#22 - Into the Woods

Q&A: Rethinking Bamboo as a Construction Material

Courtesy of Tangram

In Myanmar, bamboo is considered a poor material, unfit for large architectural projects. However, the French firm Tangram Architectes chose bamboo for its design of a seven-building school project in Myanmar. Tangram’s strong commitment to local culture gave birth to a highly technical and multicultural human adventure.

We interviewed David Colas, one of Tangram’s lead architects, who told us the story behind the Dulwich Project.

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: How did a European firm come to plan a school construction project in Myanmar using bamboo?

David Colas: It all began with a visit to Myanmar in November 2013 by Christopher Green, a Tangram Architectes associate. As a member of a French delegation, he had the opportunity to meet local developers who were working on a large local project.

This was an enormous residential program in which they wanted to build a school complex that would be part of the English Dulwich network. They quickly developed a good rapport and rapidly came to agreement. We also had to put together a project team very quickly.

bamboo tangram engineering Myanmar

The Dulwich Project, using bamboo. Courtesy of Tangram.

Controlling Insolation

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: How did you decide on bamboo?

David Colas: Christopher Green’s architectural approach has always been sensitive to local culture. For example, we also considered using water to cool the buildings, but we had to abandon this idea. In the same vein, we were faced with controlling insolation and its impact on the facade.

That brought us to bamboo, which we use as an offset filter. We had to fight for this choice. In Myanmar, bamboo has no cachet. It is, above all, a material used by the poor and for small household products like sunshades.

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: Once you committed to the material, how did you master its use?

David Colas: It required a lot of work in every domain, in prototyping as well as in research. We relied on an extremely rich source, Bamboo: The Gift of the Gods by Oscar Hidalgo Lopez, a resume of the life’s work of this Colombian architect.

We also worked with brilliant colleagues like the engineers at RFR and Maurits van der Staay. We also did extensive prototyping, in particular erecting two complete life-size structures. This step was essential for evaluating bamboo’s behavior, its load distribution and to what degree we could pierce it without reducing its strength too much.


Courtesy of Tangram

From Cutting to Storage

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: And that’s what brought you to take charge of the entire bamboo management process?

David Colas: Yes. Finding suitable bamboo in Myanmar was only part of the story. Our office had to handle everything, from cutting to storage. The cutting is essential—proper cutting allows bamboo to grow back well.

For treatment, we contacted Thierry Cayot, a Frenchman living in Bali, who has developed a product used in Indonesia called FreeMite, an astonishing mixture of natural ingredients—neem oil, salt, chili, plant extracts and more. Dipping bamboo in it removes all parasites.

 ArchiExpo e-Magazine: What tools did you rely on for this international project?

David Colas: Above all, we drew. We drew a lot. At the same time, we used BIM software to work collaboratively. Revit has filters that enable us to model bamboo. This allowed us to create a template [with customizable parameters].

Not Inclined to Industrialize

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: Given the size of the project, industrialization was one of the keys to success. How did it work?

David Colas: From the start, I made several trips to the site, especially to see if the Burmans could produce the bamboo we needed. We immediately realized that it wouldn’t be easy. We were dealing primarily with small-scale farmers not inclined to industrialize.

 It was the same for the metal fasteners for joining the bamboo elements. Five companies had been pre-selected. When we went to see them, they indeed had the workshops full of machinery that they’d described to us. But most of it was out of order. As a result, they began production by hand with raw steel.

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: Was the project able to move forward despite this artisanal aspect?

David Colas: In the end, we found a way. We outsourced the manufacturing to China because there was no local capacity. But the final parts were designed locally. What I remember best about this project is the human adventure, the people we met there.

At first, we thought it would be impossible. But the local people immediately realized that it was a terrific opportunity. They proved to be particularly persevering. It was a pleasure to see the Burmans forge ahead.

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