At a recent editorial meeting, Julie asked what we all thought of bamboo floors. As it turns out, none us knew much about the material as a flooring option, including me—despite having a bamboo floor in my own kitchen. Ten years ago, my architect husband and I decided to go with bamboo based on cost and convenience: back then bamboo flooring was relatively new to the US and UK markets and the easiest way to purchase it was through the vanguard of the Internet, making it more competitive than any other wood flooring we were considering.
Recently, we renovated our kitchen and changed everything but the floor. Because of its softness, the floor certainly has its shares of nicks and dents and I desperated wanted to change its color. Impossible to refinish, we compromised and kept it. For those considering installing bamboo flooring, I've boned up on the material and can offer the following advice—in hindsight.
Above: Our new kitchen and 10 year old bamboo floor of engineered horizontal-cut bamboo, patterned with bamboo's distinctive horizontal rings. See Rehab Diay: Sleuthing for Space in My Kitchen to read more about our recent remodel. Photograph by Kristin Perers.
What is bamboo flooring?
The first thing to know about bamboo is that while it behaves like wood, it’s actually a fast-growing, tree-like grass that renews itself every four years. Widely used in East Asia and the South Pacific for a range of building elements, including flooring, the material has gained popularity in North America and Europe in the last 20 years. In traditional floor construction, bamboo stems are cut as flat as possible and then nailed to wooden beams. The result is a highly textured floor with visible spaces between each stem. Conversely, the bamboo flooring commonly in use today is highly processed: to manufacture it, mature bamboo poles are sliced into strips of desired widths and boiled in a solution of boric acid or lime (to remove the starch and sugars); the strips are then dried, planed, and laminated into usable planks.
Why is everyone talking about bamboo?
Given that trees take at least ten times longer to mature than bamboo—50 years compared to 5—bamboo is an environmentally sustainable material; it even manages to regenerate itself after cutting! Bamboo has other environmental benefits, too: as it grows, this naturally antimicrobial, anti-fungal, and antibacterial grass eschews pesticides and other harmful chemicals while drawing water up to soil level and improving the soil—it's the self sufficient and independent child of the plant world (and a thug according to many gardeners; see Bamboo: The Re-Think).
So what's the catch when it comes to bamboo as a building material? The energy expenditure required to turn bamboo into flooring—and to ship it from Southeast Asia where most bamboo is grown—doesn't always stack up against locally grown hardwoods. Also, the glue used in the lamination process can contain high levels of the toxic chemical urea formahdehyde. The best manufacturers conscientiously use adhesives that are water based, solvent free, and do not off-gas toxic chemicals. To get what you're after, ask the right questions when speaking to bamboo flooring suppliers (see the Total Formaldehyde Chart from Green Builder's Suppler for an idea of good-practice sources).
What types of bamboo flooring are available?
There are three basic styles, each with its own distinctive look:
- Engineered bamboo flooring—Also known as horizontal cut, engineered bamboo flooring, like engineered hardwood floors, consists of a solid layer of bamboo glued over a substrate. This is the most recognizable bamboo flooring on the market: it's the one in which the bamboo stem looks like it's been flattened out and it's patterned by bamboo's distinctive horizontal ring markings.
- Solid bamboo flooring—Made up of solid pieces of bamboo that have been glued together, solid bamboo flooring, also known as vertical cut, is typically stronger than the engineered version. This type of flooring has a thinner overall stripy look created by all the bamboo strips compressed together.
- Strand-woven bamboo flooring—By most accounts, strand woven bamboo flooring, in which the bamboo is shredded and then compressed with adhesives, is the most durable of the three. It looks the least like traditional bamboo because the manufacturers can blend colors and lengths to create many different styles. Note that the presence of adhesives isn't a bad thing as long as the right ones are used.
Above L: An example of vertical-cut bamboo flooring comprised of solid bamboo pieces that have been glued together. Above R: An example of horizontal-cut engineered bamboo flooring in which a solid layer of bamboo is glued over a substrate. Images via Home Style Choices.
Above: Strand woven bamboo is the strongest, looks the least like its original material, and comes in many finishes and colors. Image via Home Style Choices.
What colors and finishes does bamboo flooring come in?
When we were purchasing our bamboo flooring 10 years ago, our choice of finish was limited to two colors: a natural blond finish or a caramel colored carbonized finish. (The carbonization process used to color the wood by heating it intensively weakens the bamboo structurally and results in softer than usual planks.) But these days bamboo floors come in a wide range of colors and natural stains.
Above: Planks of engineered horizontal-cut bamboo flooring in a natural finish take on an abstract version of bamboo stalks. Image via All Decor.
Above: A strand-woven bamboo floor, similar in look and strength to some exotic hardwoods, can have a dramatic effect. Image via Teragren.
Above: In this house on Kiawah Island in South Carolina, Christopher Rose Architects used bamboo flooring stained black to create a monolithic floor in a modern setting.
Above: Strand-woven bamboo is available in an array of colors. Image via Duro Design.
Like hardwood floors, bamboo floors come in many finishes, from polyurethane to oils, as well as different sheens, including satin, semi gloss, and high gloss. The better quality finishes have a longer warranty period. While bamboo may be comparable to hardwood floors in terms of durability, the inexpensive versions can be difficult to refinish: they have a finish that's difficult to remove—and if successful, you run the risk of releasing formaldehyde; what's more, sanding the floor will likely shred the grassy strands of the bamboo.
Above: If this white compressed-strand woven bamboo finish had been available 10 years ago, we would have installed it, fulfilling my longstanding dream of having a Scandi pale floor. When Izabella remodeled her house, she had hardwood floors and was able to change their color to white—an option that was not available to us. See how she did it in Scandi Whitewashed Floors: Before and After. Image via Wood Stock Flooring.
How durable is bamboo flooring compared to hardwood flooring?
The resilience of a bamboo floor depends on how it's been manufactured. According to the Janka Hardness Test, which measures the resistance of wood to dents and wear, strand-woven bamboo flooring is the most durable—it can be over 3000 psi (comparable to Ipê). Solid bamboo floors and engineered floors range from 1180 psi (comparable to pine) to 1700 psi (comparable to beech), depending on the quality of the product.
How much does bamboo flooring cost?
On average, bamboo flooring is less expensive than hardwood. Prices for bamboo flooring range from $4.80 to $7.50 per square foot installed, while prices for hardwood range from $8 to $9 per square foot installed.
Above: A midcentury house in Los Angeles has been updated with horizontal-cut engineered bamboo flooring that has a carbonized finish. Image via Take Sunset.
Bamboo Flooring Recap
- Competitive alternative to hardwood floors
- Eco-friendly and renewable resource if forested responsibly
- Its monolithic aesthetic works well with modern designs
- Can be difficult to refinish
- Great energy expenditure involved in manufacturing and shipping
- The adhesives required to laminate can contain toxic urea formaldehyde
Would we use it again?
Bamboo floors offer an attractive, eco-friendly alternative to solid hardwood floors if you do your research. Despite two boys and a dog, our bamboo flooring has held up remarkably well for ten years and I see another ten years or more of life in it. My only regret is that we're unable to refinish the floor or change its color. That said, the amount we saved on our floor allowed us to spread our budget a little further on other parts of our kitchen and for that reason, yes, we would do it again, especially now that there are many more choices in type, color, and finish.
If you're installing a new floor, consider installing radiant heat: see our Remodelista 101 post Five Things to Know about Radiant Floor Heating. Embarking on a kitchen remodel? To get started, read Questions to Ask When Choosing Your Kitchen Countertops and Questions to Ask When Choosing Your Kitchen Cabinets.