Bamboo: A new industry for Maui?


by Wayne Smith


Is there a place for bamboo in planning for Hawaii's economic recovery and is Maui a place to make it happen? One Maui architect believes this versatile plant offers great economic possibilities and is actively promoting bamboo as a new crop to be added to the growing roster of agriculture products currently commercially cultivated on the Valley Isle.

Every plan advanced by concerned government, business, and citizen groups to revive the lagging Hawaiian economy includes a significant agricultural component. Now that sugar no longer holds hostage nearly all of Hawaii's arable land and usually abundant water, the search is on for crops that can best take advantage of the unique tropical climate of the state. Most see the waning of the sugar cane industry, Hawaii's dominant agriculture product for nearly 150 years, as an opportunity to diversify the state's commercial crops, increase the flow of investment capital into Hawaii, create new jobs to fill the thousands lost from sugar's decline, and provide new products for both local consumption and export.

Until about fifteen years ago agriculture was the major component of Maui's economic base. The development of Kaanapali Beach Resort in the 60's as the world's first planned vacation community made tourism a contender with agriculture for dominance. However, only in recent years, with the addition of major new resorts in Kapalua and Wailea which fueled continuing growth in the number of visitors, has tourism edged out agriculture as the leading income source for the Valley Isle.

Maui is the last bastion of sugar cane in the Islands. After the closing this month of Lahaina's Pioneer Mill, only two significant plantations remain in the state where once there were nearly 100. Of the two, Maui's Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar (HC&S) with two mills and some 37,000 acres under sugar cultivation, is by far the healthiest and largest.

Joining HC&S as the second largest agricultural producer on the island is Maui Land and Pineapple Company which successfully cultivates, processes and exports pineapple products. The second tier of Maui's agricultural base includes significant crops of Kula greens and Maui onions, protea and cut tropical flowers, macadamia nuts, and cattle. Organic vegetable and fruit farms add small but growing segments to the base.

New crops being added to the mix include coffee on former AMFAC/JMB sugar cane lands in West Maui and a new asparagus farm in Maalaea. Another relative newcomer on the ag scene is Dekalb Genetics Corporation currently doing biotechnology research and seed production at their Kihei facility. The entire field of biotechnology is seen as another of Hawaii's best economic opportunities.

A staunch proponent of bamboo as a new commercial crop for Maui, architect David Sands, AIA, owner of EcoArchitects in Haiku, travels the world researching bamboo and its many uses. He is certain that the versatile plant can be economically viable in Maui and throughout the state.

Bamboo has a role to play in Hawaii, Sands contends, because almost all the material used to build any structure in Hawaii must be imported. With no timber industry and very little manufacturing capacity for anything from wallboard and roofing, to commodes and sinks, Hawaii imports virtually all building materials except sand, gravel, and rock products. By eliminating the huge costs of transportation from mainland building materials sources, locally grown bamboo can significantly reduce the cost of housing and provide new jobs for Maui's labor force in growing, harvesting, milling, and manufacturing bamboo components.

Bamboo is the fastest growing woody plant on this planet. "It grows one third faster than the fastest growing tree," says Sands. "Some species can grow up to 1 meter per day. One can almost watch it grow," he says.

This growth pattern makes it available as a home-grown building product in a minimal amount of time. Here, in the tropics, it is possible to plant, grow, and harvest your own bamboo home. "On a plot just 60' x 60', less than a twelfth of an acre," he says, "in the course of only 5 years, you can harvest enough bamboo to build a 1,500 square foot home and harvest enough each subsequent year to build an additional house."

Sands, whose company designs all types of buildings which favor the ecology of the site, and stress the well-being of the environment, believes that bamboo is a viable replacement for wood in many phases of the construction of homes. It can be used as support timbers and beams for floors and roofs, a flooring material equivalent to traditional hardwoods, durable wall paneling, and in a variety of decorative and finishing applications. Ply-bamboo is now being used as an alternative to traditional plywood wall paneling and floor tiles, and other raw materials for housing construction.

EcoArchitects is involved in a loose partnership with Douglas Lewis of Seattle-based Bamboo Hardwoods, which manufactures a variety of products such as prefabricated bamboo houses, structural supports and poles, and bamboo flooring. Jeffree Trudeau, another member of the team of so-called bambuseros, works with both Sands and Lewis in construction management of the bamboo structures through his company, Bamboo Technologies, on Maui.

The trio thus far has created three bamboo structures: a tropical gazebo; a combination ferro-cement and bamboo structure that is the only type of bamboo building currently allowed by Hawaii building codes; and a fully enclosed, weatherproof bamboo house that is undergoing a long, demanding permitting process.

Much of Sands' time is spent working with revisions to American building codes that would allow more bamboo components in construction. He confers with the International Conference of Building Officials to help include the qualities of bamboo, in use for thousands of years, in modern construction.

Bamboo is one of the strongest natural building materials known to man with tensile strength at 15,000 pounds per square inch, similar to mild steel. Because of this strength and light weight it is used throughout Asia and the tropics as a replacement for steel and aluminum to build scaffolding in the construction process and as a replacement for steel rebar for reinforcing concrete beams and walls. New technology is also allowing it to be laminated into super-strong members for constructing wide, open spans.

Bamboo is a high-yield, renewable natural resource and a viable replacement for wood in many construction scenarios. It is already a critical component of the global economy because it and its related industries provide income, food, implements, and housing to over 2.2 billion people worldwide.

The world's most useful plant, bamboo is a very large relative of grass rather than a tree, yet has a timber-like quality when used as a construction material.

This botanical cousin to rice and corn has over 1,000 species of varying sizes and characteristics which make it amazingly versatile: not only can it be used for building houses, it may also be used for constructing furniture, cases, baskets, screens, farm tools, fishing rods, windmill blades, boat building, record needles, paper, kites, blowguns, polish, diesel fuel, scales, food, medicine, chopsticks, incense sticks, musical instruments, blinds, tipi poles, concrete reinforcement, plastic reinforcement, scaffolding, cables, bolt substitutes, piping, bike frames, various other structures, and a host of other durable, useful, crafted items.

Bamboo also emerges in many unexpected areas: it is used for brewing beer; an Edison light bulb in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. has a bamboo filament that is still capable of burning after more than a century; bamboo shoots provide nutrition for millions of people worldwide - Taiwan alone consumes 80,000 tons of bamboo shoots annually, constituting a $50 million industry; and bamboo "litter" makes fodder for animals and food for fish.

In Japan, the antioxidant properties of pulverized bamboo prevents bacterial growth and is used as a natural food preservative.

Perhaps even the bamboo grove, or bambouserie, itself should be considered a "product" of this versatile plant in that it has traditionally been a place for contemplation and spiritual enlightenment. People are drawn to its serene beauty for the pleasure of the surroundings.

Size ranges from miniatures to towering culms or canes of 100 feet and more and can be up to 18 inches in diameter. Bamboo can be commercially harvested in only 3-5 years versus 10-20 years for most softwoods. The culms can be selectively harvested annually to sustain an industry built around producing home building materials.

Though large-scale commercial production of bamboo has not been promoted in Hawaii before, this useful plant has long been present in the Hawaiian islands. Various uses of `ohe, bamboo, by Hawaiians included musical pipes or flutes, water containers, rattles called puili, to accompany hula dancers, and even fire blowing tubes. `Ohe Kahiki, introduced from Tahiti, was a type of bamboo with short, green joints and large leaves that produced a hard wood used for knives, fishing poles, and house construction.

Above all the bamboo plant's versatility, productivity, and usefulness to the planet and to mankind, its sheer natural beauty may be its most endearing feature. Its visual appeal, with its myriad forms, colors, and textures, provides contemporary designers and architects a resource in total harmony with the natural beauty of our tropical island paradise. Bamboo is truly an ancient resource with distinctly modern appeal and utility.


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