From the pine beetles that have turned vast swaths of Rocky Mountain forests brown to the kudzu suffocating the Deep South, invasive species get a bad rap and seem 110% Public Enemy Number One of environmentalist and green building advocates alike. However, in Central and South Texas, there is one invasive species that may have extraordinary potential for green building and design: bamboo. Take a drive around San Antonio or outlying Austin, and you will see on vacant or unkempt lots, groves of fast-growing, bright green bamboo stalks.
Bamboo—in a totally non-scientific manner of description—is a tree that grows like a grass or a grass as big and as strong as many trees. Bamboo can reach heights of 10-20 feet regularly in Texas, and be almost 2 inches in diameter. When freshly chopped, the plant has a consistency of fennel—wet, crunchy, and easily smashed.
Yet, heat a bamboo stalk to about 170 degrees Fahrenheit internally for a few moments, and the invasive species becomes a durable, strong, and water-proof building material.
Several weeks ago, my husband, father-in-law, and I went on a bamboo harvesting mission—intent on building an arbor in the backyard completely out of materials we collected locally and sustainably. My husband, Billy, researched the options, and declared bamboo the best bet. After driving only 10 minutes, we found a forest of bamboo next to a retention basis of a new subdivision. Armed with only handsaws, we collected over 330 feet of bamboo in about 20 minutes. There was hardly a dent in the population.
We laid out the stalks to dry for about 12 hours, putting the hot Texan sun to work. The next afternoon, we fired up the gas grill and, with a little practice, learned how pull the stalks through the heat the interior to 170 degrees without burning the outside. In about three hours, we had processed over 100 feet of bamboo (more than enough for the arbor.) What was an invasive species of crunch consistency less than 24 hours earlier had been transformed into an incredibly cheap, sustainable, and fun building material.