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Design 2000

Going Beyond the Tiki Hut

Its sturdiness, light weight and eco-friendly renewability are turning bamboo into a force in architecture and home design.

August 31, 2000|JEANNINE STEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mention bamboo and what invariably springs to mind are tiki huts, funky, inexpensive furniture and crudely constructed floor mats. But bamboo is quickly losing this tacky image thanks to some dedicated American followers who are using the plant for everything from flooring to home building.

Bamboo as a construction material isn't exactly new--it's been used around the world for thousands of years. As furniture it's had a long history as well, enjoying huge popularity here and abroad during the Victorian era. But its use in this country as a viable resource for structures has occurred only in the last decade or so.

Fans of the fiber say it's a more eco-friendly alternative to wood because bamboo is renewable and sustainable, with some species maturing in four years. They tout its hardness and strength (comparable to steel), its light weight and flexibility (better to withstand earthquakes). Bamboo can be used as food (some shoots are edible), and the fibers can also be woven into baskets and even clothes.

But there's still that tiki hut thing.

"I tell people I make bamboo flooring, and they picture little round things on the floor and say, 'Are you crazy?' " says Steen Ostenson, CEO of TimberGrass, a bamboo flooring and paneling company in Bainbridge Island, Wash. "Then they stand on it and don't even know it's bamboo. I feel our main job is really to educate people."

"There is a strong preconception about what the aesthetic might be," agrees Darrel DeBoer, an Alameda-based architect. "People automatically think of something really cheesy from the '50s. Then you start showing them some structures that don't have these associations, they're just really beautiful. It doesn't have to have a grass thatched roof."

Those who work with bamboo describe an almost epiphanic conversion. Ostenson, an architect and builder, recalls watching plywood come apart on a home he was building. After seeing bamboo flooring in 1993, "the light went on for me. I am into alternative community design using alternative energy and heat and waste water recovery. I thought, this is amazing. You can do so much with it, it's such a versatile fiber. This is something I really want to dedicate my life to."

His company mills its own bamboo, imported from China. The plants are cut into vertical strips, planed, hot-pressed and laminated, then installed like wood flooring. Ostenson says he uses an environmentally safe glue, and the floors can be stained or painted. With care, they should last 100 years or more.

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Customers are drawn to both the aesthetics of the material as well as its environmental advantages.

Susan Booker and husband Jerry Shevick chose bamboo flooring for roughly half of their 2,400-square foot minimalist style Malibu home "because we liked the look of it," Booker says. "With a hardwood floor you see the edge of the planks, and this looks like it's one continuous piece. It has more texture, you can see the fibers and the rings of the bamboo. And it's something that's more easily renewable than wood, and we really liked that part of it."

After seeing it featured in shelter magazines, they did copious research. "We'd heard some negative things about it, that it bowed and warped," Booker adds, "but those comments were secondhand. We did a lot of legwork, and just like anything else, there are good manufacturers and bad manufacturers."

So far they've experienced only a slight rise in one plank, but no bowing or warping.

Those who think bamboo is an inexpensive alternative to wood can have a rude awakening. TimberGrass floors, similar in hardness to maple, are about $10 to $11 per foot, compared with about $7 for oak and $8 to $11 for maple.

Timothy Ivory's bamboo furniture ranges from $600 to $3,000; roofs and other small structures start at $3,000 and can go to $20,000.

His Dania Beach, Fla., company, BambooFurniture.com, created the bamboo pool bar at Ian Schrager's hip, contemporary and renovated Delano Hotel in Miami, as well as a bamboo overhang at the hotel's rooftop spa. Ivory delivered the materials, he adds, on a bicycle.

"Every day more and more people find it [bamboo]," says Ivory, who discovered the plant in the 1980s when he used it for theatrical sets. "There are some amazing visionaries and thinkers working with it."

He's heartened by seeing more bamboo in unlikely places, even as a decorative element. Pottery Barn is using it in furniture. Live bamboo grows in the lobby at the New York headquarters of Revlon. "It's [bamboo] happening more and more, but it's not just going to be a fad. It's becoming a normal material that people are going to be able to access and buy."

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