Editor’s Note: Program note: Construction of Sands’ bamboo home was featured on the Discovery Channel series “Building Off The Grid.” Discovery Channel and CNN are both owned by Warner Bros. Discovery.
While bamboo has been used in construction in Asia for thousands of years, it’s starting to catch on in sustainable housing development in parts of the United States and other places in the world.
Bamboo Living co-founder and chief architect David Sands is at the forefront of modern sustainable bamboo construction. His Hawaiian-based company specializes in creating bamboo homes 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?
The 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 it growing. So you end up with these plants that are 100 feet tall in just a couple of months. By year three, you’ve got incredible building material, and that’s when we harvest for our houses.
Because it’s the fastest-growing plant, it’s probably the fastest natural way to get CO2 (carbon dioxide) out of our atmosphere. Through photosynthesis, it’s taking that CO2 and turning it into sugars and then into actual fiber, the storage mechanism for the atmospheric carbon. And that’s a big deal in terms of getting the CO2 out of the atmosphere rapidly.
Normally when you harvest a tree, you kill the tree, and it’s got to start all over. And with the bamboo, every year it’s sending up new trunks, so you just harvest a percentage of those trunks and it just keeps growing. The plants can live up to 120 years. You know how you just keep mowing the lawn and the grass keep popping back? It’s really like that – it is a grass. It’s the biggest of the grasses.
From an architect’s perspective, can you talk about bamboo’s strength and flexibility?
It’s 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 the wood usually used for construction, and it’s got a compressive strength similar to concrete.
We’ve had our buildings go through multiple Category 5 hurricanes, up to 200 mile-an-hour winds. We’ve had our buildings go through up to 6.9 on the Richter Scale in terms of seismic events, or earthquakes. Because the bamboo is so much lighter weight and stronger on a weight basis, it can flex and then recover.
Where have you built homes? And is there potential to go elsewhere?
We’ve got homes in the Caribbean, in the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, (and) Southern California now. I was just in Florida working on a project. I’m going to India to meet with a group that wants to build our homes there.
There’s definitely the opportunity to go pretty much into any climate. I think stylistically the homes that we’ve done thus far have all had that kind of tropical feel to them. But there was a client yesterday that wants to do a project (on) Long Island, which would be really fun.
Have you seen an increase in interest in bamboo homes?
Yeah, there is. We have never been busier and we’re expanding production now. I think the concern with the climate crisis has really gotten to the forefront of people’s attention, and really being able to make personal choices that directly impact that is a big deal.
It’s certainly what got me started. I built a home for myself on Maui 30 years ago and I was trying to be as sustainable as I could be. But then they delivered the lumber to build the house, and it was really a gut punch of, like, that’s a whole forest! And that’s happening every time, for every house in the United States. And I just felt like, “I’ve got to do something different.”
You live in a bamboo home now. What’s it like?
I love it. There’s a connection to nature in terms of just knowing that the house itself is helping solve the climate crisis. But then the beauty of it, the shapes and forms we’re able to do with it that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to do with dimensional material; it really is like living in a piece of furniture. All of the handcrafted joinery, beautiful radiating rafters and beams, they add a level of beauty to the building that’s just really something special.
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