Building With Bamboo
IVLP alumna Aruna Kappagantula’s Bamboo House India promotes an ecofriendly substitute to traditional building materials, and serves rural and tribal communities.
At a time when concrete and mortar seem to be the favored materials for building houses, Aruna Kappagantula and her husband, Prashant Lingam, have put their faith in the humble bamboo. They have established Bamboo House India, a social enterprise promoting bamboo as an ecofriendly substitute to wood, steel, iron and plastic. It also utilizes bamboo as an economic driver for providing sustainable livelihood opportunities to rural and tribal communities.
Search for substitutes
The couple’s journey with bamboo began almost accidentally. As Kappagantula recounts, “We went searching for an ecofriendly sofa set for our new home, absolutely sure that it would not be of steel, plastic or an imported one. Eventually, we landed up in Tripura, the land-locked state at the Indo-Bangladesh border.” This is where the couple got introduced to the fascinating world of bamboo and met the people who have depended on it for household needs for generations.
By her own admission, Kappagantula had no idea about the potential of bamboo at that time. Building houses with bamboo and nurturing social entrepreneurship around it were farthest from her thoughts. Once convinced about the benefits of this substitute for conventional building materials, the duo researched and found that while other countries were utilizing bamboo for modern and unique applications, in India it was mostly restricted to small handicrafts, scaffoldings, ladders, construction of temporary houses and so on. This led to the establishment of Bamboo House India in Hyderabad in 2008.
Kappagantula says they never had any technological or knowledge support. “We learnt everything from scratch and developed solutions to suit the market demand.”
In 2013, Kappagantula participated in the International Visitor Leadership Program, the U.S. Department of State’s exchange program for professionals. “It was both enriching and enlightening. There was a lot of curiosity about our work. The best parts of the exposure were meeting and interacting with entrepreneurs and people from other social enterprises, getting to know about their work, their practices and their problem-solving approaches,” she says. “I have implemented some of these in my enterprise too. And, of course, the lifelong alumni network is of immense value.”
Over 7.5 million hectares of forests are lost each year worldwide to deforestation, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Bamboo’s versatility as a substitute for hardwood offers protection against the depleting forest cover. Kappagantula points out that depending on the species, bamboo can be harvested in just one to five years as compared to 10 to 50 years for most softwoods and hardwoods. It grows in a variety of conditions, from low wetlands to hilly regions, and even in arid zones. There’s also less wastage because almost every part of the plant can be used to make a wide variety of products.
“Bamboo houses are common across the country in tribal, rural and forest areas, but only as temporary dwelling units,” says Kappagantula. “We are trying to build an image of bamboo as a permanent building material.”
Are bamboo houses viable for long-term use? “Global statistics say that more than a billion people live in bamboo houses. I can affirm that the bamboo houses we build can last for more than 30 years. They use engineered bamboo boards or bamboo ply,” says Kappagantula. However, people may find it hard to accept the feasibility of using bamboo over traditional building materials. “Even in India, it will take a long time to be accepted, but bamboo is viable for regular use just like other building materials,” she adds.
Kappagantula admits that houses made completely of bamboo “might not be practical to address the housing shortage issue in India. But, mixing bamboo with other building materials would be a viable solution given the multi-layer benefits bamboo has to offer, apart from cost.”
Bamboo House India has a complex working model geared to suit market demands. Directly or indirectly, at least 100 man days are created for every 300-square-foot house it makes. “At least 50 percent of the workforce comprise women who are involved in making bamboo mats, which are converted to boards to be used as walls, floors and the roofs of the houses,” says Kappagantula. The people employed belong mainly to marginalized communities.
“On a personal level, we are confident that the future holds a lot of promise for bamboo as a building material, with market perception slowly changing and acceptance increasing for such initiatives and materials,” says Kappagantula. She emphasizes that all that is required is support from stakeholders and entry of more entrepreneurs to make the ecofriendly building material sector economically viable.
Ranjita Biswas is a Kolkata-based journalist. She also translates fiction and writes short stories.