Environment Innovation Science & Physics Technology

Sustainable housing: why build when you can grow!

Scientists from the U.S and Israel are proposing a novel solution to sustainable housing that involves putting down a few roots — literally. Their ideas center around arboreal aeroponics (designer trees, to you & me) fashioned into tree houses, the kind grown ups as well as kids can live in…

Scientists from the U.S and Israel are proposing a novel solution to sustainable housing that involves putting down a few roots — literally. Their ideas center around arboreal aeroponics (designer trees, to you & me) fashioned into tree houses, the kind grown ups as well as kids can live in…

I find the idea of a house made from a living tree strangely reassuring, appealing to the tree hugger in me, whoever he or she is. Growing a house isn’t an entirely new concept, either. I first read about this idea some years ago. The original concept was to genetically engineer trees to form regular shapes not befitting the nature of plants. However, this new take on tree houses involves some kind of modern-day take on Pollarding, shaping a living tree to form a house:

“Aeroponics is the science of growing plants in an air or mist environment — without soil. Some plants, such as orchids that grow on trees in tropical rainforests, grow this way naturally.

Plantware, the organisation behind the technology, said it has already enjoyed success creating bus-shelters, park benches and traffic lights using its unique growing techniques.”

As a concept, it’s still some years away. As a concept, it’s got potential, if limited at this moment in time. What we’re seeing is a warming of society towards environmental issues, which is a very gradual but managed process. I say managed because public perception is subject to the capricious breeze of wealthy opinion, which can then bend or even break.

So gradual, sustainable and affordable change is affecting the kind of positive change in people and societies this world needs. However, living in tree homes will, for the most part, be found to be roundly laughable by most. So even if the technology was turned into pill form with a simple label reading: “Just add water!” most people would just stand and stare blankly.

“Using the advanced techniques of aeroponics, the green-fingered researchers are confident the first prototype home could be ready in just ten years.”

A decade is a nice round lump of time, certainly enough for us to get our collective heads around the idea of living in a tree, with the birds, perhaps.

So what are the benefits of tree homes?

Many. First of all, they’re entirely sustainable with, I should imagine to be, zero environmental impact.

Rather ironically, even a tree has a Carbon Footprint. Though this will vary from one species to another, trees do in fact emit carbon dioxide. That aside, trees are still pretty much the “lungs of the Earth”, so I wouldn’t go runnin’ to the shed for the axe just yet!

That aside, having a home fashioned from the living trunk and branches of a tree is like night & day when compared to the carbon penalties associated with building a house and then maintaining the damn thing. Also, the tree itself is a good regulator of heat; insulating when cold and radiating when warm:

“For a start all heating bills will be reduced, because in the winter, when the deciduous trees leaves fall away, homes will have more heat … And in the summer, the leaves will provide not only shade but a cooling effect will come from the leaves,…”

And when the tree isn’t a house, it’s still a tree. And a house? It’s a shell of stone, concrete, iron, steel, copper wiring, glass, wood and plastics — all of which have to be removed, which in time will prove more burdensome as I’m confidant laws will be passed that regulate the disposal of disused homes, controlling the way in which the waste materials are handled, and in turn disposed of, with recycling being the highest priority.

Over here in Britain, similar laws exists for cars, which initially caused a stir, since the whole process of scrapping cars went from the owner making a modest amount of money from the old heap to the owner having to pay to have said heap disposed off in accordance with the new environmentally friendly laws.

However, this only really applies to old cars. New cars are built with those laws in mind, so the process of breaking them is less onerous. I suspect the same will, in time, apply to housing.

Such novel re-thinking of things like housing will ultimately pave the way for further innovations, building on those before them. Of course, it’s unlikely that we’re going to see tower blocks fashioned from the sinuous bindings of deciduous trees. But for domestic homes, the potential is there.

We can, for now, safely assume tree homes aren’t going suddenly start sprouting up all around the world, replacing the current generation of housing. However, if costs can be somehow successfully mitigated — maybe through large-scale government or international sponsorship programs — poorer countries could benefit greatly, helping off-set the disastrous “slash & burn” trend I hear far too much about.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that for the very first time, we could be talking about entirely sustainable housing. The idea of tree houses could grow and flourish…

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

3 replies on “Sustainable housing: why build when you can grow!”

Puts me in mind of the Swiss Family Robinson! I had a little “tree house” fort as a kid, spent many many fun hours there. To live a a “real” tree house would be so much fun!

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