W&WP October 2004

Playing the 'Green' Card

 

Teragren's bamboo flooring, veneer and panel products capitalize on the environmental movement in more ways than one.

 

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

 

Ask Ann Knight to explain the steady rise in popularity of bamboo flooring in the U.S. market and she will likely quote her company's tagline: "Beautiful, durable and renewable bamboo."

 

Knight, vice president of marketing for Teragren LLC, says, "I think each element of our tagline offers a clue to why the market has accepted our flooring and other products. Bamboo flooring and related products have the green story down pat, but the big picture is that the products look good and perform well, too. People don't want to buy an ugly floor. And durability is a major factor with flooring. The renewability aspect kind of clinches the deal," she says.

Teragren, formerly TimberGrass LLC, has been a prominent player in the importation of bamboo flooring and related products for the past decade. Knight's husband, David, is president/CEO of the Bainbridge Island, WA-based company.

"Teragren brought quality and consistency standards to the very new bamboo flooring market in 1994 when it introduced its first flooring brand, TimberGrass," Ann Knight says. "We were the pioneers of the industry in '94. We were looking for an alternative to wood fiber, found the factory in China and cemented the relationship that endures today. We changed our name in 2003 because the other name was closely associated with bamboo flooring and we want to go into sustainably harvested hardwoods, too."

 

Teragren works exclusively with one factory group in the Zheijiang Province of China and another in Malaysia where the tongue-and-groove floating floor planks, requiring neither glue nor nails to install, are produced. Teragren has expanded its bamboo product offerings to include 4-foot by 8-foot panels available in 1/4- or 3/4-inch thickness and 1/8-inch-thick veneer sheets. The panels can be used for cabinetry and furniture, wall treatments and other applications.

 

"People are even making skateboards with bamboo, and archery equipment manufacturers are using it to make bows and arrows," Knight says. "Paneling is a popular use and you even see it in breadboards. It has the same applications as plywood. One of our customers is building gorgeous custom tables and cabinetry with it. It also is being used in millwork and tabletops. The material can be used on curved surfaces and rounded shapes."

 

Teragren's bamboo flooring and panel products grace this kitchen. The cabinets are made with cross-ply bamboo panels in natural flooring while the flooring is flat grain, carmelized. (Photo by Jon Jensen)

Education a Key

Introducing a new product can be tricky; one of the key points in attaining acceptance for bamboo flooring has been educating the public. "Acceptance didn't come overnight," Knight says. "We had to change people's concept of bamboo in flooring. The initial image was of the round poles somehow used in flooring. They didn't understand that bamboo is sliced into strips and made into hardwood-like flooring. Once you get a potential buyer past the visual, you can explain that bamboo flooring is harder than oak and maple and more stable. And it is a very beautiful product."

Knight says her company also had to fight for acceptance in the style arena. "Bamboo is here to stay because of renewability, looks and performance. It isn't just for Asian-themed interiors. We have seen it used in a wide variety of installations, including traditional homes and old Victorians. We are getting people to see that it can be used to replace traditional hardwoods like oak or maple."

 

She adds, "You have to acclimate our floor the same way you do a hardwood floor. One major difference is in the grit level of the paper used when sanding or finishing. Also, our material should be sanded with the grain to avoid tear-outs."

 

Harvesting & Manufacturing Steps

Knight explains that the culm or stem of the bamboo plant grows to heights of 80 feet with diameters up to 8 inches. She says cutting times are crucial because harvesting before the bamboo is mature at five-and-a-half to six years can reduce stability and may affect the durability and color clarity of the finished product.

 

The bamboo stalk is split into slats to extract the premium part of the culm, Knight says. The slats are boiled in a solution of water, hydrogen peroxide and borate to eliminate pests and mildew. Then, the slats are kiln-dried to a minimum of 5 percent and maximum of 7 to 9 percent of moisture content.

 

The slats are laminated into flooring blanks using an environmentally friendly adhesive under hydraulic pressure. The blanks are stored in humidity-controlled warehouses for two weeks to further assure stability.

 

The products are available in a light "natural" color and a darker "caramelized" light coffee color that is a process of pressure heating the fibrous material and sugar compounds in the fiber. "The longer the fiber is heated, the darker the material will be," Knight says. The look of the product is also affected by the bamboo's vertical or flat grain.

 

The flooring is available with a factory finish. The pre-finished material receives a sealer coat, followed by a coating of aluminum oxide to protect the fibers. Aluminum oxide sealer coat is applied next, followed by two coats of scratch-resistant polyurethane.

 

Kevin Harter designed and built this bamboo bed using Teragren panels.

Teragren's finish carries a 25-year residential warranty; the commercial warranty is for five years. Knight says plans call for offering stain finishes in 2005.

Knight adds that while sales are highest for the residential market, Teragren has a lengthening list of commercial clients as well. Commercial clients include Fidelity Investments, Delta Airlines Crown Room at the Sea-Tac Airport, Tommy Bahama's retail outlets in several states, Timberland retail stores worldwide, Timberland's headquarters in New Hampshire and the Maui Hyatt Hotel. Other clients include: Reebok, New York, NY; Thomasville Furniture in Seattle; the William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, AR, and Clint Eastwood's residence in Maui.

 

Bamboo's 'Green' Story

One of Teragren's missions when it was founded in 1994 was to help reduce the dependence on timber resources. While hardwood trees often require 60 or more years to mature, bamboo is a grass and can be harvested in six years. Once a plant is cut, it can produce another culm and be harvested over and over. Teragren's harvesters etch a date into each bamboo stalk to assure that the plant is harvested at the appropriate time. The bamboo Teragren uses in its products is called Moso (Phylloystachus pubescens). It is grown in managed agricultural plots in China.

 

"We support the farmers and their families by paying a fair market value for our raw materials," Knight says. "We encourage proper stewardship of the resources. We offer our workers a retirement plan and provide safe working environments."

 

In addition to the sustainability feature of the product, Knight says the adhesive Teragren uses to laminate bamboo slats together contains 0.0155 ppm of formaldehyde and the water-based finish is solvent-free. As a result, Knight says the products easily meet OSHA emission standards and are recognized by the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) system. Under the LEED rating system, Teragren's products are given a MR Credit 6 for rapidly renewable materials and an IEQ credit 4 for low-emitting materials, she says.

 

Teragren is a member of the Business for Social Responsibility (BSR). Teragren follows the principles of The Natural Step program, applying basic concepts of sustainability.

 

While the first 10 years also largely have been successful for the company, Teragren has seen a great deal of competition arise, especially from China. "The biggest change we have seen is the growth of the market and the number of factories now producing bamboo flooring," Knight says. "There are probably 2,000 factories in China now and many in Vietnam as well. Bamboo is so prolific in China that people see the opportunity.

 

"Competition is very high," she continues. "We are seeing flooring coming onto the market at price points from $1.99 a square foot to $6 a square foot. We try to educate the public on being wary of deals. They should ask if the company has a history in the market, and how the material is harvested, manufactured and stored. If the bamboo is harvested before maturity - before five-and-a-half years - then the fiber will be twice as soft as ours, which means the flooring won't be as hard. I guess the bottom line is that you get what you pay for."

                                                                                                                                                                                           

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