| BASIN - News No 11. March 1996: BASIN and the city summit |
The background to this project is the shortage in housing in Costa Rica. In 1984 the country was 125,000 houses short out of a total of 500,000. And of the existing houses one third were estimated to be a poor condition. In Costa Rica timber has traditionally played a prominent role as a construction material. However, rapid deforestation has made timber scarce and expensive and forced people to use new methods with concrete, steel and masonry. And of course, many cannot afford those materials. Wood houses dropped from 86% of the total in 1963 down to 63% in 1984.
Substitution for wood has brought with it a range of problems:
l Construction costs have increased with higher priced materials and the need for skilled rather than self-help labour.
l Urban migration has been stimulated, though this has mainly been caused by limited opportunities for work in rural areas.
l The country’s foreign exchange balance has suffered due to imports of building materials.
The Project’s Beginnings
In the past there was hardly any good reason to encourage the use of bamboo for building in Costa Rica. Tropical hardwoods were available as were the skills to work them. But as deforestation increased researchers and builders cast around for alternatives. An architect named Ana Cecilia Chaves Robles was impressed by the value of bamboo and she convinced enough people to arrange a visit by the Colombian bamboo expert, Oscar Hidalgo. After they had built a few prototype buildings, the Costa Rican Institute of Technology became involved. Through their enthusiasm the internationally recognised centre of bamboo research at Eindhoven University in Holland was invited to guide a programme of research, trials and eventually full-scale implementation.
The Dutch Government provided the initial support in the form of a grant of US$ 2.7 million in 1988. Further funding up to a total of US$ 10 million by the end of 1995 has supported work that now continues without any external subsidy.
From the outset it was decided that the priority for the programme would have to be training and the transfer of knowledge. Dissenting voices suggested that targets should be set in terms of numbers of completed houses, but building up local capacity eventually achieved top priority.
Although about 30 different species of bamboo grow in Costa Rica only one of them - Guadua Angustifolia - was considered suitable for building. Unfortunately it was not widely available so a primary element of the programme was widespread propagation. Some 700 hectares of land throughout the country have been planted by 1995. This should produce enough material for more than 10,000 houses per year. It is estimated that the same number of houses built from forest hardwood timber would cause the destruction of 6000 hectares of indigenous forest. This type of bamboo has a long history of use in Colombia and Ecuador where it is used for structural posts and beams, for wall framing and when split, as a panelling cover for walls and as flooring.
Although it is accepted for widespread use in Latin America, sceptical architects and officials needed convincing in Costa Rica. Thus a demonstration programme in which a number of houses were built and detailed specifications and costs were publicised was initiated.
The houses are 20% cheaper (at approximately US$ 100/sq.mt including kitchen, shower, electricity, inner doors and painting) than any other type of low-income housing. Twenty percent of the labour is done by self-help so a poor family can obtain a bamboo house with the assistance of the small government subsidy that is available. The houses are earthquake proof. This is important in this seismic region. Just as testing for earthquake resistance was an important research element of the programme, so too were other aspects of durability.
In particular, preservative treatment is very necessary for bamboo. The project has made considerable progress in this direction. Up till the late 1980’s simple methods of treating bamboo to retard decay were rather experimental and small-scale. By necessity the project has developed a semi-industrial process for mass preservation. This includes a high degree of quality control and since chemicals are used, it offers a much better chance to avoid accidents than can ever be achieved with small-scale field preservation methods. The preservative that is used is Boron salt. This is harmless for people and the environment, and it is cheap. The job of transferring the technology of impregnation, called the Boucherie process, from the laboratory to the factory was achieved by experts from Hamburg University.
In terms of quantities the project has had a valuable impact. By the end of 1995 the project had been directly involved in producing several thousand houses. But in terms of greater public and professional awareness of local environmental issues more valuable achievements are recognised. And thousands of people have learnt new skills and many new businesses have been established.
Training for poor people is not limited to "how to build a bamboo house", but refers also to "what does it mean for our children - the next generation - if we move from a slum shack in town to a new bamboo house". This last question is much more important than the first. And the project has deliberately set out to include social development goals alongside its technical targets. After seven years it appears that these goals are being met. Bamboo house construction continues in Costa Rica without any external subsidy and now there is local capacity to continue research and development of more modern techniques to plant harvest and use bamboo.
This education, conditioned from the outset by recognition that self determination would be the key element for sustain-ability, has been most important.
Ultimately the project may have contributed only a little to improving the situation in the slums of urban Costa Rica, but it has offered housing in rural areas to many and a secure livelihood to thousands in the agro-forestry and building sectors. Perhaps it has saved some indigenous tropical forest from further destruction as well.
At this moment studies on how to transfer the expertise from Costa Rica to other countries in the Central American region are underway. Eindhoven staff are also considering if this expertise might be helpful in Tanzania.
Article drafted by Dr. Nick Hall
from the notes of a lecture by Dr Jules Janssen to the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs on September 6, 1995.