Beautiful, earth-friendly bamboo and cork help builders stand out from their competition

Fabulous floors: beautiful, earth-friendly bamboo and cork help builders stand out from their competition

Sharon O’Malley

Buyers of New Urban Builder’s $210,000 to $425,000 homes in Chico, Calif., like the standard-issue bamboo floors the production builder installs in the dining room and foyer so much that they’ve made the imported hardwood the most common upgrade for the rest of the house.

The polyurethane-coated, natural blond wood, says lead designer John Anderson, “cleans up with Windex and looks great. The buyers like the look and the durability of it.”

Although U.S. importers of bamboo flooring estimate that the product accounts for less than 2 cent of the market for hardwood floors, it’s catching on.

“It’s beautiful,” confirms Tony Cecil, owner of Urban Spaces of Asheville, N.C., who installed bamboo in a Georgia custom home and is using it to convert a building of Asheville apartments to upscale condos. It wears well, it’s got a great finish on it, it’s strong, and it s slightly unusual–but not radically so, so it still has the feel of a conventional hardwood floor, It’s slightly different, so it’s cutting edge.

Bamboo floors are up to 25 percent harder than a typical red oak floor. And the fact that bamboo, a sturdy, fast-growing grass from China, sprouts back from the same root system within about five years “comes under the heading of ‘nice,'” says Anderson, who describes himself as a “green” builder.

Bamboo flooring is so progressive that although it has been sold in the United States for at least 15 years, Mannington Mills is the first mainstream flooring maker to offer it.

“We’re constantly on the lookout for things that are new and unique, yet still compelling to a large majority of consumers,” says John Himes, director of Mannington’s hardwood business unit. “Twenty years ago, it was enough for a new home just to have hardwood. Now, folks are saying, ‘Yes, I want hardwood in my house, but I want something that can distinguish it from the other 30, 50, or 100 homes in this neighborhood that also have hardwood.'”


Bamboo has two looks: a uniform, horizontal plank that reveals the bamboo nodes, called a flat press, and a vertical, narrow pattern of lines about 3/16-inch apart, called a side press.

Manufacturers say the two looks are equally popular with consumers, who also divide almost down the middle on bamboo’s two natural colors: blond and “caramelized” or “carbonized”–a dark amber color created by steaming the bamboo under high pressure. A few manufacturers, including Campbell Smith Enterprises, stain the planks in various colors.

Builders can choose planks designed, like hardwoods, for nailing or gluing to a subfloor, or a tongue-and-groove floating floor that, like some laminates, requires glue only between planks.

Manufacturers warn that builders who buy bamboo directly from one of China’s 400-plus suppliers or through unproven intermediaries are likely to open packages of planks that do not match. Most U.S.-based distributors, they say, order from a single factory to ensure uniformity of color, finish, and pattern.

“If you deal with multiple factories, the supply might be good today and different tomorrow,” says Himes.

Bamboo flooring, which is most popular on the East and West Coasts, sells for $2 to $8 per container, a price difference that manufacturers say reveals the range of quality in the category. “There are a lot of have-container-will-travel companies out there,” notes Ann Knight, an owner of Teragren, which got into the market in 1994.

Tom Cody, general manager of the Moso Group, says builders can expect to pay as much for floor-worthy bamboo planks as they do for high-quality oak flooring.

Soon, predicts Bill Smith, president of Campbell Smith Enterprises, which makes Balibrand flooring, bamboo will become more of a mainstream choice for home builders, as more hardwood manufacturers add it to their lines and as more consumers demand environmentally friendly building products.

Campbell Smith, which this year unveiled bamboo flooring in a distressed, hand-scraped pattern, offers planks stained with up to three colors and is experimenting with coconut and rubberwood for floors, Smith says. “It’s really becoming an important product,” he says of bamboo. “I think we’ll continue to see a lot of different natural products.”


Cork flooring, another renewable product that also is making inroads in the United States, is made from the bark of the cork oak grown in Spain and Portugal.

A favorite in trendy West Coast kitchens and in urban Eastern U.S. markets, polyurethane-coated cork floors are cushiony enough to ease the strain of standing at the sink or cooktop for prolonged periods, manufacturers say.

Homeowners also request the flooring for their bathrooms because it maintains an even temperature and never feels cold. And it bounces back to at least 90 percent of its original shape if it’s dented.

A hot seller in the late 1920s, cork made a comeback in the 1960s and again in the mid-1990s. Margaret Buchholz, marketing and design director for manufacturer Expanko, says the cushiony parquet tiles and planks are here to stay.

“There’s a much stronger interest now than ever in environmentally sound products,” says Buchholz of the renewable material.

And installation is familiar. Like hardwood, cork comes in planks or tiles that can be adhered to the subfloor, or in floating tongue-and-groove systems that need adhesive only on the edges. Floating cork floors, unlike tiles, can go in basements.

But Matt Freng, owner of Infinity Cork Products, says new, glueless floating planks that snap together are outselling tiles because they’re easy to install and have a pre-attached underlayment.

Factory-finished planks are heavily coated with polyurethane, but most manufacturers either require or recommend that installers brush on up to four additional coats to seal the seams after they install the floor.

Most planks come in shades of brown–just like cork bulletin boards or wine stoppers–but some manufacturers, including American Cork Products and Duro-Design, offer stains ranging from off-white to earthy reds and greens. But all manufacturers offer their tiles and planks in multiple patterns so you can style a floor with a unique look.

Like bamboo, says Tom Banner, president of American Cork Products, cork will become increasingly popular as Americans become more interested in building earth-friendly homes. “The market is getting to be very pro-green products,” he says.


Once just a floor covering, bamboo is climbing the walls.

Most manufacturers of bamboo flooring also offer bamboo veneers, panels, and plywood that builders can craft into cabinets, countertops, and wainscoting.

“It’s evolved,” says Daniel Smith, an owner of Smith & Fong, makers of the Plyboo brand of bamboo products.

Smith notes that builders were fashioning bamboo floor planks into wall paneling, cabinetry facades, and even ceiling covers. So he and other manufacturers formulated easier-to-manipulate products for those applications.

“It speaks to contemporary architecture and design,” says Smith. “It embraces the glass and concrete and steel look. That design can be softened with a hardwood bamboo material.”

Designer/builder Fu-Tung Cheng agrees. The took of bamboo cabinets and wall surrounds is “calm and modern, but not hard or cold,” he says. “The product is a great way to keep that evenness and calmness but at the same time be kind of warm.”

Cheng, of Cheng Design in San Francisco, crafts countertops from concrete for the ultra-high-end homes he builds and remodels. He surrounds them with blond bamboo cabinetry or floors–although rarely both. ‘Bamboo is a nice foil for the kind of work we do with concrete,” he says.

And Cheng says he uses bamboo rather than any other hardwood, even though it’s a bit more expensive than some of the more typical woods because bamboo’s grain pattern is more even than its competitors.

Besides, he adds, It’s not something that everybody has right now.” –S.O.M.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Hanley-Wood, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group