Building With Bamboo

Victor Cusak is a bamboo nut. You can see it on the cover of his book Bamboo Rediscovered (Chelsea Green, 1998) as he stands in a bamboo grove with his wife, Deidre Stewart, who photographed bamboo groves, buildings, furniture, and pretty much all things bamboo for Cusak’s Bamboo World (Kangaroo Press, 1999), which will be available in the United States in August. Together Cusak and Stewart grow 1,200 varieties of bamboo, the walls of their home on the east coast of Australia are made from bamboo, and they dine on fresh bamboo every day.

In Gold Beach, Oregon, Gib and Diane Cooper are spearheading a movement to acquaint Americans with the beauty and versatility of bamboo as a plant and as building material. They grow 150 varieties at Tradewinds Bamboo Nursery and they devoted the last fourteen years to developing a bamboo industry in the Pacific Northwest, headquarters for bamboo mania in the United States. On Bainbridge Island in Washington, Steen Ostenson, founder of TimberGrass, the first U.S. manufacturer of bamboo flooring, is certain his enthusiasm for the material will spread like an invasive species of running bamboo in the next few years. Ostenson expects Resource Fiber, parent company to TimberGrass, to grow by 600 percent in the next two years as it expands into tables, oriented strand boards, bamboo particle boards, and other composite bamboo building materials.

Two species of bamboo are native to the United States, and many other species- some surviving down to ­20* F- will grow well in various parts of the country. Frank Meyer of Thangmaker Construction, an Austin, Texas, custom builder specializing in straw, bamboo, and earthen materials, says, “I moved down to Austin in 1979 from the Midwest and was immediately taken with the abundance and beauty of bamboo. I set about making various utility items such as tables, chairs, and handles out of bamboo and pallets, which were free and readily available.”

Bamboo has a special appeal for those involved in natural building because of its inherently sustainable nature. “We need to be looking at this as a building material of the future,” Meyer says. “It grows fast, is strong and beautiful, and has thousands of uses.”

Though used like timber, bamboo is technically a grass that functions like a single plant, self-propagating as it spreads underground via a network of rhizomes. Harvesting bamboo does not harm it. It is possible to replace mature fiber in three-and-a-half to seven years, while oak takes 120 years to grow to maturity. As old-growth hardwood forests diminish, says Ostenson, the lumber industry is relying on immature products, which reduces the quality of hardwoods as building material.

Check out the March/April 2000 issue of Natural Home for more about Victor Cusak’s bamboo house.

  • Materials and flooring
  • Planting and growing bamboo
  • Harvesting and eating shoots