WINDSOR — As construction with factory-built wood and light-gauge steel panels gains popularity for reducing labor costs, project timetables and waste, a 5-year-old company is betting demand will grow like a weed for studless, highly strong and energy-efficient walls made of bamboo panels.
After five years in largely bootstrapped development, Bamcore, LLC, this summer plans to start producing panels from a 13,000-square-foot pilot plant coming online in the former Standard Structures plant in Windsor. The goal is to be making for two or three single-family homes a month by year-end. The company has lease options to scale up production to occupy 48,000 square feet of the building, if demand warrants.
“We’re trying to take a sustainable, renewable resource and bring it to Western-style building products,” said founder and co-managing member William McDonald, whose background includes 30 years in framing and truss-building.
Bamcore last year was granted a patent for the process that turns bamboo poles — called culms — into load-bearing panelboard. It looks like conventional plywood from a distance, largely because the panel has a veneer of Douglas fir to allow for easy application of paint and texture without the need for gypsum wallboard. The process cuts and flattens the culms then laminates them together with formaldehyde-free glue.
The result is a panel said to have similar load-bearing strength to steel yet can flex side to side much farther than plywood without breaking. Bamcore said it is keeping its product testing results close to the vest for now for competitive reasons, but it said it has had them tested through materials labs at Washington State University and Boston University as well as through Kleinfelder’s former Santa Rosa lab.
Those strength characteristics are said to allow Bamcore panels to be simply precut in the factory for doors and windows and not need headers. From a previous, smaller research-and-development factory in Rohnert Park, Bamcore test-constructed a 2,000-square-foot house in Northern California in a few days.
Bamcore uses undisclosed bamboo species that in three months grow 90 feet high and to a diameter of several inches. Bamboo grow in three-culm groups, with each culm maturing in three years. That allows one culm to be harvested a year.
Early in development, bamboo was purchased from China, but challenges in avoiding clear-cutting practices there prompted Bamcore to shift purchasing to Central America. The company has acquired property there and created a production bamboo forest, the first harvest from which is set to arrive in Windsor.
The ultimate goal is plant commercial bamboo forests locally for use in the plant and for sale to local builders, according to Bamcore managers Mr. McDonald and Gary Hoenig, a Santa Rosa intellectual-property attorney. University of California, Davis, plant scientists reportedly are studying commercially viable bamboo species that would work in various U.S. climates.
Bamboo is said to sequester six times the greenhouse gases as Douglas fir.
Bamcore also received a patent and a system of floor, ceiling and panel spline brackets to form studless walls from two panels separated by a gap for insulation and utilities. The ability to choose the distance between the panels allows for the addition of 12-inch or greater gaps found in high-end homes without the use of more expensive double-wall construction, Mr. McDonald noted.
Panelized construction is gaining popularity because it allows construction year-round with factory efficiencies and better control of waste. Panels delivered by truck, and often moved into position with the help of a crane or hoist, can be screwed or nailed in place by a smaller crew in less time than on-site stud-by-stud construction.
A technology that competes with Bamcore wall panels are generally called structural insulated panels, or SIPs. Some custom homes have been built locally with SIPs, which arrive with insulation already installed in the wall panels.
The North Bay has become home to a number of panelized and modular construction innovators. HybridCore of Santa Rosa designs modular rooms from conventional materials. Blu Homes’ Vallejo plant makes light-gauge steel-framed homes that erect quickly via hinged wall panels. Healthy Buildings Technology Group of Napa has developed factory-built steel-stud panels that ship with windows and utilities.
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