Bamboo flooring, until recently specified exclusively in the residential domain, has exploded onto the commercial scene. The market is so flooded with bamboo flooring options, in fact, that facility managers are drowning in bad information. Too many newly installed bamboo floors have been poorly sourced, feebly manufactured, or improperly adhered. These floors perform poorly – but they didn’t have to.
“Bamboo flooring has no grading system,” says Anne Knight, principal of Teragren, a Washington-based bamboo product manufacturer competing with the likes of Hawa, Smith & Fong, Higuera Hardwoods, and USF Contract. “So it all looks alike but doesn’t always perform alike. You can buy some very inexpensive products, but you’ll get what you pay for.”
The onus of choosing correctly falls on project stakeholders. To steer the group toward a better bamboo floor – resilient, attractive, durable and truly sustainable – heed these guidelines.
1) Investigate sourcing. Domestic sources of bamboo are rare, so choices are often limited to Chinese growers. Not all imports are created equal: The distance between harvest locale and manufacturing facility affects product quality, as plant stalks can deteriorate, grow mold, or even rot if not treated within two days of cutting. Also, a greater distance means more petroleum for transport, adding embodied energy. “If sustainability is important, what’s the point of specifying a rapid-growth material to be shipped a great distance to manufacturing?” asks Javier Esteban, a principal with Mackey Mitchell Architects in St. Louis.
In terms of material quality, the maturity of bamboo at harvesting is crucial. Bamboo is rapidly renewable: no replanting is needed since the stalk will regrow from rootstock, reaching maturity in just under six years. “Yet many companies harvest after only three years,” says Knight, “so they can get two harvests from the same crop.” The downside? Flooring made from immature bamboo is inferior by most standards of durability and wear.
2) Verify chain of custody. Critics of bamboo’s sustainability point out that its popularity has led to more planting, a cause of defoliation and deforestation. Savvy specifiers check with manufacturers for flooring lines bearing certification from the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC). A label declaring the source as “Pure” means the product’s contents all came from an FSC-certified forest, one that adheres to strict standards for harvesting, replanting, and chain-of-custody documentation. Treehugger.com recently reported that FSC bamboo could make “suspect chain of custody … a thing of the past.”
3) Examine adhesives and finish. When sourcing bamboo, check into the milling process. Some factory finishes contain aluminum oxide, which boosts flooring life expectancy. Both plank and strand products contain adhesives, so study the amount of adhesive and whether it contains added urea-formaldehyde or unhealthy levels of VOCs. Experienced bamboo users recommend a four-part adhesive to prevent cupping, warping, and delamination that may occur with three-part adhesives. As with any flooring, contractors must carefully heed manufacturer instructions for installation and maintenance.
4) Determine durability. Bamboo is “the vegetable alternative to steel,” says Simon Velez, a Colombian architect known for stunning bamboo structures. The comparison holds up when it comes to flooring hardness and durability. When specifying, check the product’s rating on the Janka Hardness Test (ASTM D 1037-7).
Natural bamboo frequently outperforms red oak, white oak, American beech, ash, and even teak. For heavily trafficked areas, finish properties are another critical concern.
5) Check documentation. As with any product, acquire documentation of independent U.S. lab testing results, warranty information, and material-safety data sheets. This often saves the project planner from disappointments, such as added maintenance costs or untimely replacement. In the process, many facility managers find that some bamboo flooring manufacturers don’t have the basic documentation readily available – a red flag.
6) Consider life-cycle assessment (LCA). Whether or not a flooring project is seeking LEED or similar certifications, calculating LCA for bamboo can help assess its viability for a commercial application.
“My ideal product would be a bamboo floor, grown and manufactured locally,” laments Esteban, “but this is not possible at this time.”
C.C. Sullivan ([email protected]) is a marketing communications consultant and writer specializing in architecture, design, and construction technology.