Copyright © 2000 The Seattle Times Company

Northwest Life : Sunday, July 16, 2000
Pacific Northwest
Bamboo surprises with shapes, colors and versatility

by Lynn Jacobson
Seattle Times staff reporter

Few substances are as versatile as bamboo. You can grow it, eat it, live in it, float on it and make music with it.
And while you're doing all that, you can feel good about yourself, because bamboo is one of the most ecologically friendly raw materials on the planet.
Northwesterners seem particularly drawn to bamboo, using it in increasingly creative ways in homes and gardens. This may be due in part to our proximity to the sources of much of the world's bamboo - China, Vietnam, Japan and Cambodia - and in part to the influence these countries have had on our culture and what we build. But it's also because bamboo appeals to Northwestern-style nonconformists.
"It's an alternative material," says D'Arcy Gholston, co-owner of local construction company Bamboo Builders Northwest. He and his partner, Jonathan Stuart, have built everything from kitchen nooks to cocktail bars to outdoor planters and arbors. Not too long ago, they constructed a "sacred circle" on a wooded lot in Thurston County - a round bamboo enclosure, 30 feet in diameter, encircling a large, gold-leafed, egg-shaped stone and custom-designed incense burners.
"We get all sorts of crazy jobs like that," Gholston says.
Unconventional jobs call for unconventional builders, and Gholston and Stuart fit the bill. Stuart, 34, has spiky brown hair, wears two hoop earrings, rides a motorcycle and plays guitar in a band. Gholston is a youngish, unshaven 37-year-old with a bright red pickup truck and a golden retriever named Betty. Both builders are avid swing dancers.
But both are also highly skilled artisans, intimately familiar with bamboo's properties, history and lore. They are familiar with traditional Japanese fence-building techniques but frequently invent new uses for the material. They both admit it would be easier to work with milled lumber, but they are hooked on the natural, irregular qualities of bamboo.
"There's beauty in the randomness of bamboo," Stuart says. "And then when you get it framed with milled wood or metal, you get a certain balance."
One of the team's recently completed jobs in Richmond Beach shows the wide range of bamboo's outdoor applications. Using fences, screens and bamboo poles, they transformed Kay Jones' once-muddy back yard into a tranquil Asian-inspired garden. Consultant Kevin Pittman, of Truly Classic Landscaping Co., collaborated on the project.
In the far corners of the yard, two open-weave bamboo fences are set at angles in order to "break up the geometry of the space," Stuart explains. Rock pathways lead up hill to these corners, and then back down to a water feature dominated by a bamboo flume. The water trickles down the flume into a rock retention pond, then is pumped back to the top.
Next to the flume is the centerpiece of the garden, a hot tub with a wood and bamboo surround. The screen behind the hot tub is made of tightly joined bamboo poles where privacy is needed, more loosely criss-crossed poles where it's not. This screen illustrates the idea of "borrowed scenery," Stuart says, in which you block off what you don't want to see but invite in the rest - in this case, the neighbor's oak tree and wisteria.
The screen behind the hot tub is fairly large by necessity, and Stuart notes that's one reason why bamboo is the perfect material for it. "Solid wood would be too massive," he says. The size of the screen is further mitigated by a "sleeve" or "wing" fence attached to the side and helping what Stuart calls a "transition from fence to no fence."
Three other small fences - one made of staggered bamboo poles and two covered with shaggy pine brush - camouflage some of the yard's storage areas.
Almost all the Bamboo Builders' fences are built on hidden structures of treated lumber or galvanized pipes. The pieces are joined with wires or screws, then covered with palm fiber tied into traditional Japanese knots.
Depending on conditions, bamboo fences will last 10 to 15 years, about as long as most cedar fences. Doug Lewis, owner of Seattle's Bamboo Hardwoods, says, "We have plenty of fences we've built that are 10 years old and I haven't heard of anyone replacing them yet." Bamboo Hardwoods also sells a lot of bamboo flooring, which Lewis compares to oak in its durability.
Bamboo does turn gray over time - again, like cedar - and sometimes it cracks. However, one type of solid-pole bamboo Lewis' company imports from Vietnam cracks infrequently. Lewis says you can't beat it when it comes to flexibility and strength.
"We have buildings that have survived hurricanes and floods when a lot of surrounding buildings didn't," says Lewis.
The cost of bamboo varies tremendously, depending on type and application, but Stuart, Gholston and Lewis all agree that it's not a material for people looking for the cheapest option. A Bamboo Builders' fence might cost twice as much as a well-detailed cedar fence.
"We build pretty high-end fences," Stuart says. "It's pretty labor intensive."
The dollar cost may be higher, but the environmental cost of building with bamboo is less than that of building with wood. That's because bamboo is a grass - not a wood - and therefore renewable. When you cut it, the rhizome remains intact under the soil and begins to regenerate immediately.
Most varieties grow so fast you can almost watch them move. According to Lewis, some reach their full height and diameter in two months. (Growers usually wait three to five years to harvest them, however, because they must age to harden.) Trees, in contrast, die when you cut them and new seedlings can take decades to reach maturity.
Like wood, bamboo comes in a range of colors and textures, from blonde to black, smooth to scratchy. And as Jones found out, it looks particularly beautiful in outdoor settings when mixed with live bamboo.
Jones admits to being bitten by the bamboo bug. When he and his wife bought their house last spring, he built an elaborate cedar trellis in his front yard. Then he saw a bamboo water feature at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show and moved in a new direction.
"Once you see the bamboo fencing, you can't have anything else," he says.
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Copyright © 2001 The Seattle Times Company