Building Like A Tree — adapted from Bernardo del Monte, Chan Ká Vergel and Tulum Puertas, January 2017
Imagine a building like a tree, ever growing, made from air, contributing to the ecosystems performance and diversity. Such a building cleans the water and the air, produces oxygen, generates soil and nutrients, and consumes the carbon dioxide overwhelming our atmosphere. Imagine buildings so antifragile that heavy storms only increase the depths of soil on their roofs, and send forth shoots of new life from every branch.
This approach expands silvicultural principles to claim the city space, transmits the values of a forest that is more than the sum of its trees into the human sphere, adding an intelligent, biological management concept to the dynamic growth of society and economy. This approach not only transforms today’s architectures to far better quality, but serves as an expression of a future culture with deeply embedded values of cooperation, inclusion, and empathy.
Buildings reflect the intentions and identity of their builders. Many great intentions are embodied in traditional buildings, and we gratefully admire the soundly conceived constructions left behind by older civilizations. The concept of conceiving a building like a tree adds to the intention of being long term beneficial, creating an infrastructure that will remain and fully integrate with the ecosystem.
One starting point is the cradle-to-cradle philosophy first espoused by William McDonough, emphasizing that everything is designed to be a nutrient for something else. The intention of buildings is to serve as a resource bank. Buildings are meant to provide healthy environments for those inhabiting them and for the world around them. The materials used are carbon, sulfur and other elements withheld from the atmosphere. They are resources that can be used over and over again when necessary or needed. Construction materials become part of the circular economic cycles under which they are created.
Modular elements for timber construction can even absorb diverse and lesser qualities of wood. The sawdust and lesser trees that are left over can potentially be transformed into compound materials that may replace plastics. Not only are additional resources created, but contamination is mitigated.
Village homes and city construction in should combine trees, grass, fibers, cement and bioconcrete composites for simple or luxurious homes. The overall energy to construct is low – much lower than anything practiced in the modern industrial realm today. The approach is more analygous to the Mayan experiences and customs of habitation. Their cities flourished, as did their forests, and the population densities were much higher than they are today.
A Forest is more than the Sum of its Trees
It is an old foresters' adage that the biggest risk for forests is people. Most often, this blocks from view the opposite viewpoint that people are the strongest asset in the process of conserving and wisely using forests, trees and land in general. Both statements are true in their own mental environment. Where individual and exclusive responsibility through ownership is over-emphasized, too many people feel involved in forest matters for the land users ever to feel safe. On the other hand, where collective and exclusive responsibility through community rules is overemphasized, too few people feel that forests and trees require attention beyond the average. We walk the edge between these positions.
A city then becomes like a forest and is more than the sum of its inhabitants. A city contributes to the rural areas instead of exploiting and destroying them. Both the city and the communities around it jointly develop solutions while profiting from advancing and further developing the concept.
The modern world developed along industrial paradigms, values with no relationship to nature’s complex systems. Industrial paradigms are simplified for the sake of making things work to produce results. Under these rules, humanity has advanced more quickly than ever before.
The use of timber not only allows for building various structures known in modern architecture, but it permits modular construction concepts under which houses and buildings can be individualized and pre-constructed. A sophisticated German, full-timber family home of three hundred square meters can presently be erected in only one day. It’s raw materials come from regional supply sources and the technologies for timber harvest involve the local population while the technologies for timber processing are small or mid size industries.
There is no such thing as a sustainable technology, sustainability is not a quality to be found in a material or construction as such. Rather it characterizes the interface relationships humans share with nature, resources and technology, using the world’s resources and applying the available technologies. A more sustainable lifestyle does not necessarily need a shift in hardware, even though sometimes that may be helpful, but it certainly implies a change of the softwares we use managing it.
Sustainability, or the ability to provide for the future as much or more as you took for your own use, can be achieved by reducing consumption or designing it more carefully, considering the wider impact consumption has on the environment and on the life of others, plants, animals and people alike. It may result from teaching our children to relate to both nature and people, and from finding satisfaction and joy with servicing others who are in need. The common denominator of all these is higher satisfaction here and now and in the future and in other places of the world.