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.
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:
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”.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.