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The Bamboo Prophet

The world is clamoring for new and sustainable ways of meeting everyday needs by drawing on local, environmentally-friendly materials and Panama is no exception. Since 2016, the Geoversity Foundation has been organizing Bamboo Construction Workshops, led by renowned builder Jörg Stamm. The events attract architects, builders, students, and the general public from Panama and neighboring countries. Panorama of the Americas attended the most recent workshop to talk to Stamm about the potential of bamboo, not only in terms of the environment, but as a means of generating new sources of wealth and jobs.

By: Juan Abelardo Carles
Photos: Javier Pinzón y Cortesía Geoversity

 

This was something new for the regulars in Francisco Arias Paredes Park in the center of the Panamanian capital: some twenty men and women were working to erect a kind of kiosk made of long bamboo poles. A workshop on building with this material was culminating in this temporary structure. It was organized by the Geoversity Foundation —created to promote the commercial and creative use of bamboo, as inspired by nature— with the support of the Panama City government and other public and private entities.

Architects Patrick Dillon (Panama) and Roger Martínez Díaz (Colombia) joined Jörg Stamm (Germany), distinguished bamboo builder, in leading the workshop. Panorama of the Americas spoke with Stamm about opportunities, in Panama and many other countries in the region, to use this environmentally-friendly material that is surprisingly durable and adaptable, thanks to technological innovations. 

“I came to Panama for the first time in 2004. The union of forest engineers invited me to participate in a congress of the Panamanian Bamboo Society. Fifteen years later, I can see that the country has changed a lot; it has boomed, and the capital city is like Miami: all concrete, aluminum, and glass. It’s kind of strange to not see wood or natural materials, but I sense that Panamanians, especially young architects and architecture students, really want to learn more about these materials, particularly bamboo,” he explains. 

Stamm studied woodworking in Germany, but he ventured into bamboo several decades ago when he traveled to South America to participate in environmentally-friendly projects. “I became familiar with bamboo construction in Colombia in 1994, but I didn’t use the traditional techniques common to the region known as the Colombian Coffee Axis (the fishmouth cut, for example); I prefer a quicker European system that uses drills and screws. However, I did incorporate the technique invented by renowned Colombian bamboo architect Simón Vélez, who injects mortar into the joints, thus distributing the load along the entire length of the bamboo beam, not just where the screw is located. This increases the bamboo’s resistance tenfold and prevents pressure from eventually splitting the piece,” he concludes.

In this region, Colombia leads the way in bamboo structures and design; its bamboo buildings —supported by bamboo structures and covered with adobe— of up to six stories are known around the world. 

Southeast Asian countries also have a history of using bamboo for construction. “Actually, many countries in the tropical zone have their own localized techniques for working with bamboo. Indonesia, for example, has a lot of well-documented expertise in this kind of work, but since it is not in English, many people outside the country are not aware of this heritage,” explains Jörg. The German participated in famous Indonesian projects like the Green School and the Bamboo Pavilion, both in Bali, as well as projects in Sumatra, Ecuador, Cuba, Brazil, México, India, Timor-Leste, the United States, Germany, Spain, Ethiopia, and Madagascar. He is now a permanent member of the board of advisors of the Geoversity Foundation’s “Designing with Nature” program.

In Panama, the process has not progressed beyond conceptual designs and temporary bamboo structures, but that could change in the future. “We have spoken with the Panama City municipal government about the legalities of building with bamboo wood. Here you need special permission, such as that obtained by Geoversity; permission is granted after all the information on structural calculations has been presented to the relevant authorities. In Panama, the use of wood in structures is governed by the Cartagena Agreement, signed as part of the Andean Pact, but this agreement does not mention bamboo, since biologically speaking, this plant is a woody grass, albeit a giant one. Colombia has well-written regulations for bamboo construction that can be used as a guide for developing Panamanian standards.” 

Engineering specifications must be formulated, including calculations of resistance, flammability, safety, hydraulics, and electrical regulations, etc. “We are negotiating with the Technological University of Panama to see if it can provide technical support as we begin to evaluate the behavior of bamboo in terms of how resistant it is and how it can be worked, so that in the future, we can comply with those requirements,” he notes. The workshops overseen by Geoversity generate local experimental data that may later be used to support the formulation of policies and codes for building with bamboo. “We have made simple structures, first in the Mamoní Valley, then at the former firing range in the City of Knowledge; we also created the Bambuseo, near the Biomuseum on the Amador Causeway, the site of the Geoversity Biocultural Design Center. And now, here in the center of the city, we have completed this gazebo, which will be transported to our Mamoní center where we have several experimental models and where we produce bamboo.” 

In any case, the possibilities are legion, and economic incentives make it even more attractive: “Currently, you need to purchase steel for building, and those dollars go abroad. On top of that, steel rusts, and being near the sea accelerates the process. 

If we build a structure with Chiriquí bamboo that has been treated and immunized, let’s say, this creates jobs and wealth right here. I see a huge potential in beach areas, for example, where you can build a rustic restaurant for a hotel, a spa, a pagoda for yoga, glamping-type tourist hostels, bird-watching hides, and so on. All this can be done in beautiful designs that complement the landscape better than a steel or aluminum construction.”

Given that the world is demanding more non-polluting materials in daily life, the use of bamboo is extending beyond building to other areas. “On the fiber market, the demand for bamboo is growing, since it has a resistance similar to that of fiberglass, which makes it attractive to the automotive industry, to give you an example. In fact, only 10% of a bamboo plantation is suitable for construction; from 20% to 30% can be turned into wood substitutes for boards, panels or flooring, and the remaining 70% is pulped and can be used for fibers and fabrics. There are even companies in China that brew beer with green bamboo leaves instead of hops.” 

“Better yet, bamboo can be planted on rocky, arid, or reforestation land to regenerate these areas, thus preserving fertile soils for growing food. At the end of their useful life, bamboo products can be used to generate bioelectricity,” concludes Stamm.

The future of the bamboo market looks more and more promising. Several studies peg the current value of the international bamboo market at nearly 6.9 billion dollars, but it has yet to reach its full potential. Practical events like those promoted by the Geoversity Foundation help increase the use of bamboo as another tool for mitigating the effects of the climate crisis, generating environmental solutions, and providing economic benefits to developing nations.

More texts, videos, and general information on this and other Geoversity Foundation initiatives are available at 

www.geoversity.org