Bamboo for your home

Long considered a staple building material in many countries, bamboo is increasingly making its way into homes around the world — and we’re not just talking about Asian-inspired furniture and home décor. Its strength and durability rival traditional hardwoods, yet its softness is prized for luxurious textiles. You could be walking on it, drying off with it or sleeping under it and not even notice the difference.

But why all the fuss, and why create an alternative to products that are already tested-and-true favourites? In addition to its attractive appearance, bamboo is a highly renewable resource. It’s actually a type of grass and not a tree or shrub, and is reputed to be the fastest-growing plant in the world. Bamboo can grow as much as a foot a day, and it matures in as little as five or six years. This quick regeneration makes it a highly sought-after material for “green”
shoppers and home owners.

While the look of bamboo can add a tropical or Asian style to any room, many of the products on the market now work with any style and taste:


The environmental impact of hardwood floors has many people looking for new alternatives for that same look and feel. When it comes to cost, appearance and performance bamboo is comparable to hardwoods. Depending on the type, it is even harder — that is, more resistant to dents and other damage — than many of the woods like oak which are commonly used in our homes. Bamboo flooring requires little cleaning or care, and come with warranties up to 25 years.

It’s warm-hued, grained appearance even looks like wood, but with a twist. The flooring comes in four main types of grain:

– Horizontal: The “logs” of bamboo are cut into strips and flattened during the manufacturing process. With horizontal grain, the strips laid flat and laminated together, looking like blanks of wood. The “nodes” of the bamboo create distinctive patterns in the grain.

– Vertical: Instead of being laid flat, the strips of bamboo are laid side-to-side like books stored on a shelf). The effect is long, thin strips in the grain. Vertical grain is harder than horizontal grain.

– Composite (or strand woven): According to manufacturers, this is the hardest and toughest of all the options, and great for higher-traffic areas. The processed nature of the fibres has a more wood-like appearance because the nodes aren’t visible.

– End grain: look at the freshly cut edge of a piece of wood and you can see the “tops” of the fibres like strings in chopped celery. End-grain bamboo has a similar effect, creating a more exotic look. The strips are laminated together like bricks or tiles and then applied as a thin veneer to the base. Very few companies offer this grain in flooring, but it is often seen in other products.

(We know it’s hard to visualize. Take a look at Silkroad Bamboo Flooring and Bamboo Direct for images and more information).  The flooring comes in the usual tongue-and-groove planks, and, according to retailers’ websites, can be installed by just about anyone with some flooring expertise. A variety of colours and stains are available on the market, so it pays to shop around and request samples.

Counter tops

You’ve likely seen bamboo chopping blocks for sale in your favourite kitchen speciality store — now imagine them bigger.

Many people are now using bamboo in place of hardwood for their butcher-block counter tops or kitchen islands. Counter tops are available in horizontal, vertical and end-grain varieties depending on the look you want for your work surface. End-grain varieties can be alternated to form the look of parquet, and the applied edges on the side and backsplashes can have a decorative look of inlaid wood. (Think little tiles of wood arranged like a mosaic as opposed to flowing wood grain).

See Totally Bamboo for examples.

Bed and bath linens

Bamboo shoots probably aren’t the first thing you picture when you think of luxuriously soft sheets and towels. However, there are many reasons why you’ll want to give bamboo fabrics a second look: Bamboo is hypo-allergenic and contains a bio-agent known as “bamboo kun” that makes it anti-microbial. In other words, the fabric is naturally resistant to fungus, bacteria and odour. Scientists believe this same substance keeps the plant safe from insects while
it grows. Unlike cotton, farmers don’t have to rely on heavy pesticide use to ensure the plants thrive. Bamboo fibres are also composed of biodegradable cellulose, and won’t harm the environment when they break down in the soil.

Environmental benefits aside, what really matters is the feel. Bamboo is softer and more breathable than cotton, and many people praise its moisture-wicking properties. Manufacturers claim that bamboo towels are three times as absorbent as cotton ones, and the temperature-adjusting of the sheets makes them ideal for use in any climate or season, especially for people who experience night sweats. You can even buy quilt batting in bamboo blends at local shops.

One hundred percent bamboo or bamboo-cotton blend linens tend to cost a little more than their cotton or synthetic counterparts, but they are available at many retailers and online. Look for high thread counts and a higher percentage
of bamboo for softness.

But pay careful attention to the laundry instructions and avoid the bleach! Bamboo is more likely to be damaged in the wash. Use a gentle detergent on the gentle cycle to extend the life of your textiles.

Not so green?

Is bamboo the solution to our environmental woes? Not necessarily — there is a caveat to this “miracle” material. Different companies have different ways of harvesting, manufacturing and finishing products and not every step
of the process may be “green.” Some of the chemicals used to produce or finish products can be hazardous to the environment and can continue to emit gases once the product is installed. Worse yet, defore tation and questionable
harvesting practices can endanger wildlife habitats and put endangered species of bamboo at risk.

When you’re shopping, here are some questions to keep in mind:

– Is the product certified as being better for the environment? In Canada, look for the Environmental Choice eco-logo. This certification means that sustainable harvesting principles are used and that the product is not manufactured using endangered species of bamboo. The use of certain chemicals is forbidden. Unfortunately, not many products
are currently certified.

– What glues or finishes are used? Experts warn to look for low-formaldehyde glue and low-VOC (volatile organic compound) finishes. VOCs evaporate into the air and affect both smog levels and indoor air quality.

– Is the company committed to environmentally-sound practices? Was the bamboo grown on a plantation (good) or harvested from the wild (not good)? See what information you can find on their website.

– For textiles, ask about what processes, dyes and chemicals are used. Little information about this is currently available online, but critics think that organic cottons may have the “green” edge over some bamboo products.
However, if it’s the anti-microbial you want, bamboo may be a greener alternative to chemically-treated fabrics.

A little research may go a long way, especially if you’re looking at a large investment like hardwood floors. Look at samples, ask questions and be sure to compare it with the alternatives.

Sources: The American Bamboo Association, the EcoBuyer Green Products Database,

Photo © Horrocks

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