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Big Interview: Granthamian believes buildings of the future could be built out of bamboo

By Judith Hawkins

Could this be an alternative to timber?
Could this be an alternative to timber?

An experienced furniture manufacturer from Grantham has come up with an innovative idea which he believes could revolutionise the building industry.

He states that the key is to use something lighter, cheaper and, if treated right, stronger than many conventional construction materials. You will be surprised though when you hear the answer – bamboo.

William Ockleshaw.
William Ockleshaw.

We spoke to the man behind the concept, William Ockleshaw, as well as to engineering experts in this field, to find out whether it is just a wild idea, or a real possibility for the future.

* What is your background in this industry?

In 1962 I left England with my wife and we emigrated to Brisbane. After two years I started a furniture manufacturing company with John Selley in Montague Road, and then in Ferry Street, West End, Brisbane. We were members of the Chambers of Manufacturing for many years, and at the time we were the only manufacturer of sewing machine cabinets in Australia. Then in 1978 I returned to the UK where I still design furniture and timber components. I have many books on timber engineering, materials and joints in timber structure. Veneer based composites products interest me very much, as I have designed ‘I Beams’ intended for production in bamboo veneer which is slightly more difficult to work with than most Australian hard woods.

* Tell us a bit more about your idea for using bamboo.

The speed with which bamboo grows is one benefit.
The speed with which bamboo grows is one benefit.

It involves using Japanese technology in finger joining with veneers, and also peeling and gluing machinery – by adding the required amounts of veneers in web and flange, the required size and strength can be achieved. It could then be used as a building material for homes, bearings, floor joists, rafters, hangers, climbing joists, purlings and roof trusses. And there is no competition – this is a world first.

* What makes you so excited about the potential of bamboo?

This could be the answer for improving many world problems – for example air quality, as it will produce lower carbon emissions. To manufacture equivalent products in steel or aluminium, in their high production, there is a high energy consumption and pollution. Bamboo is lighter, and through the veneering process, can be stronger than both steel and aluminium. Plus it won’t rust or oxidise, and is the fastest growing plant, so could be produced quickly and on a large scale.

* Where do you suggest producing this bamboo?

This could offer employment and prosperity to under developed countries, where the bamboo could be grown and cultivated. I am also looking into whether you could convert sugar cane growing to bamboo growing, given the steps being taken to reduce sugar intake around the world. You could close a sugar mill and replace it with a low energy consumption bamboo glue lamination factory.

The Journal also contacted Dr Rijun Shrestha, a lecturer at the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering Centre for Built Infrastructure Research at the University of Technology in Sydney. He is having ongoing talks with Mr Ockleshaw about the scheme.

* What do you think of this idea?

A number of properties of bamboo, such as its growth rate, need for little or no fertilizers for growth, and possibility of growing it in hills and mountains where modern agricultural practice is not possible, make it ideal for application in construction in developing countries where conventional construction materials like steel, concrete and timber are either difficult to source or are too expensive. However, application of bamboo in these countries has been limited to temporary structures and make-shift houses, as bamboo is quite often perceived as a cheap and inferior material, and is often used without proper treatment, design and detailing. Ability to use bamboo in producing engineered bamboo products by processing and reconstituting it, similar to how engineered wood products like, glulam, plywood, laminated veneer lumber, etc, are produced, can significantly change this perception about bamboo. As such, the project that Mr Ockleshaw is working on can have a significant benefit, both environmentally and economically, in a developing country where locally available bamboo resources can be used to produce an engineered product that can be an alternative to materials like steel, concrete and timber.

* What work have you carried out in this area?

At the University of Technology, Sydney, I have been working on a project to use a relatively low-tech method to develop engineered bamboo which would very much suit rural and developing areas where it may be difficult to source major capital investment locally. However, the project that Mr Ockleshaw and I have been talking about lately looks at application of bamboo in a different and large-scale perspective and the success of such project can have a major impact on how buildings are built in the proposed areas. Such project can also have significant benefit to local bamboo growers by adding value to the bamboo being currently sold very cheaply due to its limited application.

* We also heard from Dr Benoit Gilbert, senior lecturer and research fellow at Griffith School of Engineering, Griffith University, in Queensland.

Dr Gilbert: Bamboo is a very sustainable material. It has a high strength to weight ratio and grows faster than softwood and hardwood trees. The veneered ‘I’ and ‘Cee’ sections that Mr Ockleshaw is developing make an efficient use of the material. They have a potential to provide a light and sustainable alternative to sawn timber.


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