BamCore adds building tech to bamboo for sustainable structural leap
BamCore is a fascinating example of innovation in architecture, engineering, and construction. The U.S. maker of bamboo-based wall-panel systems is on the BuiltWorlds Building Tech 50 list. Its ‘stronger, faster and greener’ approach leverages both better building materials and tech-driven process improvements. That tech includes some of AGACAD’s tools for BIM and other solutions that Autodesk itself is investing to help develop.
Brenden Morton was a property developer when he heard about the concept of using bamboo for structural walls and worked with BamCore to build and sell the first house with such walls in 2011. He is now Director for Platform & Job Engineering at BamCore, which is headquartered in Sonoma County, California, and has a factory in Ocala, Florida.
BamCore was initially inspired by wasteful construction practices. Its founder, William McDonald, worked in framing for years. “He’d do his best to get the framing as perfect and tight as he could and then see the trades come through and just butcher it,” Morton notes. To avoid related rework and loss of energy efficiency, McDonald sought ways to make hollow walls. But wood could not offer the needed rigidity.
Then he learned about timber bamboo, which is not only extremely fast-growing but also one of nature’s strongest cellulosic fibres. Combining strips of bamboo with plywood, BamCore developed a hybrid panel that is structural and load bearing, yielding stud-less walls that are stronger, thermally superior, and faster to build than any conventional framing. They are also greener in many ways.
“The goal was to change the way we build, and bamboo lent itself to that goal. Sustainability wasn’t the primary objective, but soon became apparent and obviously is very attractive,” Morton says.
BamCore has had to hustle to meet growing demand for its unique wall panels, prefabbed to customer specifications, which are redefining the low-rise built environment.
One challenge has been getting enough bamboo. “We’ve had to build a supply pipeline, since there was really no global market for bamboo,” Morton says. The company now has more than a dozen suppliers on four continents that provide sustainably harvested bamboo culms.
A second challenge was regulatory. Early projects needed an ‘alternative materials and methods’ permit. But after a technical evaluation in 2016, BamCore’s wall system was certified as code compliant.
Finally, practical knowledge of timber bamboo’s structural and mechanical properties was limited. BamCore had to do its own R&D on how best to assemble strips of bamboo into sheets and combine them with wood to preserve the integrity of the ultra-strong fibre strands. Its panels at first were a core of bamboo in wood veneer. But later, using a plywood core with bamboo on the outside produced an even stronger panel requiring only half as much bamboo.
BamCore is part of the needed shift to more sustainable construction. Its approach combines both reduction of building-related emissions and removal of already emitted carbon from the atmosphere.
On the second point, research shows bamboo can sequester five to six times more carbon than trees. That is due both to the plant’s incredible growth rate, reaching a full height of 60-90 feet (20-30 meters) in one season and maturing for use in 3-4 years (versus 20-40 years for trees), and the fact that harvesting bamboo culms does not require clear cutting and replanting. International sustainability consultants Quantis found that cultivating timber bamboo instead of using land for grazing, sugar, cotton, and so on, promises the added sequestration of some 337 tonnes of CO2 per hectare.
Then there is buildings’ operating carbon. BamCore eliminates 80-90% of internal framing in walls along with the related thermal bridging and gaps in insulation. Thus, a BamCore wall is about 80% more thermally efficient than a conventional stud wall. Quantis has calculated that BamCore walls give a reduction of 125 tonnes of CO2 over the 70-year life of an average U.S. house.
As for total impact, BamCore is scaling fast and the carbon footprint benefits should also jump as it develops not just wall but also subfloor and roofing systems.
Besides its creative use of sustainable materials, BamCore has also been recognized for innovating with industrialized construction methods to make the building process more efficient and cut out waste.
Essentially, its approach is customized prefabrication with an eye to making work on-site as quick and easy as possible and encouraging collaboration among the trades. “I translate customer designs into a panelised BamCore design in Revit as the basis for CAD-to-CAM workflows, all the way to CNC instructions for them to be marked and cut in our factory,” Morton says of his own role.
Precisely cut BamCore wall panels arrive at the job site packed and numbered, with little to no on-site cutting required. An MEPI map and nail pattern drawn onto each panel further facilitate work.
So does a specially developed app that turns Revit models into animated 3D construction plans. Running on Autodesk Forge, it lets crew members view each panel and how and where to install it, right on their smartphone, exploding component details as needed.
“Using our product cuts at least 50% of the time required to frame and sheath a building, with more benefits down the line,” Morton says. “Builders tell us door and window installation is much faster due to the precise machining. Trim-out goes much faster too. And the entire wall is a structurally rigid panel, so you don’t have to search for studs when hanging cabinetry or putting up lap siding.”
BamCore sees using technology to automate work – from design to CAD-CAM and beyond – as key to improving efficiency and reducing human error. In this area, it often works with outside partners.
“We’ve worked closely with Autodesk to develop tools to improve workflows and collaboration,” Morton notes. BamCore is part of the Autodesk Foundation’s impact-investing programme, which has supported developing software-based design-to-fabrication automation tools. Current initiatives with Autodesk involve machine learning to optimise nesting when CNC cutting panels with shiplap connections, communication between design team members who work in different platforms, and a carbon accounting and energy modelling tool to help steer design decisions.
“We’ve also been working with AGACAD for two years now. AGACAD’s suite of BIM tools for framing in Revit, for instance, has been really useful for automating things like element numbering, views and cut lists. We also use their tools to dimension our shop drawings, which saves a whole day or two per project. That’s significant. And with AGACAD ready even to update their code for our needs, it’s really more of a partnership with them than just a customer-vendor relationship,” Morton continues.
Thus, BamCore is pushing the boundaries of how buildings are designed, built, operated, and maintained. The company sees both the materials and the technology side as vital. “They go hand in hand,” Morton stresses. “The material has enabled this leap forward in how the design happens, but then the technology has enabled design and collaboration to be much more effective and efficient.”
Growth on a major scale is certainly in the cards. As of late 2021, BamCore’s factory was able to churn out 100,000 panels a year; but there are plans to expand capacity to up to 1 million panels per year.
In terms of getting enough timber bamboo, Morton says demand from the construction industry is sparking growing interest in cultivating and processing the material. “There’s interest even in the U.S. to establish bamboo plantations. We may arrange some of our own near our production facilities.”
New products will no doubt help BamCore grow as well. The company is looking at a possible hybrid bamboo and cross-laminated timber (CLT) system, among other things, with a vision for multiple timber-bamboo solutions to reduce carbon, cost and labour in the built environment. More building tech, like AGACAD’s tools to automate the design of CLT slabs and panels, could likely play a role then.
Written by Bryan Bradley of Textus Aptus.
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