SSI-Funded Research Boosts Bamboo Business

As architects and builders search for innovative materials to meet growing demands for owners’ sustainable projects, universities may provide a key connection.

After visiting Bamboo Revolution’s showroom in Southeast Portland, two Oregon State University students were inspired to look more deeply into what they consider an up-and-coming sustainable material. Mike Pullen, owner of Bamboo Revolution, is donating materials to the research; he says the results could be a boon to his fast-growing business.

“A builder on the leading edge will want to adopt new materials and technology, but doesn’t have the resources or ability to test them him- or herself,” said Sean Penrith, executive director of Earth Advantage Institute. “The academic world and construction industry may be worlds apart, but it’s a symbiotic relationship that should happen more often.”

OSU students Skyler Mlasko and Danny Way are working with assistant professor Arijit Sinha to discern whether bamboo has more structural applications than typically considered in the U.S. market. OSU’s Student Sustainability Initiative, a student-managed grant program, is providing $3,000 for the effort.

“For smaller companies with limited resources, having the university lend a helping hand and put the time and hours into something we can’t – it’s obviously a huge benefit,” Pullen said.

Bamboo Revolution is already inspiring architects and contractors to prominently feature bamboo in their projects. Doors, floors, countertops and wall panels all are made from bamboo, and company sales are on a trajectory that reveals a growing market.

Sales increased 50 percent in 2008 and 30 percent in 2009, prompting Pullen in September 2009 to begin remodeling a 1927 auto parts store into its current showroom. Sales have continued to grow 30 percent each year, he said.

For the research, Bamboo Revolution’s bamboo first will be glued together to make larger glu-lam beams. Pullen and the researchers are hoping to work with Eugene-based Walsh Industries, a company that specializes in custom glu-lam beam manufacturing.

At OSU, the team will conduct a series of strength and destructibility tests on the bamboo glu-lam beams. Such data have not been published yet, according to the team.

“Bamboo could be competitive in the market because initial studies say that it has structural properties comparable with wood and conventional building materials,” Sinha said. “But there are no documents out there giving the actual values as a structural material, which will be needed for building codes to be adapted.”

Pullen recently started growing bamboo in Albany with the hope that he could eventually source all of his material locally. If bamboo could be used as a structural component, it would dramatically increase the value of his farm because he would be able to use more pieces of the grassy stalks.

A lot of the material can’t be used in furniture panels because of inherent aesthetic flaws. But Pullen pointed out that for structural use, all that matters is performance – not aesthetics.

In the future, Pullen hopes to see bamboo not only accepted in the building code, but also considered seismically safe.

“It’s a superior material because it doesn’t have a complete failure point, whereas fir will actually break completely at some point,” he said. “It would be fantastic if there was seismic activity because it has flexibility within the beam.”

While the six-month project will not lead to a revolution of that magnitude, the team says it is a vital first step in advancing bamboo research.

“(The structural tests) have been on my mind since starting the company,” Pullen said. “But instead of having to spend the money up front, the university is performing that, and I’m able to continue focusing on making sales to keep the company running in the present tense.”


This article, written by Lindsey O'Brien for the Daily Journal of Commerce, was published on January 30, 2012.