Bamboo is one of the world’s oldest natural building materials. In Asia and South America, where it occurs naturally, it’s been the building material of choice for centuries for everything from homes to bridges and scaffolding. This wonder plant of the past offers a multitude of options for the contemporary homemaker.
Being an extremely fast-growing and easy-to-grow resource, bamboo has become the sustainable choice for many in the green revolution. It is an extremely hardy type of grass that grows well without the need for pesticides and fertilisers and needs little to no irrigation. Bamboo is exceptionally fast growing, with some species growing as much as 91cm a day! It’s this phenomenal growth rate that enables it to be harvested after about 2–3 years, and once harvested, the bamboo plants regrow, a fact that makes it a far more sustainable option than wood – and it needs to be harvested by hand, which contributes to job creation. In a sustainably harvested forest only 20% of the forest is harvested annually, allowing for a 100% harvest in five years.
It is interesting to note that a bamboo forest will release approximately 35% more oxygen compared to the equivalent sized wood forest. It also absorbs carbon from the environment, only releasing it when it decomposes. So, using bamboo as a long-term building material, for things like flooring and countertops, means that the carbon it absorbed is stored safely and not released back into the environment.
Bamboo has a higher tensile strength than steel, and its elasticity makes it ideal for earthquake-prone areas; in addition to this, its lightweight nature makes construction easier, and transporting it relatively inexpensive. When used in the home as flooring, bamboo’s natural antibacterial properties make it ideal for those challenged by allergens, and its resistance to insects makes its use as fencing, pergolas and screens ideal.
Bamboo in its natural form
In the Far East bamboo has for centuries been used as scaffolding, and it still is – even for skyscrapers. And it is increasingly being used in the construction industry today, with several architects in Asia choosing bamboo as the material of choice. Asian – and increasingly non-Asian – architects are slowly introducing the rest of the world to the versatility and utility of this ancient but also up-to-the-minute building material by building whole houses, and even apartment blocks, from natural bamboo.
But most South African home owners are more likely to have somewhat less ambitious bamboo aspirations, so it’s fortunate that there are several other ways to incorporate this wonder grass into architectural designs – from fencing, pergolas and screens to engineered bamboo flooring, textiles and decor items.
Being a rapidly renewable material, bamboo lends itself to being used as a replacement for wood, which has a growth period of at least 20 years before reaching maturity compared to that of bamboo. The bamboo does, however, need to be processed in some manner before it resembles a beautifully grained hardwood floor.
Bamboo boards are available as either solid or engineered, the difference being in the way they are produced. Solid bamboo boards are made from strips of bamboo that are dried, glued together and compressed to make a solid board, whereas engineered bamboo boards consist of a base layer of plywood topped with a layer of bamboo. Counterintuitively, the solid bamboo is often less costly due to an easier manufacturing process.
Bamboo products for the home
Flooring: Bamboo is the ideal alternative to hardwood flooring because of its strength, durability and eco-friendliness. The two styles of floorboard available are strand woven and solid vertical. Strand woven bamboo floors are made using long strands of bamboo and compressing them under extreme pressure using a non-toxic resin, whereas solid vertical bamboo is created by flattening the bamboo poles, cutting them into strips, and then laminating them vertically, giving a slender, typical bamboo appearance.
Flooring is available in its natural light colour or can be carbonised to darken the surface. Some manufacturers use a blend of both to create a distinctive multitoned look. On a new build, bamboo flooring can be installed directly onto the concrete slab, and when renovating, it can be laid over existing tiles or old floorboards, reducing the mess and cost of removal. The hardness of bamboo flooring is measured using the Janka harness test, which measures the resistance of the wood to denting and wear – amazingly, bamboo scores higher than teak, oak and maple, making it the ideal choice for most homes.
Window treatments: Bamboo blinds have come a long way from the original rough, tied-together-with-string blinds of yesteryear. Created as roll-up or Venetian-style, blinds made from bamboo are lightweight and stylish, blending in with both traditional and modern decor. Additionally, they gently filter the light, creating a calm and soothing ambience. Blinds can be custom made to fit from specialised blind manufacturers or purchased in standard sizes from a variety of home stores and decor outlets.
Countertops: Just about anything can be created from bamboo boards, including kitchen and bathroom countertops. Bamboo’s strength, durability and antibacterial nature lend it to being used in these areas where hygiene is of utmost importance. And don’t limit it just to the counters – add splashbacks, chopping boards and a butcher block for good measure. An advantage of using solid bamboo boards for countertops is that wear and tear can easily be sanded and refinished to make them ‘as good as new’ – additionally, bamboo is more resistant to moisture than wooden and melamine countertops.
Furniture: Today’s furniture designers are spoilt for choice when it comes to materials available, and bamboo is one that is rising in popularity – mostly because its eco-credentials are equally matched by style and durability. Bamboo furniture can generally withstand more abuse than traditional hardwood or pine furniture, being more resistant to chips, dents and water damage. When it comes to choice, think tables, chairs, cabinets, shelving units, beds, headboards and bedside units … you name it, and there will be someone who can make it.
Textiles: Bamboo textiles are made by extracting the cellulose fibre from natural bamboo to create what is commonly known as rayon. Today we find beautiful ranges of luxurious bamboo bedware with its silky-smooth feel, bath towels that are 3–4 times more absorbent than their cotton equivalent, and an assortment of fabrics for throws, cushion covers and the like.
Decor: From designer stores to brand name decor outlets, bamboo is the in thing – whether it be platters, bowls, coasters or wall art, you’ll find the perfect accessory for your stylish sustainable home.
Take an ancient resource, one that’s been used for centuries, add a little ingenuity and a spot of engineering, and what do you come up with? A sustainable product with multiple uses that’s both stylish and durable and just perfect for the contemporary home owner.
GROW YOUR OWN
Bamboo is incredibly fast growing, so it’s perfectly feasible to use it to create a living hedge or even – if you have enough land – to grow a small plantation somewhere on the estate. But be very careful if you do. Some bamboo species are terribly invasive, so do your homework before you unwittingly unleash a rapidly growing green monster.