Posted by Karl Johnson on May 17, 2011
Related program: Haiti Rebuilding Center
"The thatch guy from the Ceverine project has branched out," Darren Gill tells me. We're talking about a bamboo screen prototype built by the Studio Drum Collaborative that we're thinking about installing at Dignité school. Bamboo's a bit more durable than other grasses, but the theme of weaving stalks through a hidden series of metal bars remains one of Drum's screen's most attractive attributes. Well, that and the panels are just gorgeous.
But many voices in the rebuilding scene would scoff at the screens. In case you haven't heard, bamboo is all the rage down here. Taking after its more traditional application in Central and South America, the larger varieties can be used in Haiti as columns, trusses and other structural elements in a building. Bamboo has been known to grow in Haiti, can grow pretty fast and can reach the strength of steel. Which explains why so many people want it to solve all of Haiti's architectural problems.
Darren shakes his head. "We're not quite there yet." The best-known giant bamboo variety, Guadua, is not native to Haiti, but to Columbia. "There are about three mature guadua plants in Haiti right now," he jested. "We could make a tipi." Another variety from Nicaragua seeded last year for the first time in seventy years. While seeds have been brought to Haiti and planted, that's just the beginning of a long and uncertain process.
Variables of geography, soil, and climate all determine the fate of a bamboo crop, and Darren advises not to place confidence in something until its grown and built.
"And you know it's an invasive species." The general downside of something that grows quickly is that it grows uncontrollably. Bamboo has been known to muscle out native plants and develop into homogeneous forests–not kinds of ecosystems Haiti's looking for. And while good for erosion, root systems can expand beneath roads, and eventually tear them apart.
Throw on top of that the required borax chemical weatherizer or the risk of being insect food, and you end up with a lot of...well, unanswered questions, and a real force to rise up and start answering them hasn't quite materialized.
So given resources and patience, perhaps all the acclaim of structural bamboo can be validated. "Bamboo's not a sliver bullet," Darren summarizes, "but it definitely needs to be supported." Until then, smaller varieties can make their way into all aspects of a buiding–from window treatments to furniture, Haitians have been several steps ahead working with bamboo's versatility.