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close this bookGSS in Action: Global Strategy for Shelter to the Year 2000 (HABITAT, 1992, 105 p.)
close this folderSuccess stories in shelter
close this folderLatin America
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Open this folder and view contentsBolivia
View the documentChile
Open this folder and view contentsColombia
View the documentCosta Rica

Costa Rica


51,100 sq km

Population (1990)

3.0 million

Annual rate of population growth (1985-1990)


Estimated population by the year 2000

3.7 million

Average population density (1990)

59.0 inhabitants per sq km

Urban population


G.N.P per capita (1988)

$US 1760

Capital city: San Jose u.a 1990

1.0 million

Other cities:


Puerto Lim/TD>


Bamboo as a light-weight building material has many advantages - one of which is the protection of the environment. The rain forests of Costa Rica are being felled at an enormous rate and the planting and utilization of bamboo can take pressure off the forests in a country where timber is the traditional building material.

Bamboo for shelter to protect the environment

The tropical rain forests of Costa Rica are disappearing at an alarming rate. If present trends continue, little will remain by the end of the century. Thus wood, the traditional building material in the rural areas, is a commodity which is becoming increasingly scarce and expensive.

Costa Rica has the highest rural population density in Latin America, with many housed in rough, dark huts which do not permit a decent standard of living. The country also has a serious housing deficit of about 130,000 units and needs 20,000 units per year to serve its growing population and to replace old buildings. These figures represent an enormous demand for building materials, both at present and in the future. Hence the need for a renewable supply of building materials which will not deplete the forests.

The answer has been found - fast-growing species of bamboo are now being used to alleviate Costa Rica's rural housing problems and to take pressure off the country's most pressing environmental problem - deforestation. Bamboo is providing an environmentally sound solution to an urgent housing problem.

At the beginning of the 1980s, the housing sector was severely affected by Costa Rica's economic crisis, which prevented the country from producing the number of housing units it had planned. In addition, the public sector, which assists low-income families, was forced to reduce its contribution by two-thirds of its previous targets. By 1984, therefore, the housing shortage in Costa Rica was critical and was as high as 25 per cent of existing housing stock.

Bringing together all these requirements, Costa Rica urgently needed a new approach to low-cost housing. To meet this need, the Government of the Netherlands, the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, UNCHS (Habitat) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) set up a five-year project to look into the qualities of bamboo as a potential, renewable, low-cost building material for rural housing. During this preparatory phase, four building sites were set up, technicians were trained in bamboo construction technologies, and seedbeds of bamboo were planted which could provide a continuous supply of building materials for the future. This pilot project led to the development of the Proyecto Nacional del Bambational Bamboo Project) now ongoing, under the directorship of a lady architect.

Bamboo, a building material with many useful properties, is used in the construction of traditional homes in many parts of the world, from Central America, through Central Africa, to East Asia - where bamboo is an indigenous plant.

Some of the many species of bamboo found worldwide can produce stems up to 30 metres high and of great tensile strength. Research within the project has identified two species, Guadua sur and G. atlantica - originally from Brazil and Colombia - as particularly appropriate species for building. Plantations of these two species are now being established to provide building materials in the future. At present, this environmentally sound project has developed almost 200 hectares of bamboo plantations and more will be planted.

Reafforestation with species other than bamboo is also being promoted by the project. This will reduce soil erosion in Costa Rica, which, as a result of forest loss, is causing arable land to be eroded, rivers to be silted up, dams and other development structures to be choked and marine ecosystems such as coral reefs to be destroyed by sedimentation. The loss of forests is also causing water shortages, especially in the San Jose metropolitan area.

Apart from its valuable environmental component, the project is producing pleasant, low-cost homes for rural people. The houses have a timber balloon frame, filled with a plastered mat of bamboo, which supports a roof of corrugated iron sheets. In total, a house uses less than 1.5 cubic metres of timber, thus substantially reducing the need for this scarce building material. Research on bamboo roofing sheets will follow in the near future, and research to develop a house that is built entirely from bamboo is in progress at the present time.

Bamboo is an excellent building material, provided that it has been adequately preserved. It must be cut at the right season so that the starch and water content of the wood are as low as possible to reduce the likelihood of decay. The stems must be stored in a dry place where there is no contact with soil so that the wood cannot be attacked by insects, particularly termites. The house must be designed so that the structure of the house is kept as dry as possible; an overhanging roof, for example, will protect the walls from rain. Bamboo is a useful building material in areas prone to earthquakes. During December 1990 Costa Rica experienced several serious earthquakes, and the bamboo homes remained intact. Their walls did not crack because of the flexible nature of bamboo. The seismicresistant properties of bamboo as a building material were established at this time.

In addition, bamboo can be treated with preservative chemicals. As it was not possible to find a locally available chemical preservative, boron is now being used. This is a relatively inexpensive substance harmless both to people and domestic animals and environmentally safe. Houses built from bamboo which has been preserved in these ways can last for more than 20 years.

In Costa Rica's National Bamboo Project, women are involved at every stage. Both men and women participate in the design, as well as in the construction phase, for bamboo is light to use. This project is therefore making full use of the talents and energy of all members of the community.

Community participation has been a feature this project from the beginning. Serving to help the indigenous communities in some remote areas of the country (e.g., the Terrabas Indians in the Talamanca Mountains), the recipients have been involved since the project's inception. At the very beginning, a workshop was held for local people, who were given the opportunity to say what they wanted in relation to their home. This participatory design workshop enabled designers to produce building plans in accordance with the wishes of the people. Now, in place of the dark, badly-ventilated homes that they have traditionally occupied, Costa Rica's poor are enjoying light, pleasant, well-ventilated homes with the facilities to improve their quality of life.

The project started in 1987 and is now being extended for a six-month period. A second phase will then run until 1995.

During the project, attractive, easy-to-read information and training materials have been produced, among them the periodical Bambusetum, to keep people up to date about recent developments and progress.

The project is having several important spin-off results. One is that research and technologies developed in the project are being disseminated throughout the Central American subregion and may serve to solve housing projects in other tropical centres. Secondly, it is contributing to the economic development of the subregion, as people are learning to produce handicrafts and fumiture in bamboo and are establishing incomegenerating activities.

The project has many features which are recommended in the Global Strategy for Shelter. It is environmentally sound and is based on the planting of bamboo which can be harvested six years later for building purposes. Its reafforestation strategy is reducing soil erosion and related environmental problems.

Essentially a rural development project based on the sustainable use of locally-available materials, the project involves broad participation within the community, especially input by women; has led to the development of appropriate technologies, improved rural architecture, and training and income-generating activities within the community.