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Grow Your Own Treehouse and other thoughts on Ecological Architecture
Sarah Rich, 12 Jun 06

treehouse_zoom.jpg There are houses built in trees and then there are treehouses.

The Fab Tree Hab -- a home literally made from trees, using an ancient technique called pleaching (the art of weaving (and sometimes grafting) trees together to form structures) -- was one of the design entries for the Index: awards, emerging from the genius of a crew including MIT architect Mitchell Joachim and our friend, Javier Arbona of Archinect. The project description emphasized consideration of whole systems (and ecosystems) in creating a truly sustainable built environment, rather than a piecemeal approach that could yield uncertain longterm outcomes.

Although many individual and collective efforts towards “sustainable” or “green design” of buildings are apparent internationally, derivative design cannot address the underlying systemic nature of sustainability. Fixing pieces of a puzzle fails to address the interplaying complexities of the whole, and innovation is stifled by the need to work within given contexts.

Pleaching is not exactly garden variety as building strategies go, but it's certainly among the most ornate, natural, and "green." German landscape architect, Rudolf Doernach, used pleaching and other techniques in what he broadly called "biotecture" or "agritecture." Like permaculture, these methods are set up to be largely self-sustaining, meaning that once the initial planting and early training of the branches is complete, the structures continue to grow on their own, requiring minimal external energy while providing maximum agricultural yield (as in the Fab Tree Hab, which is meant to provide food for the inhabitants). Permaculture is also about inclusion, accessibility, and mutual service between humans and the natural world. With proper knowledge, you should be able to grow your own house.

As the Australian Rainforest Information Centre points out, these are the ultimate in low-cost, low-maintenance, zero-energy home:

Doernach's creations produce incredible savings compared to inert construction/insulation materials and have great potential for employment, given that say, 10 million homes have 100,000 hectares of plantable surface suitable for food cultivation. Insulation, energy-savings, noise-reduction, dust suppression, carbon dioxide conversion, oxygen production and psychological benefits are all positive by-products of planted walls.

eschenhaus.jpg Other ecological designers exploring the self-growing treehouse include Richard Reames and Konstantin Kirsch of the Treedome project, who've designed latticeworks of tree branches and grown them into cylindrical, multi-room dwellings which become fully-enclosed botanical domes. Fruit and other foods grow on the roof and walls, and the waste generated by the inhabitants becomes nourishment for the structure (a closed-loop system in which, as Bill McDonough says, waste=food).

Irish Architect, Urban Planner, Permaculture Designer and Ecologist, Declan Kennedy, presented a paper and lecture for the 1996 International Permaculture Conference in Australia on "designing for a sustainable future," which includes excellent history and analysis about the evolution of ecological architecture.

If, until the mid-90s, planners were satisfied with achieving an optimal combination of outside and self-generated supply and disposal with water, energy and the necessary materials, current innovation aims higher still: zero-energy buildings are well on the way to becoming "mega-out." What we are aiming at now are buildings that produce more energy than they consume - that is really designing for sustainability. Water-saving technologies should make way for self-contained water cycles, or failing that, wastewater-free buildings which produce compost and "industrial water," and green spaces that produce fresh food without requiring much input - thus becoming edible parks. The emphasis is not so much on self-sufficiency as on sustainable husbandry, orienting one's production and consumption on the carrying capacity of the land.
If energy, water, wastewater and refuse disposal rates continue to climb as they have over the past few years, every project which manages to lower running costs will become increasingly economically attractive in the future. "Non-ecological living" will become more expensive, be it food, cars or buildings. The motto is "using together instead of consuming individually." A real opportunity for the way ahead lies in the plummeting costs of information technology and in direct links between groups with similar goals through global communication networks. These options will allow us not only to exchange information more cheaply and quickly, but also help us locate the right car, bicycle or building at the right time, in the right place and at the right price.

And this is the crux of modern ecological architecture. Rather than referencing a time before computer-generated building plans, industrial mass production, and smart home technology, ecological architecture can now embrace these advancements while staying true to a whole-systems approach to design. By placing as much value on the services nature offers as those bestowed upon us by high-tech software and gadgetry, we optimize our design palette and gain utmost variation, flexibility, and sustainability for the future of the built environment. Product service systems and digitally networked communities thus become a part of the picture of a whole-systems lifestyle.

Most of us don't live in houses built from trees; they generally reside in our ideas of elven fairy tales or back-to-nature die-hards. But one look at the Fab Tree Hab model makes it clear that there is an ecological architecture for the 21st century and beyond - one that draws on the intelligence of ancient practices, uses the tools of today, and looks forward toward the challenges and possibilities that lie ahead.

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I love the recent attention WC is paying to regenerative design: design that aims not to alleviate human impact, but to shift the nature of that impact from negative to positive. It changes even the idea of something like carrying capacity. Carrying capacity can be improved by human intervention; spaces that are used to produce energy *or* food - even sustainably - are no match for spaces that produce both.

Thanks for the post!

Posted by: justus on 12 Jun 06

Nice article, good see this story has legs. I think we can find a better word to describe the art than Pleaching. Pleaching is well defined in the history of gardening, it means shaping a raised hedge, and the branches are braided together. As far as growing a house goes and for that matter growing trees into all sorts of shapes I think the field deserves it's own unique word, I propose Arborsculpture. For houses how about Arbortecture?
I believe that if we put our minds to it, like going to the moon, there’s no reason we couldn’t all be living in houses where the walls and ceilings are composed of living tree material and there are leaves coming out of the roof. We could accomplish this in one generation. We’d build doorways and windows that trees would grow around, and also plumbing and electrical conduits. The trees would just swallow all of the pipes … the suburbs could become forests again.
Richard Reames

Posted by: Richard Reames on 13 Jun 06

Building houses out of giant bonsei trees? Wow!

I have a question though. Are these shaped trees more prone to disease than ordinary trees and shrubs. I just wonder if it might be necessary, in order to save your house, to dose these things with lots of pesticides.

On the other hand, in warmer climes where termites are a problem, these bonsei/pleached houses might be more resistent to termites. I don't know. Has this been tried on any serious scale yet?

Posted by: Pace Arko on 13 Jun 06

There is also the bioengineering angle. Will any of these things have to be bioengineered in any serious way? What is the risk of introducing exotic species into a local ecosystem just to have good roofing plants?

It would be very science fiction-y to bioengineer a tree to grow a root and vascular system that we could use for house plumbing and ducting. Think of that, CAT5 cable being strung through a tree's root system or maybe even coaxing a tree to grow something like CAT5 cable naturally.

Posted by: Pace Arko on 13 Jun 06

Beautiful! Now this really is something worth of aestetic praise. It would be fantastic to see this incorporated into local architecture.

Posted by: reden on 13 Jun 06

Arbortecture!!! very clever indeed Richard!

Posted by: Mitchell on 22 Jun 06

Yeah, that would hold out against a Saskatchewan winter! Get real!

Posted by: Bill Fedun on 16 Jul 06



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