Bamboo has been used for thousands of years in Asia. Now, it might help solve the construction durability issue.

Written by Story of Rebecca Cairns; video by Gisella Deputato, CNN

In search of new ways to build sustainable homes, Earl Forlales decided not to look to the future, but to the past.

His grandparents, like generations of Filipinos, lived in a “Bahay Kubo” – a traditional one-story bamboo hut on stilts, indigenous to the Philippines. “Filipinos have used bamboo (for shelter) even before colonial times, for thousands of years,” he says.

Strong and flexible, bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants in the world: while soft and hard woods can take between 40 and 150 years old to mature, bamboo is ready to harvest in as little as three years. When processed and designed, it can last for decades. Realizing that the Bahay Kubo could be adapted to create a contemporary home, Forlales began to design his own bamboo houses.
After winning the “Cities for our future“Challenge launched by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors UK in 2018, the materials engineering graduate turned his idea into a business, co-founding Cubo in 2019.

The company started production of its manufactured homes in November 2020. The structures can be assembled in just days and are expected to last up to 50 years, Forlales said. He hopes Cubo’s modular designs and the use of bamboo can “help accelerate sustainable construction” while providing affordable housing solutions for the Philippines housing crisis.

Cubo’s houses range from 30 to 63 square meters, with the largest accommodating up to six people. Credit: CUBO Modular Inc

A contemporary cubic house

Cubo’s bamboo houses incorporate many aspects of the traditional “Bahay Kubo” including a raised foundation and louvers, a type of window shade that allows natural ventilation and light.

But Cubo gave the bamboo hut a 21st century upgrade, including modern light fixtures and impact-resistant polycarbonate windows. The Philippines is prone to earthquakes and typhoons, which is why the houses were designed with natural disasters in mind. Metal “typhoon links” are used as connectors between the walls, roof and floor panels, and the houses are further reinforced with poured concrete foundations, which replace traditional pilings. While this gives the structures a solid foundation, concrete contributes to climate change. Forlales says the company “is exploring alternative foundation systems to make our offering more sustainable,” but this is still in the research stage.

The company’s first project was tested very quickly: in December 2020, just days after the construction of the first two houses, the region was hit by a magnitude six earthquake. Cubo’s houses survived unscathed.

Using all available space, the mezzanine bedrooms and fitted furniture make the most of these compact homes.

Using all available space, the mezzanine bedrooms and fitted furniture make the most of these compact homes. Credit: CUBO Modular Inc

Cubo offers four different models, accommodating up to six residents. Each home is made to order and can be customized to include items such as solar panels on the roof, further reducing running costs and the carbon footprint of its residents.

The company currently produces six homes per month, but Forlales says demand is much higher and he hopes to increase supply.

“The Filipinos warmly welcomed the product because it is very familiar,” he says. “They realized this was an intuitive evolution for our local bamboo houses.”

Bamboo building boom

The construction industry has come under heavy criticism in recent years for its environmental impact. The use of materials like steel and concrete are significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, while the extraction of raw resources in particular stone, rock and gravel degrade landscapes and soils. This prompted the search for more environmentally friendly alternatives.

Is bamboo the building material of the future?

Cubo is not the only company to see the potential of bamboo as a strong and durable building material. Vietnamese studio Vo Trong Nghia Architects have used bamboo for several of their projects, including the Casamia Community House in the Casamia Resort in Hoi An, while Zuo Studio, based in Shenzhen, created bamboo pavilions for the Taichung Flower Show in Taiwan.
In Bali, Indonesia, architectural firm Ibuku specializes in large-scale intricate bamboo “buildings”. Since 2007, Ibuku has built more than 60 bamboo structures, including the Green Village, a sustainable community of 12 luxury villas and the Green school, which has a wallless campus located in nature.

While bamboo has been used to build small structures for thousands of years, “it is only now that we have safe and natural processing solutions that we can consider building multi-story buildings,” Elora explains. Hardy, Founder and Creative Director of Ibuku. While most of her projects use processed bamboo in its natural form, she adds that with advancements in engineered bamboo, there could be “skyscrapers and even entire cities that could be built out of bamboo.” in the future.

Ibuku specializes in sculptural villas, resorts and "green" bamboo school campuses.

Ibuku specializes in sculptural villas, hotel complexes and “green” school campuses made from bamboo. Credit: Tommaso Riva / IBUKU

Engineered bamboo entered traditional construction at the end of the 20th century, according to Bhavna Sharma, assistant professor of architecture at the University of Southern California and a member of the intervention force develop international standards for bamboo building materials.

“Standards for mechanical testing of engineered bamboo materials are being developed; however, areas such as fire resistance require further study, ”says Sharma.

As a strong, fast-growing and renewable material, bamboo could complement sustainably harvested hardwoods, Sharma says, with the added benefit of bamboo plantations helping to restore degraded soils and lands.

From exterior structure to interior furnishings, Ibuku shows that bamboo can have varied applications in <a class=architecture and design.”/>

From exterior structure to interior furnishings, Ibuku shows that bamboo can have varied applications in architecture and design. Credit: Indra Wiras / IBUKU

Help get out of a housing crisis

While durability is bamboo’s primary benefit, it’s not the only reason Cubo is turning to fast-growing grass as an alternative building material.

The Philippines is currently facing a severe housing shortage, with a 4.5 million homeless in 2021, and a deficit affordable housing.
Cubo produces three houses in his workshop every two weeks, then takes three to five days to assemble each on site.

Cubo produces three houses in his workshop every two weeks, then takes three to five days to assemble each on site. Credit: CUBO Modular Inc

Cubo houses cost between 649,800 Philippine pesos ($ 12,900) and 1.8 million Philippine pesos ($ 35,738) – which is roughly comparable to mid-range homes built with conventional materials, says Forlales. . However, it aims to bring down prices by streamlining production and increasing automation in the workshop. The company has also introduced a payment plan, to help lower upfront costs for buyers.

With bamboo growing naturally throughout Asia, each country has “its own species of bamboo that you can use for construction,” Forlales explains, creating potential for building cubic houses beyond the Philippines as well.

“In Asia, we have millions of square kilometers planted with bamboo. So it’s just a matter of tapping into other markets where you can get it, ”he adds.

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