The idea of living in harmony with nature is as old as human existence. Architecture is the classic expression of the relationship between human habitation and the natural world, with organic designs ranging from Frank Lloyd Wright’s distinctive modernism to Hugo Häring’s functionalism. Today, as society increasingly adopts “green” lifestyles, the tendency to live closer to nature only grows, hence one of architecture’s latest and most intriguing trends: tree-based architecture.
By Shyla Mani

ree houses are the images of our childhood dreams. For those lucky children who had access to these magical hideaways, tree houses meant escape, places for gathering with neighbors and playmates, where the imagination could go wild. And yet, with critical environmental concerns at the forefront of people’s minds these days, tree houses have moved beyond the simple purpose of fun and imagination. The trend of “adult” tree houses serves as a practical solution which, rather than isolating us from nature, allows us to blend living and working with our natural surroundings.

In recent years, a number of architects have taken on the creative challenge of constructing these eco-friendly dwellings. Some key issues they consider are the structural soundness of the houses as well as having the right terrain on which to sustain the structures. By combining Sailboat technology with the traditional tree house concept, architect Tom Chudleigh developed the “Free Spirit Spheres”, round tree houses that hang suspended up in the foliage. Located in the rainforest of Vancouver Island, Canada, these spheres blend naturally into their environment but also possess modern attributes. Each sphere weighs about 1,100 pounds and spans 3.5 meters in diameter. The interior of the spherical tree house is insulated, wired for power, sound (with speakers, it is true “surround sound”) and telephone, includes closets, skylight, round windows, galley kitchen, seating area, and a bed. The structures themselves are all handcrafted with either cedar or spruce strips and suspended from a web of rope like an inverted three-legged stool. One can enter the sphere via a spiral staircase and short-suspension bridge. The spheres are available for rent or can be custom built. One guest said: “staying in the sphere has re-awakened my creative mind.”

In another artistic endeavor, architect Lukasz Kos developed the 4Treehouse design that mimics the concept of a Japanese lantern. Nestled among the fir trees of Lake Muskoka, Ontario, this “Japanese lantern on stilts” is a tall, illuminated, rectangular prism. Kos, co-founder of Testroom, a Toronto-based architecture and design firm, has taken the sustainable concept of “building up and not out” to a whole new level – literally. The tree house consists of thee floors, and unlike other tree houses that stretch between tree bases, a swing is suspended from four trees to provide the structural foundation, which allows for a fluid dynamic between the slate and wall construction of the house and the natural swaying of the trees. “This was really a parameter-driven project,” Kos said about his design, “that is, I had to let the trees decide how the tree house would be.” An exercise in minimizing impact to the trees, site, and nature itself, this elegant slatted structure subtly scales the trees and lets light radiate through its core.

Despite our traditional conception, not all tree houses are secondary homes nor do they all have to be elevated. Rather, some tree houses are built on the ground, and are meant to function as primary homes, while still incorporating many natural elements. For example, one family in Wales constructed a low-impact Woodland Home, a project that took approximately four months, requiring only 1,500 hours of labor and about 3,000 British pounds. Homeowner and father Simon Dale said, “Some past experience, lots of reading and self-belief gave us the courage of our conviction that we wanted to build our own home in natural surroundings.” Every detail of the house has been thought out to complement the overall sustainable concept. The house is cleverly built into a hillside, and the stone and mud from diggings were used for the walls. Additionally, the walls are made with lime plaster and straw bales, which provide insulation. Reciprocal roof rafters, turf and plastic provide the foundation for the roof, while reclaimed scrapped wood is used for additional fittings. Of course, we couldn’t call this a tree house without considering the most fantastic aspect of the design: the surrounding trees run through the walls and ceiling as if the house were a continuum of its natural surroundings.

As far as the internal functioning of the home, many natural sources and methods were used to provide heating, cooling, water and power supply. For instance, a wood burner is used for heating, and the fridge is cooled by air coming underground through the foundation. A skylight illuminates the house during the day and energy from solar panels provides power for lighting, music, and computing. The family’s water supply comes from a nearby spring, and rainwater is also collected on the roof to be used for gardening. “Living your own life, in your own way is rewarding,” says Dale. “Following our dreams keeps our souls alive.”

Sustainability is a trend born not only from individual taste but also from a sense of urgency. Many of us have started to evaluate the way we live and want to make significant changes. From the wisdom of our ancestors comes the idealized concept of “being one with nature,” and some have started to question what this really means and how to make sustainable living practical and accessible. The difficulty lies in reconciling ecological awareness with personal comfort. Does becoming one with nature mean giving up lighting and power sources completely? Does it mean that we can no longer have running water or the luxury of a sink or toilet? Architecture’s continual exploration into the concept of sustainability has led to practical solutions where the harmony between modern technology and nature become a reality.

The appeal of sustainable architecture is fully embodied by the tree house trend. For instance, the Woodland Home provides substantial environmental benefits from both its external structure and its internal functions. Its lime plaster requires low energy to manufacture and is a much more porous material compared to concrete, which helps with ventilation. The power, heating, cooling, and water use renewable, natural sources of energy. Also, no materials were wasted in the construction of this home. In fact, in addition to re-using wood and diggings for the structure of the home, the family used reclaimed materials that were found in rubbish bins. It is clear that tree houses are not only beautiful and creative architectural feats but also excellent examples of how we can live sustainably.

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