Is construction-grade bamboo the cash crop— and building material— of the future?
A small, but dedicated, group of true believers has been working for years to get bamboo recognized as a construction material that can hold its own with wood, concrete and steel.
It’s been an uphill battle, but the bamboo boosters have started to make headway, filled with enthusiasm for the environmental friendliness of the planet’s fastest-growing woody plant.
“As a building material, bamboo has a very light impact on the Earth,” says Dean Johnson, a bamboo proponent who works for EcoArchitecture LLC on Maui. “It takes an acre of hardwood forest to build a typical American home, and that forest takes a minimum of 40 years to regenerate. You could build the same size house from a quarter of an acre of bamboo, and that quarter acre can be harvested sustainably, year after year.”
Not only do bamboo forests grow back rapidly after they’re cut, they also work quickly to restore nutrient-depleted soil and degraded watersheds, and they sequester up to 30 percent more atmospheric carbon than comparably sized hardwood forests, Johnson says.
Of the 1,400 species of bamboo, about 20 are considered elite timber species. All of them surpass common construction woods such as Douglas fir in strength, Johnson says, “sometimes by a magnitude of five or more.”
One of those species, a Vietnamese variety known as Bambusa stenostachya, has emerged as the front runner in the effort to help bamboo shed its image as a building material best suited to jungle villages and tiki bars.
A Maui company called Bamboo Technologies has been ushering Bambusa stenostachya through the rigorous and costly battery of tests and procedures required for the approval of the International Code Council, the main organization responsible for writing U.S. building codes. The company uses the species to manufacture prefabricated bamboo houses in Vietnam.
Within a few months, the ICC is expected to issue a technical report on Bambusa stenostachya to the thousands of building departments throughout the nation. The report will give building officials the information needed to issue permits for Bamboo Technologies’ kit homes, which range from a 110-square-foot hut to a 1,500-square-foot, plantation-style dwelling.
Thirty-three of the houses have already been put up on Maui, all with conditional permits from the county. Constructed from both bamboo plywood and beams, the structures can withstand hurricanes and earthquakes as well as wood-framed buildings, insists Jeffree Trudeau, Bamboo Technologies’ vice president of operations. “We designed them to exceed all required building code standards for Hawaii and California,” Trudeau says.
Some bamboo advocates envision a homegrown timber industry fed by vast stands of construction-grade bamboo that sway in the trade winds on land once dedicated to sugar cane. A handful of demonstration projects are already under way.
Maui farmer Rich von Wellsheim put in 10 acres of bamboo on his organic Kipahulu farm this year. He doesn’t foresee any trouble selling edible bamboo shoots to Asian markets and restaurants, but he’s not yet sure what he’ll do with the 300 to 500 poles he expects each acre to yield each year. Perhaps he’ll build arbors, gazebos or trellises, he says. In the meantime, the bamboo is helping to restore land damaged by cattle grazing. “The more people understand about bamboo, the more they realize what a miracle crop it is,” von Wellsheim says.
Whether or not bamboo timber plantations ever take off in the Islands remains to be seen. But, according to Kim Higbee, program chair for the Hawaii chapter of the American Bamboo Society, one thing’s certain: People will continue to plant bamboo in their yards.
“It’s an excellent hedging and screening plant,” Higbee says. “Most of us don’t want to see our neighbors, so that industry is assured.”