The Sciences

Bamboo Cures Earthquakes

By Matthew PowerAug 2, 2004 12:00 AM

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Last December’s earthquake in the Iranian city of Bam took a huge death toll—roughly 40,000 people—largely because of the collapse of thousands of mud-brick buildings. If a group of researchers in India are successful, the next earthquake might not be as devastating. British and Indian engineers are developing earthquake-proof housing using a cheap, ubiquitous material: bamboo.

Courtesy of Timber Research and Development Association

They designed a prototype house built around waterproofed bamboo sheet roofing and bamboo-reinforced concrete walls. To test the structure, the engineers, sponsored by the U.K. Department of International Development, took it to the Earthquake Engineering and Vibration Research Centre in Bangalore (below), which has a state-of-the-art earthquake simulator. The researchers shook the house with five consecutive 30-second pulses, equivalent to 7.8 on the Richter scale. The simulation was more than 10 times as violent as the Bam earthquake, yet the house emerged unscathed. “We didn’t even crack the paint,” says engineer Paul Follett, of Britain’s Timber Research and Development Association.

By some estimates, more than a billion people already live in bamboo structures. The innovation lies in developing ways to exploit bamboo’s resilience. Easily prefabricated, fire resistant, and far lighter than steel, bamboo-based structures could be assembled in three weeks and last 50 years. At five dollars a square foot, they would cost roughly half as much as brick-and-block construction. Follett says the project will follow an “open source” model: “Whatever is developed is freely available for the common good.”

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