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Who Knew, Bamboo?

Written by Holden Slattery

In 2008, a group of Pitt civil and environmental engineering students took a two-week trip to northeast India. There, they partnered with local engineers and community members to improve building methods in a region that offers engineers plenty of challenges, including frequent earthquakes and landslides. Many of their discussions focused on building with bamboo, a traditional and locally available construction material that has been pushed aside in favor of other materials like concrete.

During their meetings, the Indian engineers and architects talked with the Pitt students—Bhavna Sharma, Maria Jaime, and Derek Mitch—about bamboo’s strength and lightweight properties, which give the material some advantages in withstanding earthquakes and landslides. Bamboo also has a rapid three-year growth cycle, which makes it possible to replenish the supply routinely. And because it can be harvested locally, it doesn’t need to be transported long distances over difficult terrain.

For Sharma, a doctoral-degree candidate, the trip to India increased her enthusiasm for studying how bamboo can be used as a building material. Afterwards, through an Indian organization called Sustainable Hill Environment and Design, she contacted three doctoral students from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur (IIT-Kanpur) who share her interest. Together, they’ve been working on a project to promote the use of bamboo as an internal reinforcement in masonry-constructed buildings in West Bengal and the neighboring region of Sikkim.

Last fall, the project attracted the attention of the United Nations. The Pitt and IIT-Kanpur team won a Silver Award in the 2009 Mondialogo Engineering Award competition, sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the German automaker Daimler. The competition included 932 teams from 94 countries. The Pitt-IITK team entered with the help of Sharma’s advisor, Kent Harries, who is a William Kepler Whiteford Faculty Fellow in civil and environmental engineering.

In 2010, the team is planning to meet in the Indian Himalayas to share their bamboo construction methods with local engineers, architects, and craftsmen. Let the bamboo building begin.