorable buildings. He then established himself in Milan where he followed through with his ideas on avant-guard design and sophisticated architecture.

Bamboo is resistant, light, flexible and cheap, and has good insulation and soundproofing qualities.

But it was also in Milan that Cárdenas — inspired by certain childhood memories — first turned his attention to bamboo. The architect recalls sipping a ristretto on the Via Montenapoleone one day when he flashed back to his grandfather's coffee farm in Colombia. More specifically, Cárdenas remembered being handed a machete to cut some cane for a tree house.

And so it was that in 2006, when he was commissioned to create a pavilion for the Milan design fair, the Colombian decided to make it from bamboo. Cárdenas had the cane shipped from Colombia and, together with his pupils from the Milan Polytechnic, helped in the construction itself. From then on he became a real bamboo expert and began combining it with other materials and high-technology.

Bamboo is resistant, light, flexible and cheap, and has good insulation and soundproofing qualities. And while it lasts a long time (15 to 30 years), it is not eternal. But that's also one of things that Cárdenas likes about it, especially since the cane grows fast and is easily replaced.

"Concrete buildings can last hundreds of years. But should they?" he asked during a presentation to INBAR, a body of 45 states that promotes the use of bamboo and rattan for sustainable construction.​

One example of building made of bamboo — Photo: Longquan International Bamboo Commune

"Often, they're abandoned or demolished after just a few decades," Cárdenas added. "If we used natural construction materials in cities and changed our ideas, it would be easy to rebuild or restore them every few decades without having to face today's great costs."

A bamboo pavilion Cárdenas was commissioned to make for the Horticultural Exhibition in Beijing was tested for resistance to fire and insects. Its roof consists of undulating arches with different levels to create a sensation of movement, and allow air flow. Above the arches is an exuberant garden. The structure is bathed in natural light and Cárdenas hopes for something similar in the bamboo settlements Malaysian designers are creating for Mars.

Whether bamboo construction takes off on Mars more than on Earth remains to be seen. In the meantime, Cárdenas has several promising new projects in China. In Baoxi, in the Chinese province of Zhejiang, he has just finished his Energy Efficient Bamboo House. The town hosted the first Bamboo Architecture Biennale in 2017, and has kept some of its traditional industries, like glazed ceramics, swords and carpentry with wood and bamboo.

Concrete buildings can last hundreds of years. But should they?

Cárdenas wanted a house with minimal carbon emissions that is also able to take full advantage of on-site resources like sunlight, water, wind and vegetation. That's where the bamboo comes in. But the architect also combined the cane with lightweight aluminum fasteners that facilitate both the assembly and replacement of the bamboo as it ages.

That China has become the world's biggest carbon emitter makes the use there of bamboo as a construction material even more attractive. It doesn't pollute and, as it grows, actually absorbs CO2. Expanding its use, in other words, is certainly worth a shot — at least until we all have to move to Mars.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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