First in a two-part series
Of the many ways in which the human race seems to exist out of phase with its natural environment, the buildings in which it lives, learns and works is one of the most telling examples, but one which receives relatively little attention. Nevertheless, besides being the places where people spend the most time, buildings use up to 50 percent of the energy used in the world in their construction and operation, and also consume a great deal of the world’s human, economic and natural resources. In spite of this, these buildings are often poorly designed, wasteful, ugly and uncomfortable.
Costa Rica’s Central Valley – where much of the population lives and most of the country’s business is transacted – has one of the world’s best climates. Under ordinary conditions, the temperature ranges between 20 and 30 degrees, making both artificial heating or cooling unnecessary. In addition, with the exception of seasonally heavy rains, extreme weather events such as serious tornadoes or direct hits from tropical storms or hurricanes are unknown. Despite these benign conditions, most modern-day construction in Costa Rica follows designs and uses heavy and expensive materials more appropriate for much harsher regions.
And, incredibly, a great deal of new construction in Costa Rica ignores its ideal natural climate, sealing out the outdoors and making air conditioning mandatory. Moreover, concrete, by far the most popular building material for new construction, is – unless heavily reinforced by expensive imported steel – among the worst materials to withstand earthquakes. Finally, concrete and steel consume a great deal of energy and natural resources in their confection, processing and transport, making Costa Rica’s building industry decidedly environmentally unfriendly.
It wasn’t always this way.
‘A Cultural Bias’
Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas used a natural building material that was extremely strong and resilient, abundant, lightweight, easy to work with, perfectly matched to the climate and environment, and attractive to boot: bamboo.
When Europeans arrived, in most of Latin America they stuck with what they knew, rejecting this native material and preferring to build their houses, public buildings and churches out of dried mud (adobe) and stones, reinforced with wood. (Europe and Antarctica are the only two continents that have no native bamboo.)
Built in a setting perceived as hostile, colonial houses tended to exclude nature and the outdoors beyond thick walls and small windows, opening instead onto interior yards. These buildings – together with their occupants – were also very susceptible to being destroyed by earthquakes, which is why relatively few still exist. Wood, familiar to Europeans and abundant in Costa Rica, was also widely used to build houses, although generally in rural areas or poorer neighborhoods, with some exceptions.
Over the centuries, adobe was replaced with stronger concrete, and recently, even wood – grown scarce – has been replaced as well. Today, almost all new construction in Costa Rica is of steel-reinforced concrete together with other non-traditional materials, such as gypsum, metal roofing and ceramic tile. Meanwhile, since colonization, indigenous and poor builders have continued to use bamboo to build makeshift shacks or temporary shelters. In Costa Rica’s status-conscious society, and throughout most of Latin America, bamboo has been stigmatized as the building material of the poor. Because much of this construction was shoddy and didn’t last, bamboo was unfairly seen as a low-quality building material. Today, Latin American bamboo experts universally bemoan a “cultural bias” against what they see as an almost ideal construction material – one that they hope represents a big part of a future of environmentally sustainable construction.
A Bamboo Revival
Beginning in the 1970s, bamboo began making a comeback in Costa Rica and other parts of Latin America, with Colombia and Ecuador (countries where bamboo construction was never entirely abandoned) leading the way. Inspired by travelers and images from Asia, as well as by the environmental movement, young naturalists and architects began to rediscover the possibilities of Latin American bamboos, and to begin to open eyes and change minds with new techniques, designs and applications, often borrowing from Asian traditions. Among the more important developments is the adoption of techniques to cure and assemble bamboo structures, greatly increasing the durability of the material and the strength of buildings. One thing that modern bamboo researchers confirmed was that bamboo had excellent properties as building material, with a greater combination of strength, resistance and flexibility than almost any other natural material.
In Costa Rica, President Rodrigo Carazo (1978-1982) was one of the most important promoters of bamboo. In his travels to Asia as president, he became fascinated by the possibilities of bamboo. After he left office, Carazo was one of the principal promoters of the National Bamboo Project, which received funding from the government of the Netherlands to plant bamboo and build low-cost bamboo housing throughout the country during the late ’80s and early ’90s. A principal motivation for the project, in addition to building homes for the rural poor, was to confront the country’s deforestation crisis, as Costa Rica then had one of the highest rates of forest loss in the world. Fast-growing native bamboo was seen as an excellent substitute for wood.
The project built hundred of houses throughout the country, most of which are still in use. In the province of Limón, these bamboo houses withstood the magnitude-7.6 earthquake of 1991 much better than concrete or wooden ones. Unfortunately, according to bamboo experts, during the later years of the project the quality of construction was often poor, and the designs used were in many cases unattractive and not appropriate for bamboo. This, plus the fact that the homes were intended for the poor, meant that despite good intentions and much success, the project did not overcome the country’s cultural bias against bamboo, which still lingers. However, the project did help familiarize many Costa Ricans with the advantages and skills of building with bamboo.
A Coming Revolution?
Today, a growing group of boosters believes that bamboo’s time has come around at last, and that this natural material has the potential to help revolutionize housing in Costa Rica and Latin America at all social and income levels.
While acknowledging that bamboo isn’t the answer in all cases, these persons cite bamboo’s combination of versatility, strength, attractiveness, relatively low cost and very positive environmental impact as an argument in favor of its wider use.n
Next week: Bamboo options: How to build with bamboo in Central America.
Steve Mack is an environmental consultant who has lived and worked in Costa Rica for over 20 years, and is a partner in the firm Responsabilidad Ambiental Corporativa. He can be reached at [email protected].