Building A Bamboo Bridge: A Student’s Perspective

Bamboo U - Building a Bridge

Dear Diary,Buckle up for the ride of a lifetime as I spill the bamboo-infused beans on my adventure at the Bamboo U 11 Day Build & Design Course – a journey filled with challenges, triumphs, and those unforgettable 'Aha!' moments.

I follow IBUKU Studio, and when I saw them promoting a bamboo awareness workshop, I signed up. Honestly, I didn’t think much of it initially, but as the day to depart drew near, there were all kinds of worries. What was I thinking?! Why do I need this, and most importantly, will it be worth it? I’ve been out of school for a long time, and along with experience comes the comfort of routine and a fixed method of practice. I was hoping to shake that up a bit and find inspiration in new materials and nature.

Day 0:

So, here I am, surrounded by 45 people, aged 22 to 75, from 12 different countries. It looked like a mini United Nations! With an open mind, I jumped into it, thinking, "Let's do this!"

Day 1 to Day 5:

Mornings kicked off with delicious dragon fruit yogurt bowls, coffee, and Luis (the Bamboo U Program Manager) trying his best to make us form a perfect circle. Each day brought new lessons, fun games, and the kind of tiredness that feels weirdly good. But the real gem? The people. Icebreaker games did their magic, and soon, I didn't need name tags. We were like a quirky family.

Enter Neil Thomas. His first lecture? Honestly, it put me to sleep. Blame it on the heavenly farm food we devoured Megibung style. So honestly, no opinion had yet been formed, of Neil Thomas, that is. But, Diary, things changed.

Day 6:

On this day came his pitch towards building bridges, and he had me with his opening image.

Neil Thomas_Atelier One_at_Bamboo U_Bamboo Construction Course

The plan was for us to form smaller groups and design unique bridges. Neil had promised that at the end of the day, we could choose one, and he would help us build it. Now that I’ve gotten to know him a bit better, I will describe him as a crazy genius with a notoriously charming smile and eyes that see incredible possibilities. When he saw all the exciting designs that we had come up with, he couldn’t contain his excitement. The structural gene in him tried very hard to coax Luis, the project manager, into agreeing to build all of them. Luis is just too nice to refuse anything to anyone, so Orin stepped in and diplomatically picked a bridge that would only require materials that they already had available. So, at the end of day 6, we went home with a plan.

Day 7:

The morning began as usual with dragon fruit and coffee. Little did we know our plan for the remaining few days was about to change. In walked our structural consultant, with his infamous grin. He picked up the model made by Yein and me. He then went on to make the best sales pitch ever, starting with, “I couldn’t sleep last night… as a teacher if we built this one here, instead of that one there, I could teach you so much more. You can all agree to disagree but can you imagine the ‘Aha!’ moment when this bridge lifts up!?” …and so on. He had us at, ‘I couldn’t sleep last night…’! Midway into day 7 we had a new direction... yet again! Neil had said what he had to… Yein and I were still beaming… but it was now Luis’ job to figure out how to make it happen!

The first exercise was to examine what we had and order what we didn’t. Two-meter-long splits, a few crooked bamboos, and rope are all of what we had. So, we went back to the drawing board. Ed, the engineer, and Luis, the project manager, scratched their heads to draw up the design on their computers, ran tests to analyze strength, and freeze a few key measurements. Post-lunch one team started marking out the grid on the ground to establish the curve of the two arches that would form the deck. The other group tried to find the least crooked bamboos that would join to form the 12m tall central support. Two of the straighter bamboos with similar diameters were assigned to be the central members. A thinner bamboo was shoved in between to link them together, and six others were tied around to brace it so that it wouldn’t buckle. The task ahead was to drill through and connect them with rivets.

BAMBOO U - Bridge Model by Apoorva Shroff at Bamboo Construction Course

Challenge #1:
Finding a drill bit that was long enough to drill through 16” of bamboo core. Epic Epin welded a screw to the top of the drill, making it extra long and voila, our problem was solved!

All was progressing well, each one doing their bit, and then Neil decided to cause trouble again by being a gentleman and asking the ladies which direction the bridge should orient. Hmmm… that went on for a bit! Once there was an agreement, finding the new center and digging the three foundations needed was the next step. Three, four, and five were the magic numbers that taught us how to identify 90 degrees on-site. As the tea break approached, there was a realization that the foundation for the central post should be in place before the end of the day. So now people were running helter-skelter to get this done. Thankfully, Tim had great digging skills, and with Luis’ foresight, we had a reinforcement bar ready. Mate quickly organized for sand, cement, rubble, and the cement mixer.

BAMBOO U - Drilling and Tying the Bamboo

Challenge #2:
Among all these engineers and architects, no one knew the proportions of the mix to make fine concrete! After much debate, we had a consensus, and while this bridge exercise had many ‘aha!’ moments, pouring the concrete into the foundation was most definitely one of them! With that cheer came the end of day 7.

BAMBOO U - Preparing the Foundation

Day 8:

The morning began with Neil having spent yet another sleepless night. He had drawn out an elaborate sketch for the deck members. Now poor Luis had the task of executing it, but he secretly knew that Neil would be leaving soon 😊. So, while he chewed on his apple deliberating the execution of Neil’s sketch, a part of him knew that some bridges were to be crossed only when we got there! The most tedious part of this bridge was stapling the strips! While Yein, Hui, Liwanag, Harly, Julia, Briana, Soyeong, …. earnestly cracked away at it, Ed, Sabrina, Alex, Helly, Michael, and I made braces on the column for tying the rope. Tim… was simply everywhere and sometimes nowhere. We outsourced installing the hoist for the post to a local tree climber (best to know your limits). Among our achievements for the day were pouring the other two foundations, stealing nail guns from other stations, acquiring the skill for steel binding and mostly staying positive that this bridge was going to get built.

BAMBOO U - Site Meeting with Neil Thomas from Atelier One

BAMBOO U - Clamp the Bamboo with Iron and Building the Bridge

Day 9:

The team had successfully nailed enough splits to have two perfect arches ready, so, the first job this morning was lifting them into place. ‘Aha!’ moment for the day – Jamming the post into the reinforcement bar propping out of the foundation and hoisting it into position! Our efforts were beginning to pay off, and it was starting to resemble our cardboard model, but the little voice inside my head was so exhausted and acutely aware of how much work still lay ahead. Like elves, we carried on. Today we cross-braced and tied the two arches together. Completely different from what Neil had in mind. Neil was gone, so how does it matter? What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. We cut the bamboos so that the knots were just beyond the arches. Then we tied it in place with the special rope knot we had been taught. Next, we drilled a hole diagonally linking the deck bamboo with the splits that formed the arch. Then we dipped the wood dowel with glue and hammered it into the hole. The last step was to sew off the unwanted extensions.

BAMBOO U - Teamwork on Building a Bamboo Bridge

Challenge #3:
How do you anchor the deck to the foundation? The real worker bees had helped make and hammer four metal shoes into the base of the arches. This was then welded into the reinforcement bars left at the two foundations. Part of this exciting journey was learning how to solve on-site problems. Just as the sun was setting on day 9, we got a call from Neil checking on our progress. He wasn’t pleased when he saw the modifications made to his intended fool-proof solutions, and Luis got the brunt of it. So, while most of us ended day 9 with the hope that our bridge would stand the next morning, poor Luis and Ed spent the night dejected and questioning the possible failure that Neil had now predicted.

Day 10:

I insisted we take a group picture just in case our project wasn’t a success. So the team indulged, we pulled off the shade ignoring Helly’s protests, and each picked a spot, some on top and some standing, strategically hiding the supporting members. It truly was somewhat ‘AHA!!!’ 😊. Now that we had a picture and we had to prove Neil wrong, we worked a bit harder. Luis added a few more ropes, Ed tied the ropes tighter, Yein took QC to the next level, Alex drilled harder, and Brianna started replacing bamboos that showed a weakness with stronger ones. Together we had the motive.

The moment of truth: Kicking off the supports! Oh my, was that an insane moment! Our bridge was standing proud. A bit wobbly, but boy was it everything we had imagined that moment to be!

Bamboo U - Building a Bridge

Thank you, Neil, for not sleeping that night, picking the bridge we built, pushing for it to happen then questioning the structure, and finally patting our backs on the success of our hard work!

Thank you, Luis, for your sense of humor, gentle demeanor, and forever cheer! We couldn’t have done it without you.

Thank you, Bamboo U, for indulging us, and your carpenters for following every instruction without even knowing the plan.
And lastly, thank you to each of us for sticking around in the bridge station and making this moment ‘AHA!’

This was so worth it.

BAMBOO U - Testing the Birdge

In the bamboo spirit,
Yours Truly
Apoorva Shroff

Apoorva-Shroff_Lyth Design_India_Bamboo U
About the author
Apoorva Shroff | Architect

Apoorva is one of India’s most promising architects with over 20 years of work and project experience across USA and Asia. Her work has featured in Architecture Digest, the centrefold of the Mint Lounge, the covers of Elle Décor & numerous global portals. Forbes India has described her work as "One of a Kind". One of her most recent projects, Airavat, a home in the clouds, was nominated as a finalist at the prestigious World Architecture Festival, 2021.

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