July 15, 2024

Architectural Concepts Guide

Elevating Home Design Standards

Comment: Can Canada do bamboo?

3 min read
Bamboo Scrimber

Photo courtesy Plyboo.

Efforts to make construction more sustainable have turned, in part, to unconventional building materials. One example that may seem particularly unlikely in Canada is giant bamboo—yet the federal government is supporting Amir Mofidi, P.Eng., an associate professor of engineering at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., as he researches options to (a) grow new types of bamboo locally and (b) engineer them as composite materials.

While bamboo is already a popular material for durable floors and decking (one example, plyboo, is pictured above), its structural applications are still being explored. The motivation for Mofidi’s research—funded by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Discovery Grant—is the Canadian construction industry’s current reliance on concrete and steel, which are associated with high carbon emissions, and softwood timber, which takes decades to grow. By way of comparison, some species of giant bamboo grow up to 1 m a day and can be harvested after just five years.

“The realization that giant bamboo has the potential to become the construction material of the future came to me a few years ago, in discussion with two undergraduate students,” says Mofidi, who is better-known for rehabilitating concrete structures. “I quickly realized the huge potential. All of the elements are there: it’s renewable, it can grow quite fast, it can reduce the risks of deforestation and carbon emissions and the fibre in some species of bamboo is so strong, it is comparable to steel.”

The backgrounds of the students in question were in Asian and African regions already well-known for using bamboo in construction. Modern, engineered, structural bamboo buildings are now rising up to six storeys in China, for example.

“Bamboo has the potential to become the construction material of the future.” – Amir Mofidi, P.Eng.

If much of the potential for bamboo construction remains in warmer climes, Mofidi’s hope is to develop a non-invasive species of bamboo that could survive Canadian winters, down to -40 C, so it could eventually be grown outdoors, not just in his lab.

“While this idea is still a bit ‘out there’ and may seem premature, we want to develop partnerships with the Niagara Region’s farming community and work toward providing an economically justifiable crop,” he says. “If our cold-hardy bamboo grows big and strong enough, we could produce laminated bamboo lumber (LBL). We have many goals and they are very ambitious!”

“Bamboo can grow viably anywhere in the tropics, but it also has great potential as a local material in Canada,” adds Mofidi’s colleague Kent Harries, P.Eng., a Canadian professor of structural engineering and mechanics at the University of Pittsburgh, who has been glad to see consulting engineering firms like Arup engage with the bamboo growing community. “When we look at sustainability in the construction industry, a local option is a good option. If you’re shipping it around the world, I’m not sure you’re addressing sustainability! We have to make sure we’re specifying something that’s appropriate. The design industry needs to step up.”

And Mofidi’s work is building on a foundation of existing research where Canada has punched above its weight, given bamboo has so far only been grown far from its borders.

“Research has been ongoing in North America for almost two decades,” he says. “Brock Engineering is rather new and we want to make sure our work with bamboo is aligned with the progress made so far and correlates to the future goals of the global construction community.”

This column originally appeared in the May/June 2024 issue of Canadian Consulting Engineer.


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