What Building Tree Houses Teach us About Sustainable Building | Home Design Find

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What Building Tree Houses Teach us About Sustainable Building

The basic tenets of sustainable building generally involve lists that go pretty much like this: Minimize disturbance of site, minimize energy use, zero waste, use long life-cycle materials, and above all – because smaller is better – don’t build bigger than absolutely necessary.
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The Design Director of the Vermont-based period kit-home builder, Conner Homes, John Connell sees tree house building as the perfect blueprint for sustainable building.

Here is what he learned from tree-house construction projects:

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1. Minimize site disturbance:

Once the tree(s) are selected they must then be fed, irrigated and protected from damage by construction vehicles. Unlike earthen sites, their roots and bark can’t be dug up and damaged with the promise of later repair. If mortally wounded, the very foundation of your tree-house becomes a liability, even though it may take a few years to finally fail.

“When we mindlessly design and carelessly build a tree-house, the odds of killing the trees become high” he says. “And when the trees die, all our efforts and everything we’ve built in them will cease to exist”.
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2. Energy reduction saves… energy:
To truly get a visceral understanding of what embodied energy really is, the author suggests that you carry every item that will be needed up the tree, yourself.

“I find the concept really comes alive when one has to lug every piece of building material up a 20’-35’ ladder”, he says.  “When it’s our energy that’s being embodied, we tend to keep it to a minimum”.
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3. Zero waste:
This also helps with reducing waste, he points out. “Carrying extra materials up a tree only to have 20% cut off or otherwise wasted is not a popular working method among tree-house builders.

And when unavoidable scrap does result from trimming or fitting, tree-house builders tend to find a use for it rather than throwing it back to earth (or into the dumpster)”.
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4. Use long life-cycle materials:
Because it is a major hassle to repaint or repair the exterior of a tree-house involving a very difficult scaffolding design (trees have no straight lines!) the thoughtful tree-house builder is going to give very careful attention to life-cycle calculations, and into selecting durable, low maintenance materials.

“Because even a paint job becomes a major undertaking, the idea of seven generations of sustainability starts to look really appealing” he says. “And a 100-year roof seems like a minimum spec!”
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5. Be concise:
Size impacts many green benefits, reducing material costs, lowering energy costs, human scale and lighter environmental impact. That is why McMansions are not green. “When clients decide they simply must have a slightly bigger house, tree-house designers have Mother Nature backing them up as they tell the client that it’s just not in the cards”.

As he says, if we don’t build in a healthy, sustainable way, it is only a matter of time before we kill the natural environment that supports us. That’s what treehouse building taught him.

Images: Trendir

John Connell is also the Founder of the Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Warren, Vermont, Author of Homing Instinct (McGraw Hill) and The Inspired House (Taunton) and Principal of 2morrow Studio.

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9 Comments so far to “What Building Tree Houses Teach us About Sustainable Building”
  1. Frank Schulte-Ladbeck Says:

    I like it! I have to show my wife this post to convince that my ever growing treehouse project with the children is a worthwhile effort. She is not enthralled with the planned third story viewing platform. :) But maybe I could add a bed area.

  2. Urban Gardens Says:

    Great tips. If zoning would allow it, I love the idea of building a treehouse in an urban backyard–maybe to add a guest house or studio.

  3. Kari Lønning Says:

    Wonderful, for grownup kids.

  4. Andrew Says:

    Why couldn't I have one of these as a kid! Actually never mind as a kid, I want one as an adult. Right, now if I can just find a tree in the garden big enough ;o)

  5. Susan Kraemer Says:

    Heh. Engineering details like that somehow never bothered us as kids!

  6. Susan Kraemer Says:

    What a great idea!

  7. Bowerbird Renovations Toronto Says:

    Ah, beautiful and fun! I like it very much

  8. Wisnu Says:

    I agree with Susan, it such a great idea and can remind us in childhood :) wanna play there?

  9. Jessica Janes Says:

    What a magical retreat.

    Wish I had the trees to make this happen. Mine are toooooo small.

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