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National Science Foundation grant supports eco‑friendly roofing

A man walks across a roof being constructed from bamboo.
Eco-Shelter's first demonstration site being constructed in Hyderabad, India (2018).

Vikram Yadama has long been passionate about creating sustainable and renewable building materials for affordable housing, but the civil and environmental engineering professor at Washington State University has always been puzzled about one thing: it seems only rich people can afford them.

Hoping to be part of efforts to change that, Yadama, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and his colleagues are teaming up with a Tacoma-based start-up to develop environmentally friendly, climate resilient, and affordable roofing materials made from bamboo. 

Researchers in WSU’s Center for Composite Materials and Engineering (CMEC) along with Eco-Shelter Inc. have been awarded a $1 million National Science Foundation Small Business Technology Transfer Phase II award to develop low-carbon, cost-competitive bamboo composite roofing sheets. The aim is to develop roofing materials that are tougher, more environmentally friendly, and absorb less heat than the corrugated tin or asbestos-fiber cement sheeting commonly used in low-income communities around the world.

Interior of Eco-Shelter’s roof at demonstration site in Hyderabad, India (2018)

“Support from NSF to commercialize a technology which can impact health, wellbeing, and our planet in a very tangible way is an incredible opportunity,” said Alexa Bednarz, CEO of Eco-Shelter.

With no engineering background, Bednarz backed into her roofing materials effort after working in global health for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2015, she began working for the Gates Foundation in Delhi, India, and learned more about housing issues in informal settlements and urban slum areas.

“I became interested in the idea of social entrepreneurship and how one might develop products and services with sustainable business models that could meet the needs of the many people in the world who live on less than $5 a day,” she said.   

She began learning about building materials and realized there was a market demand but little innovation in developing better products. 

“So much of housing directly affects people’s health and wellbeing,” she said. 

Upon her return, she developed the idea for her company, winning a prize in a Social Venture Partners Fast Pitch competition. She began her company in 2017. 

“I went from philanthropy and global health to the intersection of how housing and health are tied together,” she said. “I realized that the roof was a really important issue.”

The main drawback of poor roofing materials in hot climates is that they make homes hotter –  as much as 20% of the heat they absorb goes through the roof and radiates into the home. The researchers found that a bamboo roofing system is about seven degrees cooler. 

Tin or fiber sheeting manufacturing and production also require more energy and create more harmful carbon dioxide emissions than growing bamboo, further contributing to the worsening climate crisis. Bamboo can also be tougher and less easily damaged than tin or fiber-based materials. 

Bamboo roofing materials already exist, but they are expensive and most often used in higher income communities, Bednarz said.

 Laxmiben running her sewing business from home with her grandson and new Eco-Shelter roof (Gujarat, India)

The grant continues work the researchers have done to improve the bamboo composites. In particular, instead of woven matts, which are labor intensive to make, the researchers are working to develop three-dimensional bamboo strand composite panels. Like wood-based oriented strand board, a common building material in the U.S., composites could make use of bamboo waste while also being easier to manufacture. 

“A strand-based three-dimensional composite panel really opens up the potential in manufacturing roofing panels of varying configurations as well as other building products,” said Yadama.

Originally from India, Yadama said he is excited about implementing the project using locally available fiber, and said it’s especially meaningful to help others in his homeland.

“Researchers like us don’t often get to see the impact of our work directly or so quickly,” he said. “In this project’s we’re able to see that, which is really quite gratifying.”

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