Bamboo has been used in Asia for thousands of years. Now it could help to solve the sustainability problem of building.

Written by Story by Rebecca Cairns; Video by Gisella Deputato, CNN

In search of new ways to build sustainable homes, Earl Forlales decided not to look to the future, but to look to the past.

His grandparents lived like generations of Filipinos in a “Bahay Kubo” – a traditional, box-shaped, one-story bamboo hut on stilts that is native to the Philippines. “Filipinos used bamboo (for habitation) well before the colonial era, for thousands of years,” he says.

Bamboo is strong and flexible and one of the fastest growing plants in the world: while soft and hard woods can take a while 40 and 150 years To ripen, bamboo is ready to harvest in just three years. If treated and developed, it can last for decades. Realizing that the Bahay Kubo could be adapted to create a contemporary home, Forlales began designing his own bamboo houses.
After winning the “Cities for our future“Challenge, which was carried out in 2018 by the British Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the studied materials engineer turned his idea into a company and co-founded Cubo in 2019.

The company started production of its prefabricated houses in November 2020. The structures can be assembled in a few days and are expected to last up to 50 years, says Forlales. He hopes Cubo’s modular design and use of bamboo can “help accelerate sustainable construction” while providing affordable housing solutions to the housing crisis in the Philippines.

Cubo’s houses are between 30 and 63 square meters, the largest can accommodate up to six people. Credit: CUBO Modular Inc

A contemporary cube house

Cubo’s bamboo houses incorporate many aspects of the traditional “Bahay Kubo”, including raised foundations and slats, a type of blind that allows natural ventilation and light.

But Cubo has given the bamboo hut an upgrade for the 21st century, including modern lighting and impact-resistant polycarbonate windows. The Philippines are prone to earthquakes and typhoons, so the homes were designed with natural disasters in mind. “Typhoon anchors” made of metal are used as connections between the walls, roof and floor slabs, and the houses are additionally reinforced with poured concrete foundations, which replace the traditional stilts. This gives the structures a solid base, concrete contributes to climate change. Forlales says the company is “researching alternative incorporation systems to make our offering more sustainable” but this is still in the research phase.

The company’s first project was tested very quickly – in December 2020, just a few days after the first two houses were built, the region was hit by a magnitude six earthquake. Cubo’s houses survived unscathed.

Loft bedrooms and built-in furniture make optimal use of the available space.

Loft bedrooms and built-in furniture make optimal use of the available space. Credit: CUBO Modular Inc

Cubo offers four different models for up to six residents. Each home is made to order and can be customized with elements such as solar panels on the roof, further reducing operating costs and the carbon footprint of its residents.

The company currently produces six houses a month, but Forlales says the demand is much higher and he hopes to increase the supply.

“The Filipinos welcomed the product because it was very familiar,” he says. “They realized that it was an intuitive development for our local bamboo houses.”

Bamboo construction boom

The construction industry has been growing in recent years because of their Ecological damage. The use of materials like Steel and concrete contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions while extracting raw materials including stone, rock and gravel damages landscapes and soils. This has prompted a search for more environmentally friendly alternatives.

Is bamboo the building material of the future?

Cubo isn’t the only company recognizing the potential of bamboo as a strong, sustainable building material. The Vietnamese studio Vo Trong Nghia Architects has used bamboo for many of its projects, including the Casamia Community House in the Casamia Resort in Hoi An, while Shenzhen-based Zuo Studio created Bamboo pavilions for the Taichung Flora Exposition in Taiwan.
In Bali, Indonesia, the Ibuku architecture firm specializes in complex, large-format bamboo “buildings”. Since 2007 Ibuku has built over 60 bamboo structures, including the Green village, a sustainable community of 12 luxury villas and the Green schoolthat has a wall-free campus in nature.

Although bamboo has been used to construct small buildings for thousands of years, “it is only now that we have safe, natural treatment solutions that we can consider building multi-story buildings,” said Elora Hardy, founder and creative director of Ibuku. While most of her projects use treated bamboo in its natural form, she adds that with advances in technical bamboo, there may be “skyscrapers and even entire cities that can be built from bamboo” in the future.

Ibuku specializes in sculptural villas, hotel resorts and "green" School grounds made of bamboo.  The Arc is an educational building of the Green School Bali.

Ibuku specializes in sculptural villas, hotel resorts and “green” school grounds made of bamboo. The Arc is an educational building of the Green School Bali. Credit: Tommaso Riva / IBUKU

Bhavna Sharma, Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of Southern California and a member of the Task Force Development of international standards for bamboo building materials.

“Standards for the mechanical testing of technical bamboo materials are currently being developed, but areas such as fire behavior require extensive studies,” says Sharma.

As a strong, fast-growing, and renewable material, bamboo could complement sustainably harvested hardwoods, Sharma says, with the added benefit of bamboo plantations that help restore degraded soil and land.

From the exterior structure to the interior decoration, Ibuku shows that bamboo can have a wide range of applications in architecture and design.

From the exterior structure to the interior decoration, Ibuku shows that bamboo can have a wide range of applications in architecture and design. Credit: Indra Wiras / IBUKU

Help with housing shortages

While sustainability is the main benefit of bamboo, it is not the only reason Cubo is looking for fast-growing grass as an alternative building material.

The Philippines are currently facing a serious housing shortage, with estimated 4.5 million People who will be homeless in 2021, and a deficit of affordable housing.
Cubo produces three houses in its workshop every two weeks and then takes three to five days to assemble each one on site.

Cubo produces three houses in its workshop every two weeks and then takes three to five days to assemble each one on site. Credit: CUBO Modular Inc

Cubo’s homes cost between 649,800 Philippine pesos ($ 12,900) to 1.8 million Philippine pesos ($ 35,738) – which is roughly comparable to mid-range homes built with conventional materials, Forlales says. However, he strives to lower prices by rationalizing production and increasing automation in the workshop. The company also introduced a payment plan to help reduce upfront costs for buyers.

Because bamboo grows naturally across Asia, each country “has its own type of bamboo that you can use in construction,” says Forlales – creating the potential to build cube houses outside of the Philippines as well.

“We have millions of square kilometers in Asia that are planted with bamboo. So it’s just about finding other markets where you can get it, ”he adds.

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