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What Sustainable Building Can Learn from Treehouses

In response to the current malpractice of marketing almost everything as green I would like to propose an unusual remedy – tree-houses. Specifically, I think the design and construction of “green” tree-houses produces a much needed refocusing on what we mean by sustainable.

I first made this observation several years ago when asked to help a fledgling organization called Forever Young Treehouses prototype their first wheelchair friendly treehouse. Forever Young was already barking up a tall tree in their attempts to make treehouses accessible to children with limited mobility, so when I suggested that the structures be made as green as possible, they were thrilled. Tilting at windmills is in their nature.

As usual, it all starts with choosing the building site.  Even the most insightful and careful green-LEED-architect eventually chooses a site. Sure, they first study the flora and fauna, map the wetlands, mediate erosion and coordinate with the climate, but in the end they still choose the building site. And if there are mitigating circumstances (like the client’s budget), they sometimes choose second or even third choices. But with a treehouse there can be no such waffling. Indeed, there can be no choosing, per se, at all. The tree-house architect must find their site. All the usual site considerations must be met by trees already growing on the property.  This can sometimes be a daunting or even impossible requirement. Immediately the bar for “green” is raised to a place where not building the project at all becomes a very reasonable option. I doubt that’s ever even considered with more typical building projects.

Once the tree(s) are selected they must then be protected. 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 treehouse becomes a liability, even though it may take a few years to finally fail. Instead, they are generally fed, irrigated and effectively protected from construction vehicles. I now use techniques I learned building treehouses as standard practice on my conventional projects.

Once the site is found and the tree-house design is roughed out, it’s time to consider green materials and methods. While everyone knows that embodied energy should be at least part of the selection criteria, the concept is usually abridged to just “buy locally.”  This isn’t bad but it gives little visceral understanding of what embodied energy really is. I find the concept really comes alive when one has to lug every piece of building material up a 20’-35’ ladder.  When it’s our energy that’s being embodied, we tend to keep it to a minimum.

This also helps with reducing waste. Carrying extra materials up a tree only to have 20% cut off or otherwise wasted is not a popular working method among treehouse builders. And when unavoidable scrap does result from trimming or fitting, treehouse builders tend to find a use for it rather than throwing it back to earth (or into the dumpster).

Any significant treehouse is going to cost enough to warrant ongoing maintenance in the future. Because they are difficult to scaffold, it makes sense to keep all major maintenance to an absolute minimum. Thus, both owners and builders of treehouses give much more attention to durability and life cycle calculations when selecting materials and methods. Because even a paint job becomes a major undertaking, the idea of seven generations of sustainability starts to look really appealing. And a 100-year roof seems like a minimum spec!

Even if the supporting vegetation weren’t a limiting factor, tree-houses tend to be small. In contrast to McMansion designers, tree-house architects instinctively hunt economy of space. Best of all, when clients decide they simply must have a slightly bigger house, treehouse designers have Mother Nature backing them up as they tell the client that it’s just not in the cards. Without espousing altruistic design philosophy, treehouses remain compact for purely obvious reasons. And in doing so, they reap all the benefits green architects have long been advertising – lower material costs, lower energy costs, smaller mechanicals, human scale and, above all, lighter environmental impact.

Ultimately it’s the sum of our total environmental impact that is most illuminated by this undertaking. Designing and building a green tree-house could be the perfect talisman for our broadest sustainable goals. When we mindlessly design and carelessly build a treehouse, the odds of killing the trees become high. And when the trees die, all our efforts and everything we’ve built in them will cease to exist. Isn’t that the perfect metaphor for our entire building situation? 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. And when that happens, everything we’ve created culturally, socially and commercially will cease to exist.

John Connell serves as Design Director at Connor Homes, a company specializing in the design and manufacture of early American-style homes, in a process Connor Homes refers to as ‘mill-built architecture’; allowing for the best of historical early American architecture, design aesthetic and details, coupled with the aforementioned benefits of factory built. Connor Homes – building the new old home since 1969. 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.

John Connell
John Connell is the Founder of Connor Homes, author of Homing Instinct (McGraw Hill) and The Inspired House (Taunton) and Principal of 2morrow Studio.
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2 thoughts on “What Sustainable Building Can Learn from Treehouses

  1. Great column, John.

    I think treehouses often get credit for being green intrinsically, but there are some counterpoints to consider – the floors are susceptible to greater heat exchange, for example. People’s image of what a treehouse should cost also restricts certain options like the 100 year roof…

    Not to knock my own trade, treehouses certainly can be built to exemplify green building practices, but they aren’t always as green as their image.


  2. With guidance from John, I built what may well be a 100 year roof for my tree house, AND I got a bunch of the materials for free. Basically, recycled plywood for sheathing, then (expensive) bituthane, then “shingles” made from EPDM that was taken off the roof of my local grocery store during a renovation. And the aesthetics are pretty cool, too. (See http://web.me.com/michaelduffin/Treehouse/photos.html#120 and the couple photos before that for my example.)

    I think one of the points here is that what is needed for both sustainability and treehouse building is to rethink “people’s image of what [any building] should cost [or look like or how it should perform}.” Current building practices, in aggregate, don’t seem to be a viable long term sustainable option. What’s needed is new mental models. Building treehouses is a fun way to kick one’s thinking into new, creative realms.

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