Bamboo is shaking off its reputation as a poor man’s material, thanks to the efforts of sustainable builders and the country’s first festival celebrating the diverse material. Words by Jessica Tana; photography by Lucas Veuve.

Bamboo is a traditional building material that has been used in Cambodia for centuries. It is lightweight, extremely flexible and rapidly renewable compared to timber. Bamboo, however, is noticeably missing in contemporary construction around the capital city.

Relegated to a poor man’s material, the iconic plant that is rampant throughout Asia is often seen as too provincial to be used in modern architecture.

On a mission to elevate the status of bamboo is David Cole, founder of sustainable design company Building Trust, and organiser of Phnom Penh’s inaugural bamboo design festival, Camboo.   

“We are trying to use a material that has huge potential in construction, and we are trying to use it in a modern context to get over the stigma that it’s a poor person’s material, or a low-grade material,” says Cole, from a café near the capital’s Freedom Park, where several newly-created bamboo structures stand waiting for opening night.

Camboo Design Festival was created to showcase modern bamboo designs created by Cambodian architecture students from six universities across Phnom Penh.

The students, who were involved in bamboo workshops with Building Trust, created six pavilions, which they designed to project the modern capabilities and beauty of the material.

“Two months ago, the students started learning techniques with bamboo and we just got blown away by their creativity and hunger for use of the traditional material in a very modern way,” Cole says.

Lyheang Sey, a student at Limkokwing University of Creative Technology, says people think modern architecture should be constructed from concrete or glass, but it is defined as pure geometric shape without ornamentation. However this is possible with bamboo.

“We used bamboo to create a modern structure,” Sey says, pointing to his team’s circular shaped pavilion constructed of intertwined arches. “We wanted to show that bamboo is very flexible.”

Bamboo has many good qualities in construction, but part of its dismissal as a building block comes from poor treatment of the material, Cole explains. Insects, sun and water damage the plant and shorten its lifespan, sometimes to as little as five years.

However, with proper care and treatment, bamboo can have a lasting quality. Insects can be treated with a cleaning agent, such as borax, or traditionally by soaking the material for anywhere between six months to a year in a pool of water. Damage from the sun and rain can also be prevented through clever design.

“With more modern methods of treatment, we can increase the lifespan of the material to 20, 30, possibly even 50 years,” Cole says.

The large, overhanging roof of the performance structure at the festival exemplifies clever design by protecting the bamboo underneath from the sun and rain. Building Trust, which started out by running architecture design competitions around the world, asked international designers to conceptualise this performance structure and judged the submissions with local Cambodian builders.

An Italian team won the competition and their design was used for the festival. It had a clean, modern looking shape that was easy to assemble. It even had a slight Khmer style to the roof, Cole notes.

“The competition brought the festival to an international audience,” he adds. “Every architect wants to see something they designed built.” The end of the festival is not the end of the structure, however. When the festival ended, the structures were disassembled, treated for insects and moved to a school for mentally-handicapped children to use as an undercover playground.

Modern use of bamboo doesn’t end with construction. Part of the appeal behind bamboo, as a material, is its diversity.

Running a stall at Camboo Design Festival is Bambusa Global Ventures, a bamboo specialist company in Cambodia, that have found a way to recycle bamboo waste to use as a soil amendment.

Using bamboo in building causes a lot of organic waste to be left over, but by heating that waste in an oxygen-limited environment, bamboo refuse can be turned into biochar, a product which absorbs chemical fertilisers and run-off, and releases stored nutrients to plants.   

“You can discharge solvents from the clothing industry into pits full of biochar and the biochar will absorb all the chemicals, and you’ll have clear water running out,” says Bambusa CEO, Richard Dansey. “Then you can take the chemicals out of the biochar and use it all over again. One kilo of biochar has a surface area of nearly a million square metres.”

Like Building Trust, Bambusa also uses bamboo as a modern building material and in furniture design, but the company’s use of the plant to restore soil and enhance the growth of crops, show yet another function of bamboo to help with human impact on the earth.

“Bamboo sucks in CO2 more than any other plant,” Dansey says. “If you want to save the world, plant bamboo.”