Woven bamboo house designed by Danish architect Søren Korsgaard

The building material of choice for the 21st century might just be bamboo

If I told you there’s a building material that is up to 50 times stronger than oak but lighter than steel or concrete, that is flexible, aesthetically pleasing and highly rated for its green credentials, you might say it sounds too good to be true.

If I went on to explain that the material can be used not only to build bridges and cathedrals but also to create floors, walls, clothing, paper, vinegar, cosmetics, animal feed and a vegetable for human consumption, you would probably dismiss it as some Utopian pipe dream.

But the product exists. It’s bamboo.

Today, there is a worldwide movement of architects, interior designers, aid workers and environmentalists championing this hollow-stemmed member of the grass family. Giant bamboo, which grows more than a meter a day, reaching heights of 90 feet or more and diameters of up to 15 inches, is being cultivated and harvested for modern architect-designed structures with interest in the projects growing as fast as the grasses.

Colombia is at the forefront of modern bamboo architecture, and talents such as Oscar Hidalgo Lopez, Marcelo Villegas and Simón Véez build expensive homes and public buildings from bamboo. Here in the United States, California architect Darrel DeBoer, who specializes in building with sustainable materials, has created university buildings from bamboo and written a manual about its use. Hawaii-based Bamboo Technologies has attained government building code certification for one species of structural bamboo and built more than 50 bamboo homes in the islands and California, the most expensive one costing $250,000. The company hopes to build homes in other temperate areas of the United States and Europe this year, and its latest annual bamboo house design competition attracted more than 300 entrants from 63 countries.

Bali-based Linda Garland, dubbed “the queen of bamboo,” makes beds, sofas and other furniture from some of the 200 species of bamboo (of the 1,500 or so worldwide) on her Panchoran Estate. Her pieces have been installed in the homes of clients such as David Bowie, Richard Branson and Hollywood film director Rob Cohen.

Garland, who also runs the non-profit Environmental Bamboo Foundation, which promotes the use of the material worldwide, says she’s “enchanted by [its] aesthetics” and hopes that luxurious homes such as the one for Cohen will help address its “association with poverty”, which is still a “problem with its status.”

Pabellon was created by Simón Vélez and Marcelo Villegas, acknowledged pioneers in the modern use of bamboo in architecture. The most notable achievement of bamboo structures, like the one pictured here, is their ability to endure hurricanes and earthquakes.

Still, she remains committed to encouraging the use of bamboo for rebuilding low-income housing after natural disasters because bamboo houses fare better than many other structures in hurricanes and earthquakes (up to magnitude five on the Richter scale, according to a 2004 test by Britain’s Timber Research and Development Association). Garland also emphasizes the environmentally friendly aspects of bamboo. Its yield (weight per acre per year) is up to 25 times that of timber. One hectare of bamboo can yield 22- 44 tons a year, and it is ready to harvest within three to five years. Because it is botanically a grass, more shoots simply appear from where it is cut, so it doesn’t need to be replanted. Bamboo prevents soil erosion, sequesters at least four times more carbon than a forest of young trees and releases 35 percent more oxygen.

Bamboo’s ecological attributes translate to an equally copious crop of applications in architecture and home décor. Take a look at some of the innovative ways this natural wonder is materializing in the modern, manmade world of design.

Beneath the feet

Probably the most visible use of bamboo in recent years has been flooring. It’s made by splitting the hollow bamboo canes into long, narrow strips that are planed and then glued together under heat and pressure to form planks. Sometimes the strips are laid flat, much like a hardwood floor, to produce a flooring that shows the bamboo’s nodes. Other times, narrower strips are stood on one slender edge, resulting in flooring that looks more like hardwood. The process results in a material that’s dimensionally stable — that is, it doesn’t expand and contract like regular hardwood. Amazingly, bamboo is also harder than most hardwoods, and because of its moisture- resistant abilities, it is now a favored choice of consumers in the wet areas of the home, reducing problems such as warping or gapping.

Bamboo, from an environmental aspect, has been a revelation. When a consumer opts for a bamboo floor ahead of a traditional wood floor, he or she has done their bit to save a tree. With bamboo’s ability to reach maturity in as little as five years, its use over traditional wood products is just what the environmental doctor ordered. Of course, our Asian neighbors have been using bamboo for all types of things for centuries.

For attractiveness, bamboo flooring has a distinctive appearance with a uniform color and tight grain. Add that to the fact that bamboo floors are easy to clean and maintain, they last a long time, you can get warranties from manufacturers between 15-25 years, installing over the top of numerous sub flooring such as wood and vinyl is a breeze, and they are an absolute boon for allergy sufferers as they don’t promote allergy causing agents such as dust and dust mites. Bamboo also creates a lasting first impression, and combined with its environmental qualities, it is almost a no brainer as a flooring alternative.

However, it’s still a good idea to do some due diligence before deciding to buy. The rapid rise in bamboo flooring’s popularity has been a bonus for its affordability. Certainly prices have been driven down because of consumer demand, and it competes most favorably with wood products such as red oak. But again, get the best advice; don’t take shortcuts because they’re cheaper.

There are definitely a multitude of advantages in using bamboo for your hardwood flooring — strength, beauty and versatility but shop around. It’s your hard-earned money, so invest it wisely.

Expect the unexpected

You’ve heard of bamboo furniture. You’ve eaten bamboo shoots, and if you saw the martial-arts epic House of Flying Daggers, you know that it can form makeshift prison bars when sharpened into spears and hurled by ninjas. What’s less expected is the way bamboo is turning up on beds and in bathrooms. Bamboo fiber is being woven into linens such as sheets, blankets and towels, as well as fabric for clothing. It’s breathable and has a natural ability to wick away moisture, says Leslie Gillock, vice president of brand management for Springs Global Inc., which recently introduced a bedding line for its Wamsutta brand called Zen Comforts. Indeed, Bed Bath and Beyond carries bamboo fiber sheets, and Target debuted a line of bamboo sheets and towels that’s sold out at many stores.

Now try this on for size: bamboo tank tops. Bamboo shirts. No, wait — bamboo underwear.

With bamboo’s increase in popularity in western culture, it’s little wonder that the fashion industry has jumped on the bamboo bandwagon. Bamboo 54 and Gucci are two big names in fashion, designing entire lines around bamboo. Gucci recently included bamboo in its line with products such as clutch bags and sandals carrying its name. One of the big attractions with bamboo fiber is its comfortable nature and easy feel. Bamboo enthusiasts will tell you it’s easy to wear, and this enthusiasm is spreading by the day among consumers. The potential for bamboo fashion is enormous. It’s been described as having a similar finish and feel to silk. With that, the possibilities are endless.

So how does giant timber bamboo — the same stuff used to make flooring and butcher blocks — turn into soft sheets and towels?

“You’re taking the plant and breaking it down into a liquid form,” says Rich Delano, owner of Bamboo Textiles. His company primarily deals with clothes, blending bamboo fibers with organic cotton to make T-shirts and scarves.

Proponents of bamboo fabric tout its antibacterial properties and its coolness, which makes it great for clothes and sheets. As for the caustic chemicals, Delano says bamboo is an environmentally sound choice, but he’s refreshingly frank about whether it’s a perfect method.

“If you ask me, bamboo is as natural as it’s going to get, but is it 100 percent clean? No,” he says. “Am I 100 percent clean? Everybody has little bit of dirty in them.”

He says the best we can do is mitigate environmental harm from the manufacturing process by using natural dyes.

The fashion and furniture industries have jumped on the bamboo bandwagon: laminated bamboo chair by Michael McDonough; watch by Gucci; shoes by Jan Jansen. Bamboo is also an excellent constituent material. Anywhere you might consider graphite, aluminum or composites (right), bamboo is coming into play more and more. It creates a lasting first impression, and combined with its environmental qualities, it is transcendental. This sculpture (below) by Akio Hizume at the Fairchild Gardens in Miami is a living example.

Success story

Architect and designer David Sands may have roots in Ocala, but now, 5,000 miles away, he spends his time barefoot in the jungles of Maui, plotting a revolution in the world of design. Progressive and excitedly do-oriented, he and his cohorts around the world have a very clear goal: for you to know that bamboo — the plant that can save the planet — is coming soon to an urban jungle near you.

Co-founder of Bamboo Technologies, with Jeffree Trudeau, Sands says, “From harvest to home décor, bamboo is consciously constructed. It’s stronger than steel and earthquake resistant, plus it’s got more than 5,000 uses in China alone.”

A popular anecdote comes from supporters of the Grow Your Own House concept, reflected in a book of the same name by Simon Velez; Sands explains: “On a plot just 60’ x 60’, less than a twelfth of an acre,” he says, “in the course of only five years, you can harvest enough bamboo to build a 1,500-square-foot home and harvest enough each subsequent year to build an additional house. You can almost watch it grow.”

Sands, whose company designs all types of buildings that favor the ecology of the site, and stress the well-being of the environment, believes that bamboo is a viable replacement for wood in many phases of home construction.

New York designer and bamboo proponent Michael McDonough concurs. “The great thing about bamboo is its strength-to-weight ratio. It’s stronger than steel in tension, stronger than concrete in compression, and more stable than red oak when processed as lumber.”

McDonough, co-founder of a bamboo-focused design program at RISD and creator of the world ‘s first commercial collection of bamboo furniture, says, “I don’t know of any other material that’s as light as balsa wood but stronger than steel.” And aligning those specs with computer modeling has yielded great results: tensile, self-supporting bridges, super-strength bicycles and surfboards, composite lumber, even prototype automobile designs. “We need to train the next generation of designers in the use of bamboo,” he continues. “And we’ve got them interested — now we need to expand to the marketplace.”

To help make that happen, Sands and his partners at Bamboo Technologies are creating a certification and inspection board to ensure streamlined bamboo production. “The goal is to create standardized procedures — from harvest to Home Depot — so people in design, construction and zoning will take a look at it.” The certification process will allow bamboo to break out of its current “alternative” designation, and, for the first time in history, make it a viable lumber and design material for use around the world. Meanwhile, much of Sands time is also spent working with revisions to American building codes that would allow more bamboo components in construction.

If, as they say, the proof is in the pudding, then one has to look no further than San Francisco’s Smith and Fong Co., who installed 22,000 square feet of their bamboo flooring at the Callaway Gardens Environmental Center in Pine Mountain, Georgia. And all of North America’s Aveda Lifestyle Stores are custom fitted with their three-fourths-inch bamboo plywood, paneling and cabinets.

Bamboo is also an excellent constituent material. Mixing it with concrete can replace the need for steel re-bar, while surfboard designers have found it to be an excellent tool in their quest for the perfect ride. Competition-grade bamboo skateboards (cut from plywood) are used by top boarders worldwide. In fact, anywhere designers might consider graphite, aluminum or composites, bamboo is coming into play more and more.

Of bamboo’s many faces in the West, its influence on Asian arts is the most visible, and for good reason. Writers, poets and artisans throughout Asia hold bamboo gardens in the highest regard, not only as subject matter but as a place to conduct their craft. Part of the cultural veneration is plain chemistry — bamboo absorbs two-thirds more carbon from the atmosphere than any other plant and releases two-thirds more oxygen, producing super-oxygenated, pure air with perfectly balanced humidity — the ultimate creativity tonic.

Meanwhile, the sound of wind whistling through its leaves can calm the most torrid mind. So at a time when we are discovering the ecological, structural, even spiritual benefits of bamboo, designers are coming up with hip ways to use it. Material items that can heal the world — imagine that.

by Heather Lee From Bamboo – Design