Fighting Quakes With Bamboo

Strong and flexible joints of a Bamboo Building.

There are an average of 17 significantly devastating earthquakes each year, with numerous small-scale quakes occurring on a regular basis. We’ve seen the effects of terrible seismic shifts in recent years, including Haiti’s 7.0-magniitude quake in 2010, with damages upwards of $13 billion, and over 300,000 lives lost. Japan’s March 2011 8.0 earthquake estimated potential financial devastation around $300 billion, with casualties close to 16,000. One of the most memorable earthquakes stateside is the 6.9 magnitude1989 San Francisco Bay Area earthquake, which resulted in $5.6 billion damages, in addition to injuring over 3,000, and leaving somewhere between 3,000-12,000 people homeless throughout northern California.

As high-risk areas, such as California and Japan, continue to become more populated, earthquakes will never cease to be deadly and costly; however, proper engineering can make a huge difference. In some impoverished areas, such as Haiti and Peru, the option of carefully engineered homes and buildings is nonexistent.

Fortunately, we’ve seen some countries, such as Chile, withstand an 8.8 magnitude quake with much lower losses, both in property and lives. Experts believe this is due to a combination of factors, not the least of which includes building materials and architectural structure. While the United States may have the money to rebuild most earthquake-ravaged cities with modern materials such as rebar and plastic compounds, affordable and natural bamboo should not be overlooked as a viable building material for third world countries, and domestic eco-friendly homeowners.

In 1992, a powerful 7.6 magnitude earthquake hit Costa Rica, and all of the 30 bamboo houses in the epicenter remained intact. Earthquakes in other countries, including Colombia, have demonstrated that homes constructed of bamboo are more capable of surviving the same disasters that cause thousands of modern structures to collapse.

Bamboo is an incredibly strong and flexible material. It is often thought of as a poor person’s timber, but it is an ideal support material for resisting damage from earthquakes. It’s 28,000 square inch tensile strength, which is the maximum stress that a material can withstand without destabilizing, is higher than steel’s 23,000 per square inch. Modern buildings and bridges are made to bend and sway with the wind, to withstand an earthquake, that’s what it takes. Bamboo grows with these innate capabilities.

The importance of earthquake prevention hit the U.S. capital in August of 2011, when a 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck Virginia, and rattled the entire East Coast, a very low-risk part of the country. Once Mother Nature’s wrath cracked the Washington Monument, people really began to pay attention. While a 555-foot tall stone monument is not built to withstand an earthquake, it’s not easy to stomach structural damage to a national monument where thousands of domestic and international tourists trod.

We can’t expect to rebuild the White House out of bamboo, but we can make significant changes to new architecture, both domestically and internationally, with natural, strong, flexible, and affordable materials such as bamboo. Many people are already doing it.

In Bangladesh, 73% of the population live in bamboo homes, and studies show that processing bamboo requires 1/8th the amount of energy as processing concrete and 1/3rd the amount needed for processing wood to creating a building material with the same capacities as bamboo. In Costa Rica, just 70ha of a bamboo plantation is required to build 1000 bamboo homes per year. That’s compared to the 600ha of timber required for the same number of homes.

Bamboo is becoming an affordable salvation for many people in impoverished nations. From these affordable bamboo homes for protection, to boosting local third-world economies by building and selling bamboo bikes, it is an incredibly valuable and versatile material.



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