DESIGNI NG green SPEAKING TO THE FIBRE OF IT ALL
Image Ulla Coulson
es, for Earth Day, my first choice of materials to celebrate is the humble grass. Whether we are feeding our livestock or building our houses, the grass family can come in all sizes and literally support nearly all of our needs with little or no maintenance other than harvesting. And of course, you know me, my favourite of them all is the 1500 or so different species of bamboo grasses. Bamboo is becoming very integrated in nearly every household today. From it’s quiet beginning as Edison’s famous filament in the world’s first light bulb and the finest reed in every jazz wind instrument, it was the simple chopstick that likely exposed most American households to this industrious plant’s uses. I got excited back in 1996 when they advertised the World Bamboo Symposium was taking place on the Big Island of Hawaii in Hilo. Besides being my favourite getaway, I saw the opportunity to learn first hand and work alongside a worldwide culture of alternative builders and designers.
We met and workshopped along with the likes of Oscar Hildalgo, the dean of architecture at Bogotá University and his renowned protégé, Simone Velez. We thought the idea of bamboo gutters and down pipes would be such an inspiring addition to homes. It never dawned on us that some of the worlds biggest homes and structures could be built entirely from this grass! We listened in awe as Velez took us through the process of harvesting and curing the giant Guadua bamboo, native to Columbia and most of Central America, and demonstrated how it could be lashed together to form massive geometric roof trusses to support concrete sheathed roofs with cement roof tiles over unsupported spans of more than 20 meters. The overhangs alone were 7 meters! Or the commercial bamboo handrails that were filled with liquefied concrete and steel reinforcing rod that could run continuously for hundreds of meters or more simply by adding the Guadua end to end. The conference was filled with artisans who took strips of bamboo and like the process of veneering, made surfboards and boat hulls using organic sugar based epoxies (from fruit) to make literally biodegradable ocean sports toys. There were those who grew the plants and shipped them in special transport trucks fully grown to 15 meters or more and installed them in interior landscapes for a children’s hospital in California to create 14% more oxygen in recovery wings of the hospital, as bamboo takes in carbon dioxide and
converts it to oxygen. The Europeans were there introducing a building code through the help of a Swedish engineering firm, to provide affordable housing and emergency shelters for third world disaster zones. I personally took a bamboo gate building course given by a formally trained Japanese bamboo master. The experience was life changing. Today I continue to harvest from 30 or so temperate varieties I have cultivated in our yard and with the very tools I acquired at that workshop, I split, carve and saw this bountiful beauty with precision. For the third world and developing world, this plant is bountiful in its supply of manufacturing jobs, foodstuffs and shelter. For us, the endless
beauty to see it grow and the endless possibilities for a renewed and sustainable source of sturdy fibre still remains a possibility within reach. Image above shows the abundance of products in my studio that range from bamboo cabinetry, to butcher block cutting boards, kitchen utensils and flower vases. Many of these commercially produced products were a result of the inspiration garnered at that conference twenty years ago by groups of alternative entrepreneurs. David Coulson has a staff of 25 that have built throughout the island for over 20 years.
For those who love to eat, live, play and shop