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Making Bamboo a Common Building Material



Bamboo is one of the world’s most useful plants. For thousands of years bamboo has been used in many different ways -- from food to medicine to clothing and, in small ways, as a building material.

However, bamboo is not often used as a building material in the developed world. It is not made according to officially set measurements, or standards. It simply grows in the ground. A professor at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania is trying to change that.

The professor and his students are testing the strength of bamboo. They are testing its radial load, or how much pressure or weight it can take before breaking.

That pressure was too much.

Professor Kent Harries of the University of Pittsburgh is testing bamboo. He wants standardized tests for its use as a building material. (Credit Adam Greenbaum, VOA News)

Professor Kent Harries of the University of Pittsburgh is testing bamboo. He wants standardized tests for its use as a building material. (Credit Adam Greenbaum, VOA News)

Kent Harries is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Harries says that testing methods for bamboo need to be the same for all. They need to be standardized.

Building codes everywhere require strict standardization of tests for all materials, such as timber or concrete. But tests for bamboo have not been standardized.

Standardizing test methods for bamboo will help to bring the plant into common use, or the mainstream. It will also give engineers and builders around the world a dependable standard – or as Harries says, a testing method they can hang their hat on.

"If we standardize it, if we provide essentially documentation, test methods which the engineers can hang their hat on, we bring the material into the mainstream."

Why is bamboo a great building material?

Harries sees bamboo as a great building material.

First, it is strong. The strength of at least three species of bamboo is similar to steel. Besides its strength, Harries says that bamboo has other features that make it a great building material. He says it is resilient, meaning it keeps its shape and strength even under pressure.

Cambodians ride across a Mekong bamboo bridge in Kom pong Cham, Cambodia Saturday, Dec. 20, 2014. The bridge is constructed every dry season for locals to travel over. The bridge is taken down before the wet session comes to prevent it being washed away.

Cambodians ride across a Mekong bamboo bridge in Kom pong Cham, Cambodia Saturday, Dec. 20, 2014. The bridge is constructed every dry season for locals to travel over. The bridge is taken down before the wet session comes to prevent it being washed away.

"It's a remarkably strong material, remarkably resilient. It's optimized to be very tall. Obviously bamboo material, something like this, might grow 20 meters and it supports its own weight, and, of course, it also supports huge wind loads ..."

Bamboo also grows quickly. Bamboo that is suitable for construction needs much less resources than wood.

The harvest cycle of bamboo is about 3 years. Softwoods such as cedar, pine and spruce have a harvest cycle of about 10 years. And hardwoods that come from flowering plants such as oak, maple and walnut need more than 30 years.

Harries says bamboo poles could be joined together into columns for building floors and roofs. In many countries they are already used for wall panel structures.

Bamboo might have a bad reputation

Bamboo is widely used as food for panda bears. It is also used for furniture or man-made building products such as flooring and window covers, or blinds.

However, bamboo is not used much outside its native growing area. This is mostly because of its round shape. But there are other reasons too.

Bamboo, it seems, has an image problem. People think – or have the mentality – that bamboo is a low quality building material.

"It is viewed in much of the world as well, bamboo is for poor people, and so there's that mentality that we're trying to get over."

I’m Anne Ball.

George Putic reported this story from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for VOA News. Anna Matteo adapted it for Learning English. Adam Brock was the editor.

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Words in This Story

standard n. a fixed official unit of measurement

radial load - adj. pressure or weight that weighs on an object from a right angle

standardizedadj. to change (things) so that they are similar and consistent and agree with rules about what is proper and acceptable

hang (your) hat on idiomatic phrase a skill or trait or whatever that you use or rely on

mainstream adj. the thoughts, beliefs, and choices that are accepted by the largest number of people

resilient adj. able to return to an original shape after being pulled, stretched, pressed, bent, etc.

optimizev. to make (something) as good or as effective as possible

harvest cycle n. the annual cycle of activities related to the growth and harvest of a crop. These activities include loosening the soil, seeding, special watering, moving plants when they grow bigger, and harvesting, among others.

imagen. the idea that people have about someone or something

mentalityn. a particular way of thinking

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