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Bamboo Planet: A Q&A with David Sands

by Tresca Weinstein

When architect David Sands was attending Washington and Lee University in Virginia, a professor of Chinese art introduced him to the idea of bamboo as a metaphor for the perfected human being. That metaphor has set the tone and theme of David’s life. A former Kripalu resident and chair of Kripalu’s Board of Trustees, he cofounded Bamboo Living in Maui, Hawaii, in 1995, with the mission to protect and restore the planet by pioneering the use of bamboo as a building material. David is now an international speaker on structural bamboo and designs both individual homes and prototypes for large-scale construction. He spoke recently with Kripalu Editorial Consultant Tresca Weinstein.

KOL How did you first get involved with yoga and Kripalu?

David I started doing TM [Transcendental Meditation] 40 years ago, and I was really intrigued by the relief from the constant negative thinking I was experiencing. I did some TM workshops where we did meditation and postures in cycles—they didn’t call it yoga at the time, but that’s what it was. I started taking classes regularly, and came to Kripalu in 1976. That first year and a quarter I was there, I went through the most rapid change I’ve ever experienced. One of the things Kripalu does so well is create safe and sacred space. All of my defense mechanisms unraveled in that environment. After a couple of years, I went back to graduate school, and eventually returned to Kripalu in 1980. I actually finished my graduate studies while living at Kripalu and working as an architect.

KOL What took you to Hawaii?

David I left Kripalu in 1987 and moved to Hawaii a year later. Pretty quickly after that, I built my own house with my brother and some friends. I tried to be as green and sustainable as I could, using recycled materials, including mahogany doors from an old hotel. But when they delivered the construction lumber, it was painful, because I saw how many trees were tied in with that amount of wood. Even for a managed forest, that’s a lot of trees being cut, and the logging process is a mess.

Shortly after completing the house, I left Maui for six months to figure out how I could align my life better with my values. In the course of those few months, I wrote a really bad screenplay for an environmental thriller, applied for a professorship and was asked to join Kripalu’s Board. Also during that time, a friend from Maui called who had just come back from the World Bamboo Congress in Bali. He found our first bamboo client, a mutual friend. We used our weekends to build the first permitted bamboo building in the United States, and later developed the first-ever building code standard in the States for bamboo structures. Since then I’ve built several hundred bamboo homes.

KOL What makes bamboo such a green material?

David Bamboo is probably the most sustainable building material on the planet. Using it actually restores the planet. It reduces deforestation, creates annual jobs rather than the typically cyclical jobs of forestry—it’s a very different paradigm for construction material. Bamboo plants live 50 to 100 years, depending on the species, and can be harvested every year. When you cut them, it doesn’t kill the plants, so it’s not like harvesting timber. It also looks beautiful, like a work of art. I call the style Robinson Crusoe Revival. I’ve made several homes for rocks stars, and I get calls from all around the planet. It’s created a lot of standing in the world for bamboo.

A couple of years ago, I read a National Resource Defense Council article that said 30 billion tons of CO₂ were being released into the atmosphere every year by humankind. I knew how much CO₂ an acre of bamboo sucks up, so I looked at how many acres of bamboo would be needed to sequester the CO₂ and set a goal. I call it my 20/20 Vision: 20% of humankind's CO₂ emissions being sequestered by bamboo in 20 years. As an added benefit, in terms of quantity of building material, if you put an acre of bamboo into production, you’re taking out of production between four and 20 acres of trees. Increasing bamboo utilization dramatically reduces deforestation.

Bamboo is the fastest-growing plant, so it’s the fastest way to get carbon out of the atmosphere. Left in the wild, a bamboo forest grows up to a point where it plateaus and stays fairly level. It gets into a balanced cycle in which the plants die and replace themselves. But if you’re harvesting the mature plants and turning them into construction materials, you’re continually sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere. It made me realize that switching our construction to bamboo could have a huge impact on the planet. That’s not going to be done with just the niche houses I’ve designed, so I’ve started working toward that through other avenues.

KOL You’ve created a green panel for building bamboo houses quickly and in large numbers.

David We recently started a company called Advanced Bamboo Products to produce the new panel. It’s a thin panel with a bamboo core and a high-tech, sustainable silica finish. It’s an amazing building material with phenomenal properties in terms of durability and resistance to mold and insects. You can build entire buildings with just these panels. We can produce panels as long as 60 feet and, at the other extreme, I’ve created a 7-by-7-by-7-foot structure for housing in impoverished urban areas. We’ve done all of the panel testing and we’re developing full-scale prototypes for various countries, looking at factors like climate and available funds. We’re in the process of putting together very large contracts—one group wants 150,000 houses made of these panels for use in creating sustainable communities. These are the kinds of projects that will put bamboo on the map in terms of really making a difference with climate change.

KOL How affordable is bamboo?

David We’re able to match regular construction costs, and this new technology will eventually be the most affordable way to build anything. Bamboo is the fastest-growing material on the planet, and silica is widely available, so it’s the cheapest, most durable way to put a building together.

KOL So why don’t more people build with bamboo?

David It’s outside of people’s perception. Folks have no idea you can build a house out of bamboo. A million people in the world are living in bamboo houses, but those houses are not built to last, so they have to be replaced every 10 to 15 years. What’s fascinating is that bamboo fiber is way stronger than the wood we typically build with. A square inch of the bamboo we use in our Bamboo Living houses will hold up to seven tons of weight, so it’s significantly stronger than wood. It’s like iron. We built a resort in the Cook Islands, and since then they’ve had multiple hurricanes with 173-mile-per-hour winds, and the bamboo houses were fine.

We’re working on a project for Haiti right now, looking at getting more bamboo planted there. Our strategy is to put a plantation in various areas—n Haiti, in Suriname—and, in each area, we’ll have a facility to process bamboo and make panels for that area. The plantations will also create jobs and help heal the land. Bamboo stops erosion and rebuilds watersheds. It creates a porous rhizome mat that’s connected to the soil, so rainwater is reabsorbed rather than sheeting off the land. We have a factory in Vietnam and, when we first got that property, there was no organic material in the land around it. We planted bamboo all around and, within six months, there were earthworms, and organic material had developed. Bamboo creates that regenerative process.

KOL Is it possible to grow bamboo in large quantities in the United States?

David The bamboos we’re using are tropical bamboos, Chinese and Japanese bamboos that will grow in parts of Europe and the United States. You can’t grow bamboo in the Dakotas or anyplace where you’ve got super-extreme winters, but you can grow it all through the Northwest, the Southeast, the Eastern seaboard. There are even folks growing bamboo in Massachusetts, but there’s not much of a harvest there.

KOL How is your yoga practice connected to your work?

David My goal when I moved to Kripalu was personal and planetary enlightenment, and what I do is really about working at every level to create that. We’ve got to be able to create a sustainable culture that’s not damaging the planet, but actually restoring the earth. That personal goal has given me a much clearer mission about where to put my attention.

The level of self-discipline that grew in me while living and working at Kripalu has stayed with me. Multiple times, my partner and I would look at each other and ask, Are we just crazy? Perseverance is really important. The Kripalu experience gave me a solid platform on which to build.

For more information about Bamboo Living, visit www.bambooliving.com.



Tresca Weinstein is an editorial consultant for Kripalu and edits the Yoga Bulletin, a quarterly publication for KYTA members.

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