Could living in a bamboo house help solve the climate crisis?

Written by Julia M. Chan, CNN

While bamboo has been used in construction in Asia for thousands of years, it is beginning to find its way into sustainable housing development in parts of the United States and elsewhere around the world.

Bamboo Living co-founder and chief architect, David Sands, is at the forefront of modern, sustainable bamboo construction. His Hawaii-based company specializes in creating bamboo houses and other buildings, with clients including rock star Sammy Hagar, actress Barbara Hershey, music mogul Shep Gordon, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar – and Sands himself.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why bamboo? What makes it an ideal material for construction and the environment?

Giant bamboos are the fastest growing woody plant on the planet. If you go to the Guinness Book of World Records, I think it was between two and three feet a day that they recorded his growth. So you end up with these plants that are 100 feet tall in just a few months. By year three, you have amazing building materials, and that’s when we harvest for our homes.

Because it’s the fastest growing plant, it’s probably the fastest natural way to remove CO2 (carbon dioxide) from our atmosphere. Through photosynthesis, it takes that CO2 and turns it into sugars and then into actual fiber, the atmospheric carbon storage mechanism. And that’s a big deal in terms of rapidly removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

Normally, when you harvest a tree, you kill it, and everything has to start over. And with bamboo, every year it produces new trunks, so you only harvest a percentage of those trunks and it continues to grow. Plants can live up to 120 years. You know how you keep mowing the lawn and the grass just keeps growing back? It really is like that — it’s a weed. It is the largest of the grasses.

From an architect’s perspective, can you talk about the strength and flexibility of bamboo?

It is an incredibly strong material. On a weight basis, it’s actually stronger than steel, which is much, much heavier than the same cross section of bamboo. Bamboo has more than twice the strength of wood typically used for construction and its compressive strength is similar to that of concrete.

Our vessels have weathered several Category 5 hurricanes, with winds of up to 200 miles per hour. We have seen our buildings go up to 6.9 on the Richter scale in terms of seismic events or earthquakes. Because bamboo is so much lighter and stronger in terms of weight, it can sag and then recover.

Where have you built houses? And is it possible to go elsewhere?

We now have homes in the Caribbean, South Pacific, Southeast Asia and (and) Southern California. I was just in Florida working on a project. I’m going to India to meet a group that wants to build our houses there.

There is definitely the ability to go in just about any climate. I think stylistically, the homes we’ve done so far have all had that kind of tropical feel. But there was a client yesterday who wanted to do a project (on) Long Island, which would be really fun.

Sands says living in a bamboo house is “like living in a piece of furniture” for its unique craftsmanship. Credit: Jonathan Davis/Spaces808.com

Have you noticed an increase in interest in bamboo houses?

Yes there is. We have never been so busy and we are now increasing production. I think the concern about the climate crisis has really caught people’s attention, and really being able to make personal choices that directly impact that is a big deal.

That’s definitely what got me started. I built myself a house on Maui 30 years ago and was trying to be as sustainable as possible. But then they delivered the wood to build the house, and it really was a punch, like, it’s a whole forest! And it happens every time, for every home in the United States. And I just thought, “I have to do something different.”

You now live in a bamboo house. How does it look?

I love it. There is a connection to nature in just knowing that the house itself is helping solve the climate crisis. But then the beauty of it, the shapes and forms that we’re able to do with that that you couldn’t necessarily do with dimensional material; it’s really like living in a piece of furniture. All the handcrafted joinery, beautiful radiating rafters and beams, add a level of beauty to the building that is truly something special.

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