As you may have noticed, bamboo is one of the biggest darlings in the natural product landscape. You can find it all over the place – kitchen utensils, keyboards, cutting boards, clothing – you name it. Perhaps one of the widest worlds of applications is its use in building materials. In that product category, you’ll find it used in flooring, countertops, cabinets, wall coverings, and much more. But is it all it’s cracked up to be?If you’re interested in building or remodeling with bamboo-based products, check out the true pros and cons for both your home and the planet.
Bamboo has an unparalleled growth rate in the plant world. Some types bamboo can put on 35 inches a day! Because the regeneration rate for bamboo forests is much quicker than any other woody plant, it’s a far superior sustainable choice.
Durable and strong
Technically, bamboo is a grass and not a wood and its unique tissue lends itself to be an incredible building material. It’s different from other grass plants like sugar cane and corn, as it becomes harder over the years with a wood-like toughness. On the Janka Hardness Scale, natural bamboo rates in at 1380, harder than oak and ash. Unlike wood, however, its short fibers make it flexible and light, and this bendability makes bamboo a great choice for earthquake-prone areas. Additionally, Guadua bamboo is even said to exceed timber fibers and mild steel in strength! What wood could beat this combo of characteristics?
Bamboo functions essentially the same as wood, with no special installation techniques required. The harvesting and installation of bamboo is fairly simple. It’s easy to cut, no bark to peel during processing, and its lightness makes it ideal to handle, transport, and store. There are also numerous looks and options, allowing you to truly customize the bamboo to your home. For example, you can opt for bamboo flooring in various stains or types that appear to be a standard hardwood floor.
Positive environmental effects
Aside from bamboo’s rapid growth rate, the production of bamboo also yields benefits to the planet. A complex root network anchors the soil down, preventing erosion when rain or flooding occurs. It also helps the soil retain water, aiding in moisture regulation throughout the rainy and dry seasons. Bamboo also absorbs more tons of CO2 than trees, due to its extreme growth rate. The booming market for bamboo could be a boon to our environment!
Choosing to build with bamboo could save you a few bucks, too. Do a basic Home Depot price comparison and you’ll see that many bamboo flooring options are only around $2 to $4 per square foot, versus about $4 to $6 for wood. Of course, when building green, doing a background check is important so that you actually buy bamboo that has been certified for sustainable practices. Fortunately, the Forest Stewardship Council has a directory that shows all of the FSC-certified bamboo companies.
Susceptible to deterioration
Due to bamboo’s high starch content, if the levels of sap or humidity are high, this plant is rather vulnerable to natural elements. Insects, fungus, rot, and fire may easily take advantage of harvested bamboo if it’s not cut, treated, and stored correctly. There are ways to treat it naturally, like air drying or using heat, but some manufacturers use harmful chemicals, like formaldehyde and arsenic. Although chemical emissions are relatively low, it’s still something to consider.
Sure, the plant itself is very renewable, but is it considered sustainable if it has to be shipped all the way around the world? Since the growing conditions in the U.S. are not as favorable for bamboo plantations as South America and Asia, we have to import it. Some may argue that this tarnishes bamboo’s eco cred, as fossil fuels are burned just to get it here. However, Building with Bamboo explains that harvesting and processing bamboo takes only a small amount of energy and the lightweight factor makes it excellent for boat transportation.
Variance in quality
Considering how little regulation there is of bamboo as a building material, it can be tricky to tell what you’ll get out of the product. There are numerous components that determine the quality of bamboo, and it’s not always easy to differentiate from company to company. It all depends on the species of bamboo, where it was grown, the age at which it was harvested, plus the treatment and finish. Additionally, there’s insufficient data on how well bamboo floors can be refinished, putting the longevity of your floor at risk.
The moral of the bamboo story is that it certainly can be a smart choice for those wanting to build with the earth in mind, but doing your research before buying is incredibly important! Not all companies and products are created equal and it might take a bit of sleuthing to figure it out what’s what. Educating yourself on where your bamboo is coming from, if it has legitimate sustainability certifications, and what type of warranty your product has should help narrow your search.