The answer to sustainable building in New Orleans lies in one plant. It's durable, resilient and grows fast and thick, ideal for flooring, furniture, countertops and other home front applications. Mike Ward, owner of New Orleans Bamboo (6065 Magazine St., 897-5001; www.nolabamboo.com), showcases bamboo's practical solutions to green building at the store, which he opened in 2007 to meet the growing demand for sustainable resources in post-Katrina New Orleans.
Q: Where did You Get the idea to bring bamboo to New Orleans?
A: The idea came from my travels in Japan. I saw how bamboo was a big part of everyone's lives for thousands of years. They've used it in architecture, war, as tools and things like that. I was fascinated by the plant. After Katrina, I decided to try and introduce the uses of bamboo to New Orleans, and at the same time sell other renewable-resource products and green building supplies to take advantage of the opportunity New Orleans had in the aftermath of Katrina. We have to rebuild our city. I wanted to do my part to do it green and properly.
Q: What has the customer response been like?
A: It's a learning experience. You have to teach the people. Sometimes people are surprised that upfront it might cost a little more, but down the road it's going to be better off for all of us, and they'll have savings later on. It kind of is a switch in the way the building industry has been. We've been relying on the big boxes like Home Depot and Lowe's, and their idea is to mass-produce things as cheaply as possible and sell them as cheaply as possible, so all the parts fit all the other parts. They strip away the individuality of rebuilding and renovating in New Orleans; [the city is] unique in its architecture and the way the houses are built.
My idea was to try and introduce green building, not what you would get at the big boxes. I have a lot of bamboo products — plywood, shades, flooring, furniture, fences, cutting boards, sinks — those kinds of things weren't available before. But the people of New Orleans started researching and finding out more about green building, and architecture firms were saying, "We need to rebuild green." The customers were saying, "OK, you've convinced me, but where do I find it?" The architects would say, "Well, you have to go online." [New Orleans Bamboo] gives people a source for supplies they would only get online before. They can see it. They can touch it. There are more and more jobs being completed in town they can go look at, and more millwork shops that are using bamboo plywood and nonformaldehyde MDF (medium-density fiberboard). I'm giving them a hands-on place where they see what they can get when they choose to build.
The other people we have to educate are the contractors. They've been building things the same way for a long time. When you ask them to build, say, a mosaic cork-tile floor, they say, "No, we can't do it," because they haven't done it and they're comfortable in what they do and they do it well. It's a risk a lot of contractors are willing to jump at, but a lot don't want to go through the trouble.
Q: So most customers are starting from scratch?
A: Many people here had to. They're learning about the different types of insulation and renewable resources, like bamboo or cork floors, and the different types of paint or plasters that have no VOCs (volatile organic compounds). I think another thing that helped the green building movement is that the FEMA trailers we had were hazardous to people's health because of the levels of formaldehyde. Suddenly everyone was concerned about formaldehyde, and they were finding out that many of the products we use are filled with formaldehyde and exude off-gases and VOCs. Carpets, countertops made with Formica and pressed wood, kitchen cabinets made with MDF board — those are filled with formaldehyde. Renewable sources made from bamboo don't have off-gases.
Q: What about people not starting from scratch?
A: Those people come in because they're curious. They'll come in for bamboo accessories, like bowls or cutting boards, but they'll look around and think, "I need some window treatments, maybe I'll get some natural shades." They can see what's available and think about the retrofit in their house — what they can use next time they rebuild. Many times I hear them say, "I wish I would've heard about this when I renovated."
It's a joy to have people come in that are knowledgeable about things and talk to them on a level where years ago no one knew about that. New Orleans is really enthusiastic about the changes we're doing here, and I'm glad to be a part of it.
Q: What's your next step?
A: Start addressing water (in New Orleans). If you compare our water bills to other cities and cities that don't have a lot of water and have to go to great means to get their water, our bills are higher. It's ironic, because we have a huge amount of water. It is rainwater, but it's passing through 50 percent of the U.S. before it comes down here, and it picks up all kinds of things. If we as a unified city can address the problem of catching rainwater, we can really help the infrastructure in the city. That's where my next interest lies ... to augment green building by collecting this beautiful resource we have so much of.