Big Grass Shack

As a construction material, bamboo is light, strong, sustainable and beautiful—and it’s just getting started in Hawai‘i
Story by Shannon Wianecki. Photos by Andrew Richard Hara.

A new condominium in downtown Kailua-Kona might herald Hawai‘i’s suburban future. The two-story, eight-unit complex stands in dramatic contrast to its light-industrial concrete surroundings: It features exotic, reddish-blond bamboo siding and a peaked flying gable roof.

Inside, the apartments are modern and elegant, with vaulted ceilings, exposed beams and wide lānai that overlook historic Mokuaikaua Church and Kailua bay. The building is constructed entirely of bamboo—the first of its kind in the United States. Owner Katie Karrass wanted to turn her family property into a statement for sustainability and chose to pioneer a new use for this simple and ancient building material. “Bamboo is endlessly versatile,” she says. “It’s useful, it’s beautiful and it saves so many trees.”

Bamboo does have an impressive resume. Throughout history bamboo has been used to meet every basic human need: shelter, food, clothing, tools. Thomas Edison used bamboo filaments in the earliest incandescent light bulbs. For centuries Indonesian temple musicians have played bamboo flutes and xylophones. In modern-day Hong Kong, builders known as “spidermen” scale the sides of skyscrapers on bamboo scaffolding.

The planet’s fastest-growing plant, bamboo can grow up to four feet a day. It has the tensile strength of steel yet is light-weight and flexible. In January 1999, when a 6.2 earthquake rattled central Colombia, nearly all of the modern concrete structures collapsed while the older bamboo buildings stood strong. Environmentalists routinely claim that the world’s tallest grass is the timber of the future—especially in isolated tropical locales like Hawai‘i, where importing construction materials is costly and inefficient. It makes you wonder: Why isn’t bamboo already the timber of the present?

David Sands has spent his career tack-ling that question in the most practical way, building bamboo house after house. The Hawai‘i-based architect designed Karrass’ condominium. Sands has the quiet focus of someone who meditates every morning. No doubt this daily discipline helped him persevere on a ten-year quest to “legalize” bamboo. His green building company, Bamboo Living, is the first—and only—business certified to build bamboo dwellings in the United States.

Sands lived in an ashram for eight years before moving to Hawai‘i in 1988. He started out designing luxury homes for wealthy clients across the Islands, but the wastefulness inherent in construction troubled him. An average house requires the logging of twenty-two mature pine trees, and too much of that raw material ends up as scrap in landfills. Sands saw this firsthand while building a home with his brother. They constructed their off-grid house using mostly upcycled materials such as mahogany doors salvaged from a local resort. Still, when the lumber for the framing arrived, Sands thought, “That’s
 a whole forest.”

Around that time he met Linda Garland, an influential designer and bamboo advocate living on Bali. Garland had witnessed the decimation of hardwood forests in Indonesia and saw bamboo as a natural alternative. She built dreamy, stylish sanctuaries that redefined what it meant to live in a grass shack. Twice her designs graced the cover of Architectural Digest. “Linda was always thinking strategically,” says Sands. “She was wholly committed to bringing bamboo into mainstream use to stem the tide of deforestation.”

Inspired, Sands launched Bamboo Living along with Jeffree Trudeau, the contractor on his brother’s house. The pair built their first prototype in 1996: a whimsical, nautilus-shaped bamboo cottage in Huelo, Maui. But to pass inspection, they had to fortify the cottage’s walls with ferrous cement. Sadly, says Sands, “what Linda built couldn’t be permitted here in the United States.”

On the opening spread, Rich von Wellsheim and Ryan Zucco survey bamboo growing at Whispering Winds on Maui. Customer Martin Vasey says that business at his farm stand increased thirty percent after Whispering Winds built this eye-catching pavilion on Hāna Highway.

So the architect embarked on the onerous journey to get bamboo certified by the International Code Council—a national agency that writes the building codes adopted by nearly every county in the United States and many abroad. As far as codes go, bamboo is a round peg in a square hole. No two poles are alike; they’re hollow, tapered and notched at irregular intervals. This lack of uniformity is both bamboo’s charm and its drawback. It presents challenges to those seeking to build with it or codify it. Not to mention there are over 1,500 bamboo species, each with different thickness and tensile strength.

Fortuitously, Sands was invited to join the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan, a committee already engaged in developing testing parameters for bamboo.“That saved us millions of dollars and several years’ work,” says Sands, “but we still had to do the mechanical properties testing, and insect and fire testing.” Meanwhile he and Trudeau kept building. They applied for one-off permits, exceptions to county building codes designed to encourage the development of green technology. They figured out how to manipulate the tubular grass into arches and trusses. Because nails tend to split bamboo, they developed a system for connecting poles: complex fishmouth joints that interlock internally. They paid structural engineers to analyze the joints and ensure that they could handle heavy loads.

“It was a labor of love. I didn’t take a salary for this for ten years,” says Sands. “I just felt it was important to do.” His resolve was rewarded: The ICC approved bamboo as a structural building material in 2004. The certification, however, is extremely limited; it approves just one species of bamboo, grown in one region and processed through one facility: Bamboo Living’s own factory in Vietnam. “Other people can’t use the code,” says Sands, “but it shows that it’s possible.”

Why go to all this effort? Sands estimates that, in terms of timber, an acre of bamboo saves ten to twelve acres of trees. And that’s just the tip of the branch as far as benefits go. Harvesting bamboo, says Sands, “is just like mowing the lawn.” It requires none of the heavy equipment necessary to fell and transport heavy logs. While trees need to be replanted, bamboo readily resprouts from underground rhizomes. It prevents erosion, can grow on marginal land and shows promise as a carbon sink. A patch of bamboo sequesters four times the carbon dioxide and generates up to 35 percent more oxygen than an equivalent stand of trees.

Over time Sands perfected several bamboo house designs. Today Bamboo Living sells prefabricated homes made from Bambusa stenostachya—the species approved for construction. It grows abundantly in Vietnam, where Bamboo Living’s factory employs fifty people. Local residents deliver homegrown poles to the factory; workers cure the bamboo, assemble poles into wall panels and weave the flexible outer skin into ceiling matting. The prefab houses take two to three days to assemble. “They’re built like a piece of furniture, with joinery and everything,” says Sands. Karrass’ construction team worked in tandem to situate the trusses and bolt the panels together. She says, “It was like watching an Olympic team.”

Early on, Linda Garland recommended that Sands court a few high-profile clients to help counter bamboo’s image as the“poor man’s timber.” This wasn’t hard to do in Hawai‘i. Famed rock music impresario and Maui resident Shep Gordon was an early supporter. “We replaced his lānai, then built him an office and a guest house,” says Sands. Before long, rock star Sammy Hagar, actress Barbara Hershey and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar each had Bamboo Living houses. Over the past twenty years, Bamboo Living has sold over four hundred eco-friendly homes to “bamboodists” (as converts are called) worldwide.

Bamboo intended for construction at Whispering Winds.

Bamboo Living’s office manager, Angela Sugar, is both employee and client. She recently built her dream house, the 352-square-foot Puna model, delivered in a single truck container and featured on HGTV’s Tiny Paradise. It’s filled with luxurious touches: a gourmet kitchen with a full-size gas stove, hammocks that retract to the ceiling and Bamboo Living’s trademark exposed bamboo beams. “I love it,” Sugar says. “Even though it’s small it feels spacious. The bamboo itself is calming. It feels like a living material, unlike lumber, which is so far from its natural state.”

Shortly after Bamboo Living received certification, the team built a big ranch-style home on Hawai‘i Island. “We put a business-card ad in the paper for an open house,” says Sands. “A thousand people showed up!” He’s presently working on two commercial projects on Maui that will undoubtedly draw more attention: a sales office for a Kā‘anapali condo complex and the headquarters for a downhill biking tour.

“Bamboo could be a significant part of taking Hawai‘i carbon-neutral,” he says. At present it isn’t economically feasible to operate his factory here, though he imagines a not-too-distant future when the demand for bamboo timber necessitates a local supply. “We have the capability of growing all of our building materials here in Hawai‘i,” he says.

One day there will be “more bamboo in Home Depot than two-by-fours,” says von Wellsheim (seen above at left with Zucco) of his vision for the future of bamboo in Hawai‘i. “People will reach for bamboo instead of lumber for their basic needs.”

Bamboo grows well in Hawai‘i— too well, in fact. A weedy species, Phyllostachys nigra, has invaded wide swaths of rainforest across the Islands. Maui’s scenic Hāna Highway is choked with it. Unfortunately, this aggressive bamboo species isn’t suitable for construction or landscaping. It’s a runner, meaning it sends out traveling roots that sprout large distances from the parent plant. Timber bamboos tend to be “clumpers,” which grow in cohesive tufts. A colorful variety of clumping bamboos can be found at the far end of Hāna Highway, at Whispering Winds, the state’s only bamboo plantation.

Up a long, patchy driveway in the remote Kīpahulu rainforest, Whispering Winds feels far removed from the world. It’s one of Hawai‘i’s few worker-owned cooperatives in the state of Hawai‘i. Ryan Zucco is among a dozen farmers who live on the lush 180-acre property. He moved here in 1999 and over the years helped establish a remarkable collection of organic fruit and spice trees, plus sixty different species of bamboo. Shady thickets of tall, leafy poles cover twenty acres and clatter musically in the breeze.

Whispering Winds primarily sells ornamental bamboos destined for resort landscapes, but the farm also cultivates fifteen construction-grade species. Clients can order the raw material to build their own bamboo structures or purchase kits for sheds, pavilions and gazebos. Small bamboo buildings are everywhere on the property, serving as carports and storage. Because they measure less than one thou-sand square feet, they qualify as “farm outbuildings” and don’t require permits.

On a tour of the farm, Zucco points out a shaggy, overgrown stand of Nastus elatus, a species that can be eaten raw. All young bamboo shoots are edible, but most have to be cooked first. This one can be snacked on straight out of the ground. Unfortunately, Zucco says, the rats usually beat the farmers to it. At the top of the Whispering Winds grove is a tangle of Thyrsostachys siamensis, or monastery bamboo. The slender poles grow twined around one another, resembling interlaced hands. The farm’s most eye-catching bamboos are black. One species is glossy ebony while another is matte black; both have the elegance of calligraphic strokes.

The timber bamboos are marked with splotches of paint. Different colors identify the age of the poles, which are harvested after three to five years. “That’s when they’re hardest,” says Zucco, who has learned through trial and error. “The first year we harvested, powderpost beetles turned our poles into dust.” The farmers weren’t expecting the wood-boring insect, which tunnels through planks or poles and leaves behind piles of sawdust.

Zucco researched how bamboo growers around the world handled the pest. He traveled to China, where he purchased a weighty metal contraption that looks something like a miniature submarine. It’s a pressurizer that saturates bamboo with borate, a natural pesticide that grants bamboo immunity to powderpost beetles and termites. Above it, in the farm’s large barn, racks of poles in various sizes and colors wait to be used for construction projects. “It’s nice to be able to grab a piece of bamboo to build something,” says Zucco.“Everyone could be growing timber in their backyard.”

Down on Hāna Highway at the popular Hana Farms roadside stand, one of Zucco’s partners, Rich von Wellsheim, adds some finishing touches to a flashy new bamboo pavilion. It’s hard to miss from the road: The broad tin roof is held up by inverted pyramids of Guadua angustifolia, one of the world’s largest bamboos. Each massive pole has a five-inch diameter. “Look at how beautiful it is!” von Wellsheim says of the pillar nearest to him. “You just can’t get this with two-by-fours.”

He’s a bona fide bamboodist; he and his wife belong to the Whispering Winds cooperative, and they invested in a Bamboo Living house, which they built at the farm. He designed this lofty pavilion to shelter Hana Farms’ new food truck and picnic tables. It measures 999 square feet. “Exactly,” laughs von Wellsheim.

The flexible outer skin of bamboo is also useful for construction. Some builders choose to weave the skins into ceiling matting.

A tourist walks up and inspects the stainless steel lashings holding the poles in place. He tells von Wellsheim that he builds amusement parks—everything from roller coasters to restaurants—and he’s clearly impressed by what he sees. “There’s end-less possible use for these structures,” says von Wellsheim.

Back on Hawai‘i Island, Sands surveys his latest creation: a two-story residence and showroom designed to showcase what Bamboo Living has to offer. Polished bamboo pillars form a sunburst on the expansive lānai. When finished, the building will be a terrific advertisement for the modern grass shack.

There’s just one hitch: It’s in Puna Palisades, a neighborhood threatened by Kīlauea’s most recent lava flow. Sands has access to the property for now, but the lava could shift direction and swallow it at any time. “It’s a little overwhelming,” he admits. He’s debating whether to install plumbing or wait to see what the volcano does next. Whatever happens, it won’t dampen his devotion to the bamboo revolution; he’s as resilient as his favorite building material. HH