Miscellaneous Questions about Bamboo

Jo Scheer has been deeply involved in working with bamboo for about two decades, having lived in Rincon, Puerto Rico, where he built a home for his family with mainly bamboo components. He has been designing, building, and marketing a wide range of beautiful bamboo creations that can be seen at his website tropical-treehouse.com, where you can also find rental information on various accommodations in this tropical paradise. Jo has recently authored a book, How to Build with Bamboo, that outlines some 30 bamboo projects that elegantly demonstrate the beauty and functionality of bamboo. One of the more inventive of his designs is what he calls a "hooch", which is a small elevated abode made almost entirely of bamboo. The grounded footprint of this inverted pyramidal structure is roughly one square foot, since the entire weight is born on a small pedestal, while the room above is stabilized with guy wires. This hooch has been featured on TV and at conferences. With a background in science, Jo has been a teacher, technician, inventor, builder, contractor, sailor, agriculturist and artist, and thus is eminently qualified to field your questions about building or living with bamboo.

Questions and Answers

Q: Are there examples of reinforced bamboo construction and also ways of using bamboo for retaining walls?

A: I stumbled upon some research about bamboo reinforced concrete:  Bamboo Reinforcement in Portland Cement Concrete . I have seen woven bamboo containing rocks or rock walls. Generally, bamboo exposed to weather and wet conditions does not last long.

Q: I need to know whether Bamboo is approved to be used instead of Steel for concrete buildings in Connecticut, Florida and other states. I have a developer am encouraging to use it but need to know the building codes and whether you know how far the towns have gone in approving them. Especially now that the price of steel has risen so high.

A: Bamboo has not, as yet, been approved as a wood substitute, or as a concrete reinforcer in the US. Some bamboo kit buildings have been approved in Hawaii- but only made from a specific species grown in Viet Nam. There is currently an effort to get bamboo approved for building under the UBC regulations, but it has yet to be completed.

Q: For some time now I have been trying to find out if boat cabins were/are ever fited out in bamboo. I'm traveling all over the world and want to see countries were they do this. Not only because it is interesting but because I'm very interested in getting a boat built out of modern materials (most likley steel or aluminium) and taking it to some country were labour is cheap and going directly to someone skilled enough to do the job. Is this a stupid idea? If not why can't I find any info on the web? No doubt I'm not the first person to think of this. I do wonder if maybe once upon a time it wasn't a good idea because boats would have been damp or wet. But it seems strange that no one does it today.

A: As a sailor for many years, I completely re-fitted the cabin of my sloop with bamboo trim and light fixtures. It worked fine, and looked great. A friend of mine had a custom chinese junk that had many bamboo appointments. As for where you might find qualified, cheap labor to install a bamboo interior in a boat. Good question. Most skilled boat carpenters are wood. Asia may have some bamboo artisans that would take up the task. Viet Nam is developing a decent bamboo industry, and China's bamboo industry is well established. Also, the islands of SE Asia are very bamboo oriented: Java, Indonesia, Phillipines. If you look, you will find.

Q: I have just spent a few weeks in Vietnam, but looking hard wasn't really an option. I asked a few people and no one seemed to have a clue. I will be going back in a few months to stay with a Vietnamese girl I met there. Hopefully I may be able to get her to do some research for me. And when I'm there she will help me get past the very large and frustrating language barrier. But I still have quite a big problem in knowing were to start looking. Do you have any advice as to what part of the country I should start? Or any advice generally (at this moment I know nothing about bamboo).

A: There is a company in Hawaii:   www.bambooliving.com  They have complete bamboo houses pre-fabricated in Viet Nam. They are made, put together, then taken apart and shipped to Hawaii - where they are approved by the building code (not a small feat). I do not know where in Viet Nam is the factory, but you could contact them for information. I have a long ago friend who opened a bar in Hanoi- if you ever get that far North - and spent some time in that country- though not as a voluntary tourist (70-71) I was based in Chu Lai.

Q: How do I remove mold and /or mildew stains from bamboo furniture that has been outside?

A: I have used bleach--the stains disappear before your eyes. You should experiment first--strength, application, to get the best results.

Q: I was wondering if you could tell us if it's possible to treat bamboo in such a way that it stays green... or is it inevitable that it darkens over time? If this is so, is there any way it can be dyed, whilst still maintaining a natural look and texture.

A: I've heard this before--how do you keep it green. No natural way, for sure. It dies, dries out, and the chlorophyll (the green pigment) is broken down. You can artificially stain it green, but it looks pretty fake.     Proper curing, slow, will maintain the texture and look, but not the green.

Q: I am doing a report on building with bamboo and haven't really been able to find anything on bamboo's sustainability in a colder climate like canada and northern US.

A: Not sure what you mean by sustainability in Northern climates. Some species do grow in areas that can get down to -20 degrees Fahrenheit, but that is pretty much the limit. Bamboo prefers warmer climates. As for utility, the extreme temperature and humidity variation throughout the year in Northern climates will crack and split bamboo, so utility is pretty much restricted to split culms. You can check the American Bamboo Society webpage: http://www.americanbamboo.org/   They have a lot of information, and links.

Q: I'm making a few new 10' square "chicken tractors" (mobile chicken coops moved daily to fresh grass) and thinking of using 1" bamboo as it is readily available and renewable here on our island. Much of the bamboo would be in direct contact with wet earth (Puget Sound, Washington) every day, all year round. I do not need these tractors to have the life span of good furniture or a home, but can you give me any insight into how quickly the bamboo will rot?

A: Interesting project. I have some ideas. Use long bamboo poles. Make a half circle with two sistered poles (wired together with galvanized wire, such that the fat, base ends of the two poles are at the ends, and the thinner end is wired together) Do this with a consistent length (adjusting the overlap according to pole length). With these, you can bend them to a semi-circle. Two semi-circle loops, joined at the center, would make a nice shelter to drape chicken wire over. The base ends are held in place by a continuous loop of galvanized wire, such that the four ends  are square, or the size you want. This is an extremely light structure- easy to move.

Now, for the wet ground factor. I would split the very end of the bamboo poles concentrically, into eight sections. The bamboo can then be wrapped around a short length of pvc pipe- held tight again with a couple loops of galvanized wire. This way, the pvc is on the ground, and the bamboo drips its excess moisture nicely, and dries out faster-preventing rot.     Washington can be very wet, and continuous moisture will eventually take a toll on the bamboo-regardless of good design. A reasonable estimate of life span under extreme wet conditions is like 3 years.

Q: My wife is from the Philippine Islands. She wants to build a bamboo home on two hectors that is available to her. She says, there is water flowing out of the ground. I want to know how to get the various kinds of bamboo to plant on her land to build a home.

A: Do more research on available timber (construction) bamboo. D. asper is good, many others. Planting culm segments that are 1 to 2 years old is one efficient method. You can also plant complete root segments - though this requires much labor. Bamboo does not like wet feet, ie, standing water - it will suffocate. So, well drained soil, but regular watering.

Q: I moved to Northern Virginia from Laos, and brought my bamboo couch with me. It is starting to develop splits. I got a humidifier, but hesitate to use it more than a couple hours a day. Is there anything else I can do?

A: You can wrap the bamboo ends with thin wire, like brass jewelry wire, several wraps, and tightened with a vise grips. Or, wherever it is needed. Doesn't look so bad, but it may not stop the cracking totally.

Q: I am living in Nepal. We want to relocate an orphanage with 220 children from Katmandu, where they are housed in unsafe, not earthquake proof buildings, to the country. We have the land and would like to build bamboo buildings. We can get bamboo in Nepal, but need advise from an expert. Could you tell us how to find someone in the field.

A: Big project. Most renowned bamboo architects are from Columbia, South America. Probably expensive, also.
India has an ongoing bamboo utilization project, they may have some knowledge in building. Viet Nam builds prefab bamboo buildings for export.

Q: I am an avid hula hooper and trying to build hoops made out of bamboo, just wondering if you had an easier way to bend the bamboo into a circle other than using a flame torch for heat.

A: Use thin walled, green bamboo. Get it perfect, and let it dry that way. Cool utility of bamboo!

Q: I have a project in the Caraibeen with bamboo and earth and I have some bamboo in my land, but not strong enough for building. I would like to know what is the best way to import in Guadeloupe?

A: I would recommend treated guadua bamboo, from Central America, or Columbia. Do a search on the internet, or even Facebook- they are all online. A container of poles will cost a bit.

Q: A friend plans to build domes using a light cement mix over bamboo instead of 6x6 or rebar. Have you ever heard of anyone doing this?

A: Never heard of a dome, but bamboo as a substitute for rebar is well known. High tensile strength makes it ideal, and it does not rust.

Q: I am preparing for our summer vacation bible school and the theme this year is "Off the Map". We are preparing a jungle tree house and the overall stage will appear to be a jungle. I have access to bamboo and would like to know how long it will stay green after cutting. Also, what would be the best method to have it last 5 days to help our stage appear to be a jungle.

A: It will stay green for about two weeks, then gradually turn brown. No problem.

Do I need to put it in water buckets or just stand it up on the floor?

Just stand it up.

Q: I plan to use bamboo for curtain rods inside. After I cut them, I plan to spray paint. Without curing them, what is the worst thing I may expect to happen with indoor use?

A: Spray painting bamboo may have problems adhering to the very smooth skin of bamboo. Flex may exacerbate the adherence.  You could lightly sand the bamboo first. 

Q: This is a 911 issue!!!!!!! I live in South Florida. As you know the hurricane is very strong and coming for us. I inherited a bamboo field 5 Acres hanging Bamboo Black Bamboo every kind that you can think of . Some of it is over 100 ft tall... I have someone advising me I need to cut it in half so that it does not hit my roof or destroy my house. I believe bamboo bends and not to worry about it. I'm more concerned of it being a cut-off projectile in my yard then growing and bending over with the Wind. And I have been watching this bamboo grow for over 20 years so I'm a bit partial and in love with it !!!! How should I properly cut or maintain the bamboo during this strong 120mil hr. winds and not destroy the bamboo?

A: Do NOT bother to cut it down. The bamboo will weather the storm. I went through hurricane Hugo on st Croix- a category 5 hurricane.  The bamboo was bent and broke- split, but not severed. There is no worry about it breaking off and becoming a projectile. My bamboo came through with almost zero damage.

Q: I have a question about cleaning dried bamboo. I’m looking for a way to clean up to hundreds of smaller pieces of cut bamboo measuring about 10” x 1” at a time. Currently I wash the outside by hand with isopropyl alcohol and fine grade (0000) of steel wool. This works great but has a number of drawbacks. Do you know if using an ultrasonic cleaner will work for this? Some bamboo is cut on one end. Do you have any recommendations for this?

A: Never tried your method. I use scrubbies and water. A little beeswax and linseed oil penetrates and yields a nice sheen.

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