Jonas Hauptman was drawn to bamboo as building material by the strange shape it takes.

“Although it’s much like a line or a pipe, it’s also something that you would maybe draw in a sketch but you couldn’t draw with a ruler because it has too many eccentricities,” said Hauptman, associate professor of industrial design at the Virginia Tech College of Architecture, Arts, and Design. “It’s not straight. It’s not quite round. It has nodes and kinks and wanders and waves.”

This year, Hauptman shared his fascination in bamboo building with undergraduate and graduate industrial design students by giving them hands-on, research-infused experience working with the material. This spring, Hauptman and a group of Virginia Tech students teamed with the Regeneration Field Institute to build an experimental cabin on the institute’s 71.5-acre Los Arboleros Farm, a tropical dry forest in the rural, agrarian community of Chone, Ecuador.

As a researcher, Hauptman is interested in industrial design products that have a net positive impact on the environment, with a focus on building products. Designing a brick may seem dull when you could be designing a bicycle helmet or a piece of furniture, Hauptman said, but building products need the attention.

“If you think about the amount of resources and the amount of waste that can be generated by an industry that makes such enormous physical products and so many of them, the construction sector is one that is ripe for innovation,” Hauptman said.

Hauptman believes bamboo in particular holds untapped potential as a rapidly renewable, sustainable housing solution. Bamboo is flexible, yet strong. It grows quickly, and as it grows, the plant uptakes and stores substantial amounts of carbon, Hauptman explained.

“If we’re trying to find a global solution to concrete and steel and to cutting the rainforests, bamboo is a promising and not yet fully understood resource,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that it should replace wood everywhere, but it certainly means that bamboo should be explored and new knowledge should be generated, in order to help 2 billion more people find housing — mainly in the global south by 2050 — without negatively impacting the environment on a huge scale.”

Students carrying large bamboo structure across muddy road.
Virginia Tech students worked with the Regeneration Field Institute team, as well as a local carpenter and architect, to build a small cabin from bamboo on Los Arboleros Farm. Photo by the Bio Design Research Group for Virginia Tech.

The Regeneration Field Institute shares Hauptman’s hopes for bamboo. Founded in 2016 by Lucas Oshun after Ecuador’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake, the institute aims to help rebuild housing with seismically safe buildings made from natural, environmentally sustainable materials, per RFI. The institute supports research and experimentation with bamboo on Los Arboleros Farm, including demonstrations in bamboo management, curing, and processing as well as on-site testing of larger-scale architectural concepts using the material.

At the institute’s outpost classroom, once a cow pasture, Hauptman’s students worked with a local architect and carpenter to blend traditional building approaches with those of his research as they built a small cabin prototype. At the Bio Design Research Group, co-led by Hauptman, he and his colleagues are “retooling” bamboo — working to understand its shape and behavior as it can be assembled into complex structures using tools like computer-controlled machines and scanning technologies. They’re also working on a mass bamboo composite system geared toward addressing the need for sustainable mid-rise housing in the urban global south.

The group’s system embraces the natural eccentricities that made bamboo capture Hauptman’s interest, leaving the plant’s stems, or culm, mostly in the round rather than turning them into fiber in the construction of beams, panels, columns, and floor cassettes. In Ecuador, students drew from the approach to build the cabin’s three self-supporting floor panels.

"Working on the farm to build the panels was an incredible experience from start to finish,” said Avery Gendell, who went to Ecuador with Hauptman as a fourth-year industrial design student. “Being surrounded by acres of bamboo while we worked through challenges and obstacles was such a unique opportunity. It really gave me a heightened appreciation for the relationships that form between us as designers and architects and the world around us."

Hauptman found the hours outside of their physical work on the cabin just as fulfilling from a teaching perspective.

“The coolest part for me, outside of just getting to Ecuador and finding a way to do some field research with students, were actually these evening conversations I had with students, sitting in hammocks, talking about design, or the built environment, or material,” he said. “I did travel courses many years ago, but I didn’t remember how impactful it is to talk with someone outside of the classroom and to talk with them more casually and personally.”

Hauptman plans to bring more Virginia Tech students to Ecuador next summer and over the coming decade.

“I am really excited to deepen the relationship with Lucas and his teams at the Regeneration Field Institute,” he said. “In my opinion, it is only through these kinds of field collaborations that genuine context can be brought to bear on the work of students and faculty committed to tackling human and planetary challenges.”

Study Abroad Fair on the Drillfield

Discover over 70 short-term and semester-length study abroad programs available to Virginia Tech students through the Global Education Office at the annual Study Abroad Fair. Meet the experts who lead programs on every continent and learn about the scholarships that can open possibilities. Students and faculty are encouraged to stop by the fair on the Drillfield on Tuesday, Sept. 26, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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