Bamboo flooring gains acceptance in US as processes including 'carbonizing' and 'stranding' allow product to mimic colors, grains, of hardwoods; American Bamboo Society official says material is 23% harder than oak, 13% harder than rock maple

LANCASTER, Pennsylvania , March 21, 2014 () – What plant material can become a floor, skyscraper, towel, bicycle, couture gown, vegetable, cabinet or skin moisturizer?

The answer is bamboo. This is something the people of Asia have known forever, but in the U.S. its use has been largely limited to porch furniture and tiki torches.

That has changed. First, innovators decided to see what technology and ingenuity could do for this ancient plant. Plenty, as it turned out. Then environmentalism went mainstream, turning bamboo into the darling of designers, architects, homeowners and, of course, green believers.

Bamboo flooring is readily available in the Lancaster area. It's part of the flooring arsenal of companies like Lowe's, Home Depot, Lumber Liquidators and Heritage Floors. Sales associates at Lumber Liquidators say they "sell a ton of it," and do-it-yourselfers love it because it's especially easy to install. On the other hand, Louise Reely of Heritage Floors in Ronks feels that local homeowners still need to learn more about it.

"New technology is now applied to bamboo flooring, so it looks more like traditional hardwood flooring," she says. "That's making it more familiar - and therefore acceptable - to homeowners, but it still has a way to go. It's a shame, really, because those homeowners who give it a chance tell us they like it a lot."

Reely explains that when bamboo flooring first made it to the marketplace, it had a light-colored, distinctly streamlined appearance - acceptable to homeowners who like contemporary styles, but not to aficionados of more traditional decors. Now, however, bamboo flooring processes known as "carbonizing" and "stranding" create darker finishes and mimic the graining and unique color variations of hardwoods. Bamboo can now be color-enhanced to replicate virtually any species of hardwood, and is available in smooth as well as hand-scraped and distressed finishes.

Bamboo flooring comes in different grains, Reely says, each producing a different look. A vertical grain creates a smooth, uniform look, while a horizontal grain shows off bamboo's random growth rings. There's also a strand-woven version that highlights the natural character of bamboo.

Thinking of those tiki torches and planting stakes known to gardeners, you may assume bamboo floors are fragile, but you couldn't be more wrong, according to David King of the American Bamboo Society.

Bamboo is 23 percent harder than oak and 13 percent harder than rock maple. In flooring, hardness translates to durability. A bamboo floor is also extremely easy to maintain with everyday cleaning products.

Bamboo flooring and cabinetry were the first products to be accepted as an alternative to hardwood, but these days the material also shows up as moldings, window frames, paneling, stair treads, laminates, engineered lumber and even structural elements.

Architect Darrel DeBoer, one of the world's foremost experts on building with bamboo, says that the material excels in high-density strength, in some ways outclassing steel and concrete.

"It could be used to build skyscrapers," the California-based DeBoer says in a phone interview. "They're already using it for important structures in Europe and South America. But don't expect to see bamboo homes in U.S. subdivisions anytime soon. Our zoning laws wouldn't allow it."

You could, however, use bamboo all through a house. As cooking utensils and furniture, for example, and as lamps, upholstery, throws, pillows, rugs, sheets and sinks. In the garage, you could even find a bamboo bicycle. Cycling enthusiasts love the lightness of such bikes.

Clothing comes into play, too. Designers like Diane von Furstenberg and Oscar de la Renta have used bamboo fabrics for their clothing, partly because of its softness, smooth "hand" and easy price, but the big draw is its "green" image.

But lately, that image has been a bit tarnished. Critics say that manufacturing the textiles often involves heavy chemicals; admirers contend that it requires no more chemicals than cotton, a textile that - unlike bamboo - is grown with extensive use of pesticides and fertilizers. Fans also cite bamboo's natural antibacterial properties.

Bamboo is actually a grass, explains King. There are more than 1,000 varieties growing in the Far East, but it can grow anywhere except the Arctic regions. It can be harvested in four to seven years, and needn't be replanted because its roots sprout new shoots.

DeBoer calls bamboo's reproduction rate astounding.

"It's better than trees," he says. "Bamboo replaces 30 percent of its biomass in a year. A tree's rate is 3 to 5 percent. (Bamboo) generates 30 percent more oxygen than trees, prevents soil erosion and, because of its high nitrogen consumption, it helps mitigate water pollution from manufacturing, farming and sewage treatment."

So how come you rarely see bamboo in gardens? Lancaster residents, it appears, are familiar with the horror stories of how bamboo will take over an entire neighborhood.

"Indeed, some varieties are on the lists of invasive plants," says Drew Dvorchak, a landscape designer with Erb Brothers Landscaping, Lititz. But, he adds, there is a whole category of bamboos that only sends up new canes inches from existing ones. That forms a compact clump, he says, "that makes them great landscaping plants."

All in all, bamboo appears to be the super material of the future, and word has it that even some legislators think so. A bill is under consideration to plant three experimental bamboo forests in the U.S. The goal, of course, is to take the plant from import to domestic growth, but as in all things political, the outcome is unpredictable.

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