It's long, strong and pleasing to the eye. So -- who needs wood?

By Cynthia Joyce
October 15, 2004 4:10AM (UTC)
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I asked my lady what could I do
to make her happy and to keep her true
she said my friend one thing I need from you
is a little tiny piece of the big bamboo

She wanted big bamboo four feet long
big bamboo so full and strong
big bamboo stands up straight and tall
only big bamboo pleases one and all...


-- from the Calypso traditional "The Big Bamboo"

Get a bamboo enthusiast talking, and it's not unusual for the excitement -- about the plant's miraculous properties and environmentally important uses -- to get a little out of hand. Even a casual investigation quickly reveals that bamboo doesn't just attract admirers, it inspires a heavy-breathing obsession, as the following tome from American Bamboo Society pages illustrates:

"Bamboo feels so good. Grasp a culm and energy is defined. A strong culm advances from underground to sky, often many tens of feet, many meters, in a matter of weeks. All of it is there from the moment it breaks ground. Every thrusting inch, foot or meter, from node to node, every future leaf is compactly folded in place ready and willing to come out."


And so forth.

Since they were first introduced in the mid-'90s as an alternative to regular hardwood floors, bamboo floors have grown in popularity at a rate rivaled only by their astounding vertical growth. (A new shoot of Moso bamboo, the type used for flooring, can grow up to eight inches in diameter and 80 feet tall in two months.) As recently as five years ago, bamboo floors were distributed primarily by a small handful of U.S. manufacturers who imported the bamboo from China, but today, American imports of bamboo products have exploded. What briefly had been the province of architects, interior designers, high-end hotels and exclusive health spas, bamboo floors are now available almost everywhere: Lumber liquidators sell them online, big box giants Home Depot and Lowe's offer them in many of their stores, and they even debuted on MTV recently, when the "Pimp My Ride" crew installed bamboo floors in a yoga instructor's Land Cruiser.

A modern innovation on a timeless resource, bamboo flooring is "an ideal product," says Taryn Holowka, a spokesperson for the U.S. Green Building Council, a building industry coalition. The council oversees LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, which sets the standard for sustainable designs among architects and developers. The use of bamboo floors qualifies project designers for points toward LEED certification. "Bamboo flooring is attractive and it can grow anywhere," she says. It's also promoted by the Sierra Club. In other words, it's that rarest of innovations -- good looking, and good for the world.


Ann Knight, who has watched her Bainbridge Island, Wash., manufacturing company, Teragren, double in size almost every year since she co-founded it in 1994, said that since bamboo has begun to flood the market it's becoming more affordable; with bamboo floors offered at $3 to $7 per square foot, Teragren's products are comparable in price to conventional hardwood floors such as oak or maple, she says, and are often even cheaper than more exotic woods, such as cherry. Thanks to competitive pricing, and an increased interest in creating healthy homes, bamboo floors have steadily seeped into more mainstream markets.

Bamboo, which is actually a woody grass, is one of nature's most naturally abundant and renewable resources. Compared with most trees, which can take anywhere from 40 to 100 years to harvest, bamboo can be harvested in about four to seven years. Then, only the shoots are removed -- the root system will continue to generate new shoots. Also, comparatively, bamboo can produce about twice as much fiber as a fast-growing pine forest, the fastest-growing wood crop, according to the Green Resource Center.


Although bamboo flooring makes up only 1 percent of the $2 billion hardwood flooring industry, any time bamboo is used over hardwood, it takes pressure off of rapidly dwindling forests. But its durability, delicate visual detail, and sleek aesthetic appeal are what has captivated designers.

David Hertz, an architect with the Santa Monica, Calif., firm Syndesis, has used bamboo floors in designs for several private clients, including the Santa Barbara home of TV producer Brad Hall and his wife, actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus. He says his clients are drawn to bamboo out of a concern over resource efficiency. "When we've used bamboo flooring, we haven't had anything other than happy clients," Hertz said. "We did a floating stair for Julia Louis-Dreyfus' house where we wrapped bamboo over steel -- we had to do some very complicated mitering, but it held up, it has a very good, sharp edge ... And in fact it's dimensionally more stable than wood; it has the same thickness throughout -- it has integrity."

Darrel DeBoer, a California architect and author of the book "Bamboo Building and Culture," has found that the green factor adds value for those already eco-conscious buyers, but it's not the primary factor motivating most choices. The broad aesthetic appeal and affordability of bamboo floors, in fact, permits him to introduce it to even those clients who haven't specified an eco-friendly dwelling.


"I sometimes think of myself as being the mole -- I'll be trusted by a client to pick out any and all of the hundreds of different materials they'll need because a lot of them don't want to go through that," he said. "So you sometimes pick out eco-friendly materials and you hope it won't come back and bite you in the nose. Bamboo floors are one of those materials -- they're easily found, the price is good, the installation effort is pretty much minimal, and it's something you can control the look of -- the grain is very predictable, very uniform, it's a very clean look."

Most bamboo is found in China's Zhejiang Province, also known as the "bamboo sea," where a bamboo forest roughly the size of Texas has for centuries supported peasants and farmers. Today, thanks in large part to the increased demand for bamboo flooring, those same farmers are quickly being drawn into the global economy.

Right now, there is no bamboo industry in the United States. Marler Spence, a member of the American Bamboo Society and a self-styled bamboo guru who has cultivated more than 100 varieties of bamboo on his 25-acre farm in south Louisiana, once entertained the notion of manufacturing flooring himself -- his biggest "crop" is several acres of the towering Moso bamboo. But after several visits to Chinese factories, he realized it would never be practical. "I don't see it ever working here like it's working in China," he says of the 21-step, mostly hands-on process. "These farmers have grown bamboo for many years. What's changed is that because of these products -- the biggest is flooring -- peasants are now becoming businessmen, farmers are now factory owners."


Marler decided he was better off selling his plants for landscaping purposes, although his Bamboo Gardens serves as a sort of botanical education center.

"Bamboo is enjoying popularity in gardens and flooring, and interior design, but that's kind of faddish," he said. "There's also sort of a groundswell of people who are learning about a plant that is very useful. It's a natural process of people learning, where more and more people are finding out about its versatility. 'Bamboo is more than a plant, it's a philosophy,'" Marler says, quoting Wolfgang Eberts, Europe's largest bamboo grower. ("He's very big in bamboo circles," Marler assures me.) "And it really can be. It appeals to those, uh, you know, the green people."

Certainly eco-consciousness seems to have infiltrated almost every purchasing decision we make, but there are, of course, always trade-offs -- like the sweatshop labor used to produce those $2 rubber-soled shoes you love so much. Bamboo flooring's biggest trade-off is formaldehyde, a highly toxic adhesive used in varying levels in almost all of the most widely available brands of bamboo flooring. The off-gassing of formaldehyde, which can be detrimental to humans, will continue throughout the life of the product. Only two companies, Bamboo Mountain and Teragren, use glues that are essentially formaldehyde-free. And as the market floods with more importers who have little control over the manufacturing process, consumers have to be especially careful about whom they're buying the product from.

DeBoer says his own motivation in choosing only green materials has as much to do with sustaining his career as it does sustaining the environment.


"I enjoy what I do and I'd like to be able to continue to do that," he says. "So in some ways, it's sort of a selfish motivation to find materials that we're not going to run out of. Sure that vertical-grain Douglas fir and old redwood would be lovely, but a lot of those trees are better off just being trees."

Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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