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Bamboo Captures the Chic Crowd


This article was produced by BuildingGreen, Inc. -  www.buildinggreen.com

In the midst of a search for a new apartment, I had to laugh when I came upon this listing: “Beautiful one bedroom apartment in the center of town, nice Bamboo floors, washer & dryer, and Garage. Available Immediately.” Wanda, the woman who placed the ad, obviously thought the panache of bamboo would be the ticket to renting the apartment. And maybe she was right: about 200 companies imported about 45 million square feet of bamboo flooring into the U.S. in 2005, according to David Knight, president and CEO of Teragren, LLC, which sells bamboo flooring, paneling, and veneer. That represents 2% to 3% of the wood floor market, Knight says, and interest is skyrocketing.

A member of the grass family, bamboo is lauded for its hardness and strength. It grows tremendously quickly, allowing the poles, or culms, to be harvested every three to six years without harming the plant. What’s more, as bamboo grows and photosynthesizes, it sequesters carbon, helping to stabilize the earth’s climate.

Like any building product, however, bamboo also has some downsides. Although bamboo plantations usually replace less ecologically valuable land uses, they have also replaced virgin forests, and, since bamboo is aggressive, it can invade neighboring land. Fertilizers and pesticides are sometimes used in cultivation, but this practice is more common with bamboo grown for food. Although bamboo forests could be certified according to standards developed by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), none have been yet. Finally, although bamboo grows throughout much of the world, nearly all of the bamboo used in North America comes from China, necessitating long voyages powered by fossil fuels.

Bamboo flooring comes in several varieties. Solid flooring is made up of distinct layers of bamboo, while engineered flooring is made of a bamboo veneer glued to a different substrate. Horizontal-grain, or flat-grain, flooring features bamboo’s characteristic nodes, while vertical-grain, or edge-grain, has a more uniform look. Bamboo flooring is commonly sold in bamboo’s natural blond or a darker, “carbonized” hue, which comes from heat-treating the bamboo, literally caramelizing the sugars in the fiber; bamboo can also be stained a range of other colors.

A relatively new development in the bamboo market is strand flooring, which is made by separating the bamboo into individual fibers and binding them under heat and pressure. The resulting flooring is significantly harder than either solid or engineered products, but retains little of the distinctive bamboo look.

Bamboo products qualify for the rapidly renewable materials credit under the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED® Rating System. Products made without urea-formaldehyde binders, including strand products and some other flooring, also meet the requirements of the indoor environmental quality credit for low emissions. No bamboo products have been certified according to the Greenguard™ or FloorScore™ standards for indoor air quality, but some comply with Europe’s E1 standard.

While bamboo may not be the environmental silver bullet that some manufacturers would have you believe, it undoubtedly outperforms wood in some areas. It’s also a great way to initiate a dialogue about the environmental virtues of different building materials. And, as the apartment ad demonstrates, it’s chic.

- Jessica Boehland



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