Bamboo is one of the "it" floors of the moment. The grass that looks like wood has everyone aflutter: chic designers, eco-trendy condo developers, value-conscious homeowners, as well as banks, post offices and showrooms seeking the mighty green seal of approval.

And why not? Bamboo is strong, good-looking and, above all, kind to the environment. Or is it?

First, the basics behind the eco-hype: Bamboo is a good alternative to wood because it replenishes itself quickly and on its own. When the stalks are harvested, the root system remains, protecting against runoff and sprouting new growth.

Bamboo grows like the weed it is: as much as a foot a day, reaching full height within six months and harvest strength in four years. A tree, by contrast, must be replanted and takes 20 to 120 years to mature to harvest.

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Hidden costs
According to the American Forest & Paper Association, the average American uses wood and paper products equivalent to one 100-foot, 18-inch-thick tree every year. Home-building projects account for two-thirds of that consumption.

Given the importance of trees in protecting wildlife, water and air, not to mention their near-magical countereffect on global warming, any and all conservation is indeed a good thing.

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But before piling onto the bamboo eco-wagon, keep in mind that any mass-produced product in the Industrial Age comes with potential environmental and health risks. Just because bamboo is good doesn't mean that it is always treated well during processing. The way a particular bamboo supply has been harvested, treated and delivered could knock it down a shade of green.

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"The hidden cost of so much of our building materials is petroleum," says Erika Zekos, an architectural designer. "So you might have a lovely renewable resource but it costs a great deal to get it here."

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Zekos and her husband, Derek Noble, chose dark bamboo for 600 square feet of their western Massachusetts home before learning about a lumber cooperative that's harvesting trees in an ecologically sustainable manner just a few miles from their house. Nearly all of the commercial bamboo imported to the United States comes from China.

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So although Zekos and Noble are happy with the floors — they're "absolutely beautiful" and are holding up well — Zekos says, "Had I done the floors today instead of three years ago, maybe I wouldn't have made the same choice.

"If you want to truly go green, you've got to go local, too."

Going for the green
Distance is not the only factor. Individual producers obviously have latitude in their methods of production, and it's up to you to snoop them out.

Bamboo flooring earns builders a point with the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. But oversight of specific bamboo producers is lacking. What the Forest Stewardship Council does for wood products, rating suppliers for sustainability practices, has yet to be established for bamboo.

"Just because bamboo can grow fast doesn't mean it's necessarily a green product itself," says Dimitri Rechevskiy, a partner in Pacific Custom Flooring, a San Francisco Bay Area flooring company.