Most people consider bamboo architecture to be a primitive type of building structure. However, bamboo is strong in both rigidity and density and is a sustainable green material that makes it suitable for many types of buildings. McCormick juniors Miguel Baliwag and Lauren McManus looked into the sustainability of bamboo and how it can help local communities to rebuild after the destruction of an earthquake.

After the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck coastal Ecuador on April 16, 2016, the country suffered from severe damages and casualties. The use of heavy building materials was to blame for some of the casualties. Because of the damages from the earthquake, the public called for seismically safe buildings from natural materials. Regeneration Field Institute (RFI), located in the rural region of Chone, Ecuador, started the Bahia Beach Construction movement to “help meet these needs in the community, as well as provide a model for ecologically, socially and economically sustainable housing development with an emphasis on seismic stability,” according to their website.

Every year, students like Baliwag and McManus join Ecuadorian architects, engineers, professors, carpenters and bamboo farmers for a ten-day program organized by RFI to learn about bamboo construction and actually get their hands on building a bamboo structure.

“Technically, students learn how to build with bamboo,” Baliwag said. He participated in the program last summer. “They learn why bamboo is beneficial to build with; they learn how to make cuts; they learn how to give building structure integrity from using bamboo-derived products. Also, students do workshops on different ways to interact with the community and build enterprises based around sustainability and helping people. It’s very multifaceted.”

So, what makes bamboo the ideal material for the reconstruction of houses in Ecuador? First, bamboo is harvestable in three to five years. Compared to wood, which can take between 20 and 60 years to reach the stage where it can be harvested, bamboo grows very quickly and is an efficient renewable source for architecture. Second, once the bamboo is treated, it is actually stronger than steel, which makes bamboo a solid building material. The curing process can also make bamboo fire-resistant and insect-resistant. Third, bamboo is an indigenous building material for Ecuador and is locally abundant. What’s more, bamboo is aesthetically beautiful, lightweight and can sequester carbon to mitigate or defer global warming by slowing down the accumulation of greenhouse gases.

“With all the buildings we have to construct in the next 10, 20 or 30 years, we need to turn to something that we can really produce up the rate that we need it,” McManus said. “It’s especially important for communities like the one we are visiting and helping with in Ecuador because they have natural disasters that have torn down their communities every 15 to 20 years. So they need something that can be strong enough so they can build up and will actually last.”

Bamboo architecture is providing the earthquake-damaged community a new and ecological way of reconstructing seismically safe buildings. It is also helping students find their own voices and attitudes in their prospective future fields.

McManus came into school interested in sustainable architecture. But over the past two years, she looked more into energy and other environmental fields. She is looking forward to going to Ecuador this June.

“I never really explored sustainable architecture,” McManus said. “I want to see if I like that or not, and also if I like working in the field or doing calculation behind the scene.”

Because of his interest in sustainability and bamboo as a building material, this type of engineering attracts Baliwag. He likes bamboo architecture and respects how RFI works on the balance of engineering and the environment.

“From my experience as an engineer, I was very cynical about the way the industry worked,” Baliwag said. “Companies are like, ‘We will never care about the environment.’ But I think that Regeneration Field Institute introduces a way of thinking of people, the planet and profits. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”