Safari Thatch’s GRASSBuilt aims to revolutionise the engineered wood industry – using bamboo to create a greener construction industry.
Safari Thatch are already a major leading force in renewable, exotic building materials. However now they have co-founded a new start-up – GRASSBuilt – Green Renewable Affordable Sustainable Systems. The aim is to make the engineered wood industry a much greener space.
Nick Wight is CEO of Safari Thatch and Vice President of GRASSBuilt. Blooloop talked to the man who might just be going to transform the construction industry – with an eco-conscious vengeance.
A niche for thatch
“Safari Thatch is a family business that my parents started in South Africa, where thatching is used in residential applications for high-end homes,” says Wight. “In 1984, we moved to the United States to get away from apartheid, bringing this thatching concept with us. When we got here, people couldn’t spell the word ‘thatch’, let alone find a use for it.”
Very quickly they discovered that their customers would predominantly be resorts, theme parks and zoos. Miami Metro Zoo was one of their first commercial clients. It was a niche that worked well.
“Early on, we started to expand on our materials,” says Wight. “We got into this tropically themed, architectural building materials space. We would take an equatorial journey around the world, find these exotic native building materials, bring them back here and apply them in Western ways.”
Taking the intimidation factor out of unusual materials
Safari currently imports from fourteen countries at any given time. “In terms of general services, we are primarily a materials supplier. However we do also offer a consultative service. Many of the materials we use are not particularly well-known, and using them can be intimidating to people.”
The advisory role offered by the Safari team also ensures customers can be confident that what they have been sold is ideal for what they want to do. “We’ve lived, breathed and steeped ourselves in this our entire lives,” says Wight.
In the early days of the company, selling materials was enough. However building codes advanced, and different warranties and liability insurances began to be necessary. Hence the requirement for the performance of materials drastically increased.
Green imperative drives business decisions
Safari has strived to remain eco-conscious, even as it began to explore synthetic materials to replicate the aesthetics of bamboo. “We were green before the word green even meant anything in this space. When we do use synthetic materials, we will typically use, one of the most easily reccycled types of plastic. We also try to incorporate post-production, recycled content into our extrusions to the greatest extents our clients allow.”
It is not enough, he claims, simply to use plastics that are recyclable, and that contain recycled content. “They also have to be in a form that means, after they have been used, they can actually be recycled again. When you start combining them with components that have to be separated before you can recycle the environmentally friendly plastic, you have shot yourself in the foot. So we do a lot to make sure that, even when we are using synthetic materials, they are in a state where nothing can interfere with their capacity to be reconstituted into something else.
“We really do care. We consider ourselves stewards of the planet.”
This green imperative drives business decisions. “We are the largest importer of eucalyptus timbers in the country, by a factor of 10,” says Wight. “Eucalyptus is another rapidly renewable building material. Both eucalyptus and bamboo have a ridiculously high growth rate. Wherever possible, we try to promote the use of rapidly renewable materials.”
People-friendly and earth-friendly
Travelling all over the world, Safari often engages with local communities. “We go all over the world to find these crazy materials in far-flung places,” says Wight. “And very often we will engage with a village to do things for us.
“So you get these cottage industries. There is a small village in Mexico that does a lot of handicrafts, where we practically employ the entire village.” He says there is a direct connection along the supply chain. “The close connections we have with our customers, and with our suppliers – the names and faces behind what we sell – permeate our entire business.”
So the company is people friendly, earth friendly – and now it’s branching out in a new direction.
GRASSBuilt was recently showcased at IAAPA 2017. “We have been importing bamboo for 30 years,” says Wight. “We have a tremendous amount of experience in the bamboo space.
“About three years ago, we were approached with a concept where we would take the fibre that comes out of bamboo, and using multi-patented world-first technology, we would press that fibre together with world record speed, efficiency and dimension. Essentially we make gigantic blocks of incredibly strong building materials. These could then be repurposed and milled into any number of different applications.”
Wight sees GRASSBuilt as a way of using bamboo and other renewable feedstocks to create the ultimate engineered wood solutions.
“Our family has always held the belief that someone was always going to be able to figure out, at some point, how commercially to use bamboo in a viable way,” he says. “There are lots of people who are taking bamboo in its natural state and doing wonderful things with it. However it is so labour-intensive that you really have to love what you’re doing in order to make anything out of it. Plus, from a broader commercial sense, it doesn’t have the kind of applications that would lead to it being taken on by larger audiences to capitalise on its rapidly renewable growth pattern.
“Game-changing in the construction industry”
“Everyone talks about it having the tensile strength of steel, and it is an incredibly strong material,” says Wight. “However there are lots of constraints that have prevented it from broader use.”
With the GRASSBuilt process, the useful part of the bamboo is used, and the rest left behind. The start-up is built upon a proprietary multi-patented technology that allows wood materials to be pressed with hyper-efficiency.
“What would take the industry anywhere between 48 hours to a week to produce, we can do in 12 minutes or less. It’s an absolute paradigm shift in terms of how you make engineered wood building materials.”
Furthermore, the GRASSBuilt press has the ability to capture the energy needed to plasticise resins, and glue these materials together within the first few seconds of the press cycle.
A highly disruptive technology
“It distributes that heat and energy evenly throughout the material so you get a uniform strength throughout the block,” says Wight. “At full scale, we can produce a block of wood that is four feet wide, 10-12 inches thick and 40-60 feet long. We can do that in under 12 minutes every 12 minutes.
“It is absolutely game-changing in the construction industry.”
The block of ‘wood’ produced could then be cut up into anything. This could be columns, beams, flooring, decking, wall panelling, mouldings, window and door frames, cabinetry. “You name it: if it’s made out of wood, we have an ability to replace it,” says Wight. “When we get into that engineered-wood space, or we get into the flooring space, we’re a highly disruptive technology.”
A miracle plant that can provide mass timber construction
Wherever bamboo grows naturally, GRASSBuilt can build a facility that utilises it. “Looking at the broader picture, this gives us the ability to solve some serious world problems – from housing and material scarcity to rainforest deforestation. Or take, for instance, sugar plantations which are polluting water supplies. We could replant them with an equally lucrative crop that doesn’t require the kinds of polluting fertilizers and soil augmentations.”
Bamboo is also the number-one carbon sequestering plant on the planet. This means that free-floating carbon in the atmosphere is absorbed into the plant. It is then put into the ground when the leaves fall.
“That carbon then acts as a natural filter which remediates the soil in which the bamboo plants are grown,” says Wight. “It is a miracle plant that does incredible things, and we are now able to convert it into one of the fastest-growing building industries: mass timber construction.”
Highly stable, long-lasting engineered wood
Wight contends that GRASSBuilt engineered wood is the answer to many issues with which the building industry struggles. “There isn’t a decking solution out there that doesn’t have severe drawbacks,” says Wight. “Tropical hardwood is highly stable, but it’s becoming increasingly scarce. Its price is rising, and using it means cutting down old growth. With other materials, the wood filler mixed in with them will rot and denature. This results in pitted surfaces and mould growing. Some materials have fading issues. Some will splinter and warp.”
“Having taken the food source away, we end up with is a highly stable material for an exterior application, such as decking, where we’re not cutting down old-growth trees. While we aren’t ready for most exterior applications yet, our initial trials are extremely encouraging.”
Carb-exempt helps the environment
However, is the manufactured wood truly ecologically friendly? Wight insists so. “It lasts a long time, but ultimately it behaves in much the same way as natural wood. depending on the application, we’re currently about 8 per cent resin. this is a record low resin content for structured building materials.”
Even the glues they do use are chosen with an eye to the environment. “We are currently using two different resins,” says Wight. “The first is a PF resin, polyphenol. There have been problems in the US flooring industry with formaldehyde coming out of some flooring. Polyphenol resin contains the formaldehyde within its chemical structure, so it’s not free-floating. The formaldehyde ratings on our polyphenol resin are so low that we are actually exempt from the California code of emissions. We are “CARB” exempt. With the second resin, we have produced the world’s first no added formaldehyde (NAF certified) engineered wood material.”
Biomass yield of bamboo
The material also has a Class A fire rating. Wight explains that most engineered wood building materials are Class B. They then have to complete a Class A fire rating coding to obtain the rating necessary for high rise building. “That’s an aftermarket additional expense and effort,” says Wight. “Our Class A fire rating, on the other hand, is throughout the block of material. That is extremely important in high-rise construction. It allows you to refinish the surfaces of these materials and still retain your Class A fire rating.”
“Bamboo has one of the highest biomass yields in the world,” says Wight. “Its growth rate is such that every four to five years you are able to harvest it. You also do this without taking up the root structure and disturbing ecosystems, literally mowing the grass. You are cutting what is above the ground, and leaving all that ecological infrastructure below ground. It simply grows back.”
Safari Thatch and a win-win situation
While bamboo carries the PR weight of the GRASSBuilt concept, Wight points out that the technology doesn’t preclude the use of a diverse range of raw materials.
“There are a great number of rapidly renewable wood materials that are available in other areas as well. In the US, bamboo grows in the southern areas here. However, we also want to be able to use other domestic species. Southern yellow pine is one example, or eastern red cedar, whereby we give an invasive plant a purpose. We have the ability, once again, to get rid of all the bad aspects of it, pull just the fibre out of this material, and reconstitute it into something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Local jobs for local projects
“In areas where the ability to plant bamboo is limited, you can augment that. You can mix your feedstocks in a single facility,” says Wight. “In addition, from a macro-economic sense you can serve an area that you might not be able to if you were limited to a single resource or species.”
He points out that island nations almost all suffer from the problem of having to bring building materials from outside of their countries. “This allows us to provide local materials for local projects being built by local companies using local natural materials. It’s a win-win for everybody. We get the full environmental benefit out of what we’re doing. Instead of buying materials and burning fossil fuels to ship them half way round the world, we’re circumventing that loop. We’re providing local jobs to local projects, local materials, local everything. It makes a lot of sense.”
For the moment, GRASSBuilt’s efforts revolve around using a small-scale test facility to bring smaller dimension applications into the marketplace.
“We’re not doing any 60-foot long beams yet,” says Wight. “However we are doing flooring, table tops, stair treads, counter-tops, decorative wall panels, and a lot of façade work. We’ll also be into the outdoor decking material within the next twelve months. Even at this small scale we’re able to do some pretty amazing things. However, the real magic happens when we’re able to scale this facility.
“We are really just coming out of the ground, just as we have finished our R&D. We’re going into the marketplace for the very first time.”
Chasing the bamboo and engineered building materials industries
For a company in its infancy, GRASSBuilt has very big aspirations. “There are really two industries that we are chasing with this technology. One is the engineered building materials. The other is the bamboo industry.” He explains that, at present, the bamboo industry primarily revolves around flooring and textiles. There are some cottage industries, and also a rapidly growing biochar industry. This is where charcoal is used as a soil amendment. Bamboo biochar is current gold star in that industry.
In the United States and Canada, the bamboo industry is a $5 ½ billion dollar a year industry. The engineered wood industry is another $5 billion a year industry in North America. “So these are huge macro industries that we are attempting to supplant,” says Wight. “It’s a very big goal, certainly the biggest thing I have been involved with personally. It gets me up in the morning, that’s for sure.”
Wight concedes there is a lot of work ahead. “We will have to expand our facilities. We are in the midst of that right now. This includes efforts to put facilities in places like Colombia, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, and, ultimately, further afield as well. There is really no limit to how this material and technology can be used. The real star behind this is the technology that we are employing.”
He is confident of success and also sees this technology as a potential boon to the attractions industry. “Mass timber construction really does come into play for the attractions industry,” he says. “Essentially, we are just replacing materials that are currently being used. Glulam engineered wood beams are used commonly throughout construction. We are already ICC certified as a drop-in replacement to that technology, at scale.
“We are really just replacing an outdated technology with ours. In addition, we are producing a higher spec, lower cost, greener product. I’m a true believer.”