our Bamboo Story

We stumbled across bamboo by chance. We were living in the UK and were invited to run an architecture design-build workshop with a British university. The opportunity included travelling anywhere in the world and building a structure over three weeks with a group of architecture students. Where to go? What to do?

Through family connections, we knew of an old farm in a rainforest location in Colombia where a structure could be of great use. Bamboo happened to be abundant in the region, and so we thought, why not go there and build something out of bamboo?

Organising the workshop would take an entire year, at a time when we were ready for a transformation in and of our lives. We were ready to transition from city living and eager to embark on an adventure of meaningful action and connection with nature. As we dreamed about and imagined the possibilities related to tropical rainforests and bamboo architecture, our thinking changed from “let’s run a bamboo construction workshop” to “let’s live in the rainforest!”….. The workshop morphed in our minds and became a first step to get to know the land and to begin working with bamboo.

 

Over the six months preceding the workshop we read books, watched videos, and attended a workshop through which we came to learn amazing facts about this incredible “gift of the gods” (as it is known in Asia). We learned that bamboo is a wild grass that grows to a full size of about 20 metres. It can be harvested in 5 years for structural use in buildings. It has the tensile strength of steel and the compressive strength of concrete. It is hollow and 'light-weight' (relatively speaking) - light enough to be carried by hand. Because it has nodes, it avoids buckling. And it has a negative carbon footprint: an average bamboo pole captures and stores 9kg of carbon dioxide.

We came to understand that bamboo is an incredible gift. It grows abundantly and propagates much faster than wood. There are more than 400 varieties of bamboo all around the tropical belt of the world and it has been used for tens of thousands of years by the indigenous peoples of those regions.  

As it turns out, during the preparation phases for the workshop that we ran in the rainforest, we realised that three weeks would not be enough time to harvest and treat the bamboo before the time came for building. The bamboo harvest and treatment process can easily take two months, and there are many methodologies on how to do it. If this was going to be a design+build workshop, we would need to source treated bamboo from a supplier.

And that is how we ordered a truckload of bamboo, in poles and splits of six-metre lengths. During that very first experience of building one of our designs with bamboo, we learned that carrying bamboo is an important part of the process! Especially when your building site is in a rainforest location and the nearest road is a decent walk away. We also learned that poles are never alike. They are each curving, tapering and organically diverse. They respond differently to forces and loads and have different diameters and thicknesses. We realised that we would need to undo a lot of our architectural training in adapting our design intent to this raw, wild material quality.

For more than a year following that workshop we have been refining our craft through building four structures which have become our home. We learned to create beautiful dowels and fish-mouth connections and we acquired new bamboo-specific tools. As our structural intuition is also becoming more fine-tuned, we are able to predict with more accuracy how the material will respond within our designs, although spontaneity has become a big part of our construction process regardless.

It is only now, almost two and a half years since this journey began, that we are starting to look at harvesting from our surroundings. We learned of an indigenous harvesting tradition which responds to lunar cycles. The poles are to be cut between 1:00 and 5:00 AM, around the quarter waning moon. The reason is that bamboo is like the sea and has tides. At its “low tide” it will release liquids and sugars into its surroundings. The poles should be left in the grove for another two to four weeks, during which time any remaining sugars will ferment, ensuring that termites and other insects won’t eat the bamboo in its built form. Once the poles are taken out of the grove, there are a variety of natural options for their final treatment, including borax and sea salt. These need to be absorbed into the pole either through a dipping process or via injection.

A week ago we went into the bamboo grove for our very first harvest. It was 3:00 AM and the atmosphere was magical, with the all-encompassing sounds of the forest and the great heights of the bamboo culms connecting earth and sky. We could sense a sublime vibrancy as we wandered between culms, feeling the whooshing upward-reaching shoots and the tiny leaves dancing in the gentle breeze.

With our team of collaborators, we brought machetes, axes and torches. The culling was selective, allowing the bamboo grove to regenerate itself and continue to expand as a living entity. From the harvested poles we collected spiky branches which we then planted as cuttings to propagate bamboo further within our watershed. 

Coming back for breakfast that morning we experienced an unexpected surreal edge. As we entered our kitchen (a bamboo structure that we designed and created about a year ago), it felt as if the living quality of the grove had transitioned into a space for inhabitation. And then we observed… the spirit of the bamboo lives on!!

Dwelling in Symbiosis