Environmentally safe and strong as heck.

Architects and homeowners discover the special attributes of a well-loved plant as a building material

Over the past decade, various incarnations of bamboo have been springing up in and around the home faster than, well, bamboo. Bamboo holds the record for the fastest growing plant on Earth—there are 91 genera and more than 1,000 species, some of which have been measured as growing over four feet in a single day, while others can grow as tall as 120 feet in height, and 12 inches in diameter.

In India, bamboo is so loved that it is a symbol of friendship; in China, it is a symbol of longevity but, in the Caribbean, this wonder material is still somewhat under-appreciated.

A star of construction for centuries, bamboo is one of the oldest known building materials and, although it can grow in many regions across the globe, it thrives in warm climates, with lots of sun and water.

Sometimes referred to as “poor people’s timber,” bamboo has recently evolved from its use in the creation of relatively humble structures to those that are elegant and innovative. In 2008, architect Ming Tang designed a simple yet beautiful origami-inspired folding house from bamboo, to be used as a temporary shelter in areas stricken by natural disasters. The idea was born after a strong earthquake hit China in 2007—ironically, bamboo is one of the building materials that routinely passes seismic tests. On the other end of the building spectrum lies the Bamboo Eco Resort and Spa, slated for development in St Mary, Jamaica.

Designed by Eric Lloyd Wright (grandson of architect Frank Lloyd Wright), the fully sustainable luxury resort will be built primarily of multi-member bamboo construction—a nod to the increasingly popular notion of sustainable tourism.

In addition to its use in construction (for houses’ structural frames, walls, and the scaffolding needed to build them), bamboo has been cut for fence making, bridges, canoes, boats, weaponry, toys, hats, abaci, walking sticks, furniture, paper, knitting needles, flutes, bicycles and, of course, food. Bamboo is readily available in the Caribbean—there are 12 species in Trinidad and Tobago, the most common being bambusa vulgaris. Bamboo was brought to the country from Asia in the early 1900’s to be used as fuel for sugar factories and raw material for pulp and paper mills and, by the 1920’s, was so common it gave rise to the naming of villages like Bamboo No 1 and Bamboo No 2.

Traditionally, in the Caribbean region, children have used the woody grass for many amusements, whether fashioning a simple pen, making a fishing rod, or propelling pommerac flowers at would-be targets with lightning speed. Throughout the Caribbean, Hindus make the best use of the material, creating scaffolds, tents, and structures for weddings. During the festival of Divali, clumps of bamboo are stripped to make elaborative, decorative structures on which deyas are placed, or lengths of the plant are used to make cannons that celebrate Divali with sonorous booms. And then, of course, the woody grass is the star of tourist attractions such as the Bamboo Cathedral in Chaguaramas, Trinidad—a natural formation of tall bamboo curved in a high arch, like the roof of a magnificent church.

While part of bamboo’s appeal lies in its regenerative properties and natural aesthetic beauty, the other lies in its strength. In structural engineering tests, bamboo has been shown to have a higher tensile strength than many alloys of steel, and a higher compressive strength than certain mixes of concrete, and even a higher strength–to–weight ratio than graphite. With little human investment, the bamboo reaches maturity in just a few years. A single bamboo pole can regenerate to its full mass in just six months and can be re-harvested every three years without damage to the plant system or its surrounding environment. During the time it takes to regenerate, its root system stays intact, so erosion is prevented. It also produces 30 per cent more oxygen than an equivalent stand of trees. Compare these facts to that of a traditional hardwood tree, which typically takes anywhere from 30 to 50 years to reach maturity (at which point it is harvested with no chance of regeneration), and it’s little surprise that bamboo’s popularity is growing rapidly, championed by environmentalists in search of a more sustainable and versatile material.

One home trend on the rise is the use of ornamental bamboo in gardens and landscaping. Bamboo has a bad reputation for running amok and taking over vast expanses of land, stopping only when it is burned to the ground and its roots dug out. But landscapers advise that bamboo’s growth can be easily controlled and, of late, ornamental bamboo has become an increasingly popular design element not only in landscaping but also in interior decorating. Bamboo provides a natural complement to modern designs, gives an air of serenity and natural beauty, is easy to take care of and, once managed, its growth rate is a plus.

Lately, bamboo’s use as furniture and flooring has escalated. Increasingly, bamboo flooring has become a viable option for those in search of an earth-friendly yet aesthetically pleasing material. Bamboo flooring boasts a natural, warm, amber glow and its unique grain provides a lovely flow from room to room. When bamboo was first introduced on the marketplace, there were complaints of the material warping and nicking but, because of the plant’s growing popularity, these complications have been ironed out, and the material is currently heralded as being durable as any hardwood.

If you grew up in the Caribbean, chances are that the concept of bamboo furniture is not foreign. Unfortunately, chances also are that the image of gnarled, tubular furniture relegated to the back porch pops readily to mind. Recently, though, bamboo manufacturing techniques have become more sophisticated and, as a result, bamboo furniture has become more elegant, planar and, in some cases, downright sensual. Modern Bamboo’s website boasts a bamboo Spring Chair available in a variety of stains, while Inhabitat’s website features end tables and free-standing storage units made from bamboo.

For those new to bamboo, however, making the transition to a piece of furniture or a floor may seem too large a step; luckily, there are many opportunities for a smaller-scale integration of the material into the home, and the kitchen is a great place to start. Nowadays, bamboo utensils are widely available, and have grown to include brightly finished pieces sure to add a pop of colour to any household. The Bambu website provides an extensive number of beautiful bamboo products that invite customers to “stir, scoop, spread, and serve”—from serveware to cutting boards and plates, natural utensils, and even soy kitchen candles infused with bamboo essence.

If you’re still not convinced, it’s time for bed. Softer than cotton, silk, Egyptian fabrics, and even cashmere, bamboo sheets provide unparalleled texture and have the added benefit of being a naturally odour-resistant and super absorbent thermal regulator. As consciousness shifts to dreams, you can, literally, sleep with your decision to incorporate planet-friendly bamboo into the home. And, lastly, as bamboo sheets are insusceptible to microscopic vermin, you can rest assured that the bed bugs won’t bite.

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