Building structures and futures with bamboo around Lake Atitlan

Bamboo is one of humanity’s oldest building materials, but today bamboo has become an alternative material that is used mostly for temporary structures. And yet bamboo is a lot stronger than most people think, and it is also light, flexible and fast-growing – all of which makes bamboo a sustainable and viable material for many purposes. Growing bamboo locally can also promote local businesses and insure that money spent on projects stays within communities.

Like every material, bamboo needs to be understood and worked with correctly in order to create long-lasting structures. This is why I recently I took part in a bamboo workshop in Guatemala where I learned about the details of bamboo design and construction. The workshop was given by Tribe LAB, a non-profit organization that promotes vernacular building technologies around Lake Atitlan, and the workshop also gave me a chance to hear about how Tribe LAB and others are using bamboo to promote sustainable development in Guatemala.

Bamboo clinic in San Pablo la Laguna
This bamboo and earth clinic in the village of San Pablo la Laguna is a beautiful example of what can be achieved with natural materials when they are worked with correctly.

Understanding and working with bamboo

Bamboo is often compared with wood, but it is in fact a type of tall grass. Bamboo grows very fast and is ready for harvest already after two years. This makes bamboo more sustainable than wood because more material can be produced on the same area of land. There are many different species of bamboo, all of which have different characteristics and strengths with some being more suitable for certain kind of structures.

Bamboo is an organic material which makes it susceptible to degradation, but bamboo structures can last a long time as long as the material is properly used. Bamboo needs to be treated in order to prevent insect damage, and this can be done for example with oil or submersion in water.

Marking bamboo
Bamboo needs to be worked with differently than wood because of its shape. A piece of paper can be used to mark a straight line on a piece of bamboo for cutting vertical pieces like columns.

All pieces used for a bamboo structure should be equally wet or dry so that the finished structure shrinks equally. Bamboo​ ​is​ ​mostly​ ​hollow,​ ​except for​ ​the​ ​nodes,​ ​and​ ​in​ ​order​ ​to​ ​make​ ​a​ ​strong​ ​structure,​ ​each​ ​piece​ ​should​ ​be​ ​cut​ ​as​ ​close​ ​to​ ​the node​ ​as​ ​possible. ​S​ince​​ ​​bamboo​​ ​​is​​ ​​an​​ ​​organic​​ ​​material,​​ ​​each​​ ​​piece​​ ​​is​​ ​​different​ ​and​​ ​​dealing​​ ​​with​​ ​​small imperfections​​ ​​like​​ ​​crookedness​​ ​​requires​​ ​​planning​​ ​​and​​ ​​creativity.​​ ​

Knowing how to connect pieces of bamboo is one of the most important skills a bamboo builder needs, and the workshop I took part in focused on connections. The handout we received had pages and pages of different ways of cutting and connecting pieces of bamboo together, ranging from simple screws to complicated knots. One of the most fundamental cuts is the fish mouth, a round cut that fits perfectly around another piece of bamboo.

Bamboo knot
This special knot connects two pieces of bamboo in a way that prevents movement in every direction.

Transforming lives through skills and housing

I already mentioned bamboo is an environmentally sustainable material, but what about social aspects? Since bamboo construction requires special considerations, only skilled workers can build long-lasting bamboo structures. Those who have learned this skill then have better chances of finding employment and increased salaries. This certainly applies to Vicente, one of our workshop teachers who has been working with bamboo for 11 years and is having a hard time finding time for all the projects he is being asked to do.

Cutting the bamboo fish mouth
Using bamboo requires understanding the material and the tools, and workers who have this skill have increased employment opportunities.

Together with earth, bamboo can create comfortable and long-lasting houses in most climates, and bamboo is ideal for low-cost and self-built housing. However, bamboo is quickly losing status along with other natural materials that people see as a sign of poverty. As in many parts of the world, the impoverished people around Lake Atitlan want concrete block houses that are thought to be superior. As natural building is becoming rarer, the correct techniques are being forgotten and the ones who can’t afford concrete blocks end up with low quality and dangerous homes.

Promoting locally produced natural materials can reverse this development and also boost local village economies. This is one reason why Tribe LAB is working to preserve and promote traditional vernacular materials like bamboo. Tribe LAB has already built a bamboo stage and tea house at Maya Utzil Weavers Cooperative in San Juan la Laguna, and they have also designed a housing project in San Pablo la Laguna where the plan is to provide ten families with new bamboo houses. It is projects like this that are needed in order to show the people that natural building is not something unmodern and inferior, but instead the ideal sustainable solution in many cases.

Self-built house in San Pablo la Laguna
This is the existing house of one of the families in San Pablo la Laguna that Tribe LAB is going to help with a new bamboo house. Comparing this house with correctly built vernacular houses shows how the quality of self-built housing is decreasing as people are forgetting how to use natural materials correctly.

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