The idea of a bamboo floor would strike most people as bizarre. Even in a jungle hut, a bunch of bamboo poles aligned side by side would make for an awkward walking surface. But San Francisco-based Smith & Fong Co. has created a bamboo flooring material called Plyboo that rivals oak for durability, appearance and cost; and it lies as flat as a pancake.

"It looks like a board, it functions like a board," assures Smith & Fong president Dan Smith, who has arranged for the product to be installed in a variety of retail and commercial spaces around the United States. "The advantage is that it doesn't look like anything else. It's quite striking in appearance."

Plyboo is made by stripping bamboo stalks and laminating side-by-side strips into sheets. The sheets then are laminated into layers to make boards. What sets the product apart, says Smith, are dark bands created by bamboo's characteristic nodes that appear every 8 in. to 10 in. in the stalk, and consequently in the board.

George Pomakis, who installed Plyboo in Elements, a home furnishings and accessories shop he owns in San Francisco's Sacramento Street shopping district, lauds both the product's warmth and its "exciting, cutting edge" character. Pomakis used the flooring on a raised section of his otherwise carpeted shop to highlight the few larger pieces of furniture he stocks.

"As soon as I put it in, it got a very good response," he reports. "A lot of people notice it. That's a good sign, because I think a lot of people don't notice flooring, especially in a store where there's a lot of things to look at."

Jeff Truesdell, senior architect with San Francisco-based Hannum Associates, selected Plyboo for the floor in a Compass Books shop at San Francisco International Airport. He chose it for its distinctive look, but says durability and ease of maintenance were equally important. "It seems to have stood up very well, and it gets a huge amount of traffic," he notes.

A particularly favorable characteristic of bamboo, Smith emphasizes, is its ecological superiority to wood (bamboo, he points out, is a grass, not a wood). Where trees take decades to grow and are not being replaced as quickly as they are felled, bamboo matures in four years. "We harvest only 25 percent of the crop each year, so it's sustainable indefinitely," he explains.

Smith says Plyboo, available either finished or unfinished, takes the same stains and dyes and requires the same maintenance as standard hardwood. The cost, he adds, is competitive with oak, and the material is adaptable to other uses.