Jorge Bonilla of Bambuksa: Sustainable Structures with Bamboo

Jorge Bonilla of Bambuksa: Sustainable Structures with Bamboo

Understory Team
Understory Team

Bambuksa is a company committed to spreading awareness and new ideas about the use of bamboo as a sustainable construction material. They aim to make bamboo more common and widely known to both the public and businesses. Why use bamboo? Not only is it natural and biodegradable, but bamboo is also incredibly strong, and depending on location, easy to find and plentiful. Though it grows faster than most trees, bamboo still maintains a wood-like appearance.

In this episode of The Understory Podcast, we speak with Jorge Bonilla about how Bambuksa aims to develop the bamboo market in local economies, starting with smaller farms and local construction businesses. By providing construction advice and design ideas, Bambuksa increases the adoption of bamboo in building structures while creating self-sustaining communities in South America.

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Episode Transcript:

JJ (Host of the Understory Podcast): Hello everybody. This is another episode of The Understory Podcast. Understory is a global community of startups, innovators, and organizations that are trying to make our world more sustainable, through technological innovations in climate and other areas.

We have another guest for you today. We're really excited to have Jorge Bonilla join us. Jorge is the CEO and the Founder of a company called Bambuksa. I hope I pronounced that right! We'll learn more about what he's building. It's going to be a great conversation. Jorge, welcome to The Understory Podcast.

Jorge (CEO and Director of Bambuksa): Thank you, thank you for having me here. I am very happy to be here talking with you about this.

JJ: Before we get into your company, tell us a little bit more about your own background because I think that's relevant when we talk about the company that you're building.

Jorge: I am an architect, and I have been loving all things sustainability and sustainable architecture. I work with architecture, creating spaces, which is why we have been working a lot with Bambuksa.

JJ: We had a few guests talk about sustainable construction, green buildings and so forth, but tell us more about the origin or the founding story of Bambuksa. What does the name mean? Where did you get the idea? Where is the company located?

Jorge: When I was in the university, I was completing a research project on global architecture. I had seen on the internet an amazing structure made with bamboo. I'm from Nicaragua, where we have economic issues. We also have lots of bamboo here in Nicaragua, but not these amazing structures. So, I was thinking why not use this resource to create structures.

I started by seeking answers as to why we were not using bamboo, and I found that we were lacking education and knowledge on the subject. People didn't know how to use bamboo in a professional way. I decided to take on this challenge and learn about this amazing material. That's why I founded Bambuksa. The name Bambuksa comes from the words “bamboo casa” in Spanish, which is to say bamboo houses. With bamboo we can develop communities in a more sustainable way.

JJ: Yes, I think it's interesting when you talk about bamboo because at least for me, my exposure to bamboo has been using it as a source of food for panda or for decorative reasons. Obviously over the last decade, people have started to explore bamboo as an alternative fiber to make clothes. Tell us more about how you would use bamboo as a construction material, and why it that a potential innovation for the construction industry?

Jorge: The real topic here is that bamboo is much more than what we know. We aim to educate the public on creating structures that don't seem possible with bamboo. Society thinks that bamboo is an unusual material, but we have been changing that. We have been designing and building amazing structures with bamboo - houses with two to three floors. Bamboo is like a natural steel.

Also, a lot of people are considering bamboo for environmental reasons. With bamboo we can replace sometimes problematic materials, such as wood, concrete, or steel to create more sustainable structures. We have been working a lot in education, some clients ask to design with bamboo, they are innovative people but also are unsure about including bamboo. But, when we finish our design, the end result is amazing.

With bamboo we have been able to develop communities, to create new development but also to save our planet. Bamboo is a material that combines social and environmental development, which is amazing. That's why we decided to create a company that specializes in the use of bamboo. With bamboo we can connect both social and environment development.

JJ: For our audience who doesn't know bamboo as a material very well, give us a short education about why bamboo is being considered a sustainable material or a good candidate for green building material.

Jorge: There are a lot of different aspects to talk about, but I will explain one part. Bamboo can absorb much more carbon than trees. For example, trees could capture 20 tons of carbon, but bamboo could capture 25 times in the same year. If we cannot use the bamboo for construction, as a sustainable alternative, this plant is going to die in 10 years. When bamboo dies, the captured the carbon gets released. But if we use the bamboo before it dies to build a house, which would stand for 50 years, this prevents the carbon from being released in the environment for a longer period.

JJ: What you're saying, is that bamboo can capture more carbon dioxide than trees and is a natural material that tends to grow fast in nature and is accessible in some areas in the world. But so far it hasn't been really considered as a material and as we see, the primary material used to build houses in many markets is sourced from trees.

Where are the houses you're building?

Jorge: We have been working a lot in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Right now, we have been focusing on helping other design and construction companies. We have been supporting them to develop a product in a successful way. A lot of people are coming for tourism, and investors want more sustainably constructed buildings. Some architects don't know how to use bamboo in the correct or professional way, so we have been there for support.

JJ: How much bamboo is needed to build? So just going back-what sort of houses do you think are most feasible to have bamboo as one of the main materials? Are there restrictions or constraints in terms of where these houses could be built?

Jorge: Right now, it's more so in natural spaces. We have been building, for example, in the coastal areas country for tourism, or in the mountains. For example, in big cities the bamboo could be used for details, like ceilings, doors, and floors. Also, for example, the ceiling of the Madrid airport is made with bamboo.

JJ: That's a great example.

Jorge: It looks like wood. With bamboo, we have been able to replace wood and to keep our trees intact. Bamboo I not a tree, but a big branch that also grows faster. It's a nice source for replacing wood and we can see different applications of the resource. Bamboo can be used in many different ways.

JJ: How is the bamboo transported from regions that grow a lot of bamboo, or the natural environment bamboo? How is bamboo transported to where the construction is? Is it usually from remote areas? Do the bamboo material have to have to be pre-processed? Are the bamboo extracted from the ground? Do you dry them before they are sent for construction?

Jorge: We have been working on a very social business model. We have been working a lot with small farmers and we keep these farmers in the loop with our projects. We work together in order to process the bamboo and to get all the raw material for product. We have been focused on creating a sustainable process.

Construction could be using bamboo in a more basic way, but also for a global scale. For other industries, what is needed is transformed raw material. But right now, we have been working on local development. We get local builders; we work with local farmers or agriculture in order to foster the local economy. It's not just an eco-friendly company, we are socially-friendly too.

JJ: That's great! What's the cost model for using bamboo? Is it more expensive than conventional materials? How should construction companies, or your clients and businesses think about the investments needed to start using more bamboo material?

Jorge: Bamboo has a high potential for being a cheaper material, but we really need to develop the bamboo industry in order to achieve it. Right now, we have been working on developing this industry, but we need to bring more awareness.

Right now, it may be the same cost, but investors prefer bamboo to be more innovative and sustainable. For example, for making a house using wood, you spend 80 J/kilogram of electricity. But if you make this the same house using bamboo, you are spending just 30 J/kilogram of energy. So, the investors are studying the economic and the environmental impact too. For example, the tourist industry has been investing a lot in bamboo construction in order to create more ecological spaces.

JJ: Thank you for that Jorge. Let's talk about the market itself. Which market in the world or which markets do you think are more mature in understanding bamboo's potential as a sustainable material, and which markets are more advanced in adopting? You talked about the Madrid airport, I think most people don't realize that the big wavy ceilings are actually made out of bamboo. I am glad that you used that example.

Is Europe more advanced? Latin America more advanced? Or the US? Where is the biggest opportunity, where is the most adoption right now in your opinion?

Jorge: I think that a lot of industries are innovating to change their own materials. The cosmetic industry is investigating how to use bamboo instead of wood. In Brazil, the paper industry is making a type of paper using bamboo instead of wood. We are in a moment where a lot of industries are investigating about how they can use bamboo instead of another raw material. The construction industry in the tourism sector is using a lot of bamboo right now. Resorts in Costa Rica or Dominican Republic are investing with bamboo instead of wood. Right now, they are replacing wood floors with bamboo. Many people cannot tell the difference because when bamboo is processed, it looks like wood. If you go to the Madrid airport, you would not think that it is bamboo.

Especially right now because of climate change we as professionals, really need to innovate to create options. We really need to make sustainable improvements for clients and bamboo is a very nice material.

For example, Germany doesn’t grow bamboo because of the climate, but they are the most specialized in the bamboo process. They are importing bamboo from Asia, from Colombia, as a raw material. We should be heading in that direction to see a difference, which is what we at Bambuksa have been doing.

JJ: That's great. Coming back to bamboo, I forgot to ask this question. What sort of climate is the most optimal for growing bamboo? The Understory is based in the US, I don't think we see a lot of bamboo forests or bamboo farms. Where you're from, where do people grow bamboo? Are these all-natural habitats or are people also growing bamboo on their own land as a part of their farming?

Jorge: We have bamboo from Mexico to Argentina because of the tropical environment. We have a lot of bamboo in our countries, but many don’t know about it. Someone from Guatemala could say, “No, we don't have bamboo” because there was never a focus on bamboo. When you start learning about bamboo and you get a family trip, for example, you can you start seeing bamboo in a different way. You get interested you can start really seeing bamboo.

We have bamboo in United States, maybe not as a big forest but also we have bamboo in gardens and small plants. When you are more educated on bamboo, you start recognizing this material, and that's amazing because bamboo has been here for a long time.

JJ: Jorge, if potential clients and others want to learn more about Bambuksa and your work, or just want to talk to you about your understanding, how do they find you and learn more about Bambuksa?

Jorge: Visit our website on Featured on the website we have history, news and a WhatsApp chat where you can talk with us. If you have bamboo in your city or in your house and if you want some ideas of how you can use your bamboo we will be happy to talk with you and give you some ideas

JJ: Great work, thank you so much for joining The Understory Podcast! I learned a lot today about bamboo and its role in green building and construction. We look forward to seeing more projects from Bambuksa. We'll welcome you back anytime to talk more about bamboo.

Jorge: Thank you! I'm happy to be here.

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