Oak. Tile. Carpeting. Those floor coverings are very popular. Some homeowners, however,
are opting for an ancient Chinese secret.
When relationship counselor Lissa Coffey bought her new California home earlier this year, she brought the same holistic approach to decorating the house as she does to her work. Among the details she chose to make her house a home were bamboo flooring to replace the tile and carpeting. She opted for the floors because they “are a renewable resource, they're super easy to care for and I love the look.”
Coffey is not alone. Certainly, bamboo is still more readily associated with panda bears than parlor floors. But experts predict that bamboo floors will soon be as commonplace as oak and other hardwoods.
The idea of using bamboo, which is actually a grass, as a materials for flooring isn't new; they've been providing a base for feet in Chinese homes for centuries. But their triple threat of sustainability, affordability and sleek good looks, combined with the increasing availability in U.S. design centers and home supply stores, is what is making them the darling for the 21st century.
As its name suggests, San Rafael, Calif.-based EcoTimber specializes in environmentally friendly wood products, including reclaimed woods that can be reused as well as sustainable products, like bamboo, that can be harvested without harming the environment. Unlike a tree that must be felled in order to be harvested and made into a floor or cabinet, bamboo is a grass that can grow more than 125 feet tall. When it reaches maturity, the grass can be harvested, but it regenerates, so that it does not need to be replanted in order to begin growing again. Bamboo grows quickly and even in soil that has been damaged by poor farming techniques and therefore does not support other crops.
Specialty companies like EcoTimber have been selling bamboo for more than a decade because of its environmentally friendly properties. But in the last two to three years, interest has skyrocketed, says Dan Harrington, director of architectural sales and marketing at EcoTimber. The growing interest can be attribute to two factors: 1. More consumers have seen bamboo floors in action and, 2. More stores are carrying them, so they are easier to buy.
Working with Natural Home magazine, EcoTimber donated bamboo floors to renovate the home of Donna Childs, a New York woman whose apartment was damaged in the Sept. 11, 2001 catastrophe. Designers have been using bamboo floors, particularly in homes that have a sleek, modern sensibility, because its lines are cleaner than knotty pine, oak and other tree woods.
Steve Simonson, CEO of Smooth Corp., a Washington-based firm that owns and operates several flooring Web sites, credits the Internet with some of bamboo's recent popularity, because the Web made it easier for interested homeowners to find stores that carried the product. Over the last few years, he says, the increase in the number of U.S. suppliers of bamboo floors has helped the price drop from $8 to $12 per foot a few years ago to $2 to $8 per foot today. This makes bamboo more affordable than many traditional hardwood floors, although it is not a bargain-basement building material.
The affordability looks even better when durability is taken into account. Most builders and designers consider bamboo as durable as oak and other hardwood floors, although the way that the floor has been finished can impact how hardy it is. Natural bamboo is bleached, resulting in a light color that is what most people associate with bamboo. Carbonized bamboo is sent through a heating process that darkens the wood, and, as a result makes it slightly less hard.
“The growth of bamboo is really coming from higher-end hand-scraped stains that are unique, brilliant shades, with an underlying green,” Simonson says. “The aesthetics mean people love what they get and they feel good because it is Earth-friendly.”
The end-users aren't the only ones who are happy. Bob Ernst installed the floors in his own home after his business, FBN Construction Co. of Boston, installed them for many clients. Ernst says in addition to their other benefits, the bamboo they used was pre-finished, so that it saved time and money during installation. Ernst installed the floors in both his bathroom and his daughter's bathroom four years ago, and says they still look good, and have proven to be moisture resistant and warmer on feet fresh out of the shower than tile.
“With any floor there's always an issue with damage, but there's a secret with bamboo floors. You can rub a little peanut butter on the scratch, and that gets rid of it,” Ernst adds.
Like anything that seems too good to be true, bamboo has some drawbacks. Bamboo floors are made by taking long, individual strips of the grass and gluing them together with adhesive, heat and/or pressure to create solid bamboo floor planks. If the individual strips are thinner than 5/8 of an inch, sometimes the case with very inexpensive bamboo, the quality of the flooring is likely to suffer.
And, as demand of the floors has increased, so have the number of importers bring the goods from China, Korea and Vietnam. As is the case in any industry, some importers are more reputable than others and offer higher quality products. If a price seems too good to be true, Harrington warns, “You get what you pay for.” While in some cases you can save money by cutting out the middleman and buying directly from the manufacturer, working with an interior designer, architect or other professional to find a reputable manufacturer can save headaches down the road.
“It takes a little while for new flooring to catch on because people are not willing to lay out thousands of dollars unless they know it is going to work,” Harrington says. “It does work, and now it has just exploded.”