Island builders are to be invited to bid for the contract to build 15 experimental houses on St Helena, following an international design competition.
Spanish architects BAT have proposed creating bamboo plantations so the island can grow its own building materials, instead of having to import them.
Concerns have been raised that the island’s weevils and termites would quickly destroy bamboo in homes, but the winning architects say it can be treated to remove its natural sugars, meaning the termites would not be attracted to it.
The scheme put forward by Spanish company Bilboko Arkitektura Taldea (BAT) also involves importing wire baskets to fill with local rocks to create gabions, similar to those seen supporting embankments alongside major roads overseas.
If an initial “exemplar” development at Half Tree Hollow is successful, the Spanish design could be used across the island to bring down existing construction costs – and not just for housing.
Andy Crowe, the island’s first housing executive, said: “I think it needs to be stressed that the ‘exemplars’ will take time to be produced because of the need to create a bamboo processing plant.
“I don’t want us to simply import processed bamboo and never get round to creating the industry, so it might be a couple of years away.
“In the meantime I am planning to invite expressions of interest from local builders to develop the first phase of 15 homes using modern methods of construction by a set deadline.”
Andy will report on the scheme at the annual conference of the National Housing Federation in Birmingham, in the UK, on 19 September 2013.
He plans to tell delegates the new housing design could mean Saints no longer have to spend “a small fortune” importing building materials to build houses that can take 20 years to complete.
He said: “There was, until my arrival, no housing service on the island and there is no housing legislation. Until recently there was little planning legislation and so homes have been built ad hoc, without a proper infrastructure. Local builders are in short supply
“It may be the only place where British citizens still have to use outside toilets and live in homes without an internal hot water supply.
“The housing competition is a signal that things are about to change. It sits alongside work to masterplan new estates, in stunning locations.”
The UK’s Department for International Development has provided funding, but actually building homes remained a challenge, said Andy – and costs needed to come down.
In October 2012, St Helena Government disclosed that eight families were known to be in imminent risk of becoming homeless. It revealed the figure after one returning Saint made a public plea for a home for his family, after being presented with a steep rise in rent.
If the Spanish design proves successful, bamboo plantations could be created around the island, alongside small quarries, to serve housing developments in St Paul’s, Alarm Forest, Longwood, Sandy Bay and Blue Hill.
Up to 350 homes could be built by 2022.
The architects say bamboo would grow on barren parts of the island, and could help other plant life to recolonise land that has suffered through destruction of woodlands in past centuries.
It remains to be seen whether the island can grow enough bamboo for houses and other new buildings.
But Andy said: “If we can replace flax with bamboo and control its growth (cutting it down to make houses seems a pretty effective way) then we can offer the island a new source of earnings and reduce its dependence upon imports – what a great solution that would be.”
St Helena Government saved £32,000 by staging the architectural competition itself, rather than handing the project to outside consultants, said Andy.
People on the island who saw the proposed designs during the judging period said they made the most of the island’s natural resources – and respected its community culture.