There’s something truly primitive about the sophisticated homes designed and built by Whole Trees Architecture and Construction. The buildings are beautiful in a raw and natural way because Whole Trees believes in using whole, young-growth trees in their projects. The idea is to get back to the roots of construction, to use a whole material rather than an over-processed one, and to let the inherent beauty of nature shine through in each and every project.
Whole Trees Architecture was founded in 1991 by Roald Gunderson, an architect with a keen interest in improving the relationship between humans and forests. They way we’ve been going, he says – chopping down old growth to process and mill it into lumber – isn’t good for us, the trees, or the buildings we make from them. Instead, he uses young growth in his buildings. He processes it as little as possible and lets the natural curves and connections shine through in the finished structure. He advocates “thinning” the forests, much as one would thin a garden. He removes the small, windswept, invasive and diseased trees to make room for the stronger, older trees to repopulate the forests.
But it’s not just about saving the forests. Using whole trees is a more architecturally, structurally and environmentally sound choice than lumber or even steel or concrete. Whole trees tend to be very difficult to burn, and unlike other building materials, they sequester carbon rather than releasing it in the production process. And while most milled lumber tends to come from outside of the U.S., whole young trees can be found anywhere. Using them for construction may just improve the local economy while helping to reduce the carbon emissions that would result from milled lumber’s transportation.
With so many benefits to building with whole trees, why don’t more people do it? There are many answers to that: we live in the age of machines, where few things are done by hand anymore. Not many people are skilled in using trees’ natural curves to create buildings. And it is truly a challenge to design a building using material that is so raw and so variable. But regardless of the challenges, the structures created by Whole Trees are some of the most impressive tree houses – in the most literal sense of the word – ever seen.
The company’s commitment to a greener world doesn’t stop with their design and construction projects, of course. Whole Trees’ office is a whole tree and straw bale building that runs on solar power and wood stove heat. Gunderson’s passion shows through in the workshops and training sessions he gives to people who are interested in incorporating whole trees in their own projects. Maybe someday soon we’ll see more of these fascinating earthy structures popping up all over the world.