Course Blog

Tree Houses: Can We Make a City of Them?

Tree Houses. That’s the theme our team, (Big, David, Francisco and me) chose for this year’s Biodesign project course. The theme conjures up a variety of images…

  • The tree house (built from wood and placed near trees but not actually in a tree) that my childhood neighbours had in their backyard.
  • The “Treesort” in Oregon (essentially a hotel where each room is a tree house).
  • The Magic Tree House that transported Jack and Annie across time and space to see dinosaurs, play baseball with Jackie Robinson and meet the Vikings (in the children’s book series by Mary Pope Osborne).
  • An urban forest, where not only houses but also the post office, restaurants, pharmacies, and other buildings found in today’s cities are built into trees.

As we continue our research, I have a feeling our sources of inspiration will fall across a spectrum of the scientifically viable to the fantastic. From what we’ve found so far, there are two approaches we could take to designing a tree for living in: creating a tree-inspired structure or redesigning a literal tree to shape it into a house.

Existing projects and experiments at the intersection of architecture and biology have considered individual building components as well as the overall system a building inhabits. For example, researchers have explored ways to incorporate biological materials into buildings, such as hempcrete (see Piot et al.’s paper on “Bio Based Building Materials”). At MIT researchers designed a new building solution for Habitat for Humanity that would be “fully integrated into the ecological community” (see more here).

Researchers have also reflected on the vocabularies and processes that differ between the disciplines of biology and architecture. Architecture has a clear end vision for the end of its project, represented with a blueprint. Biology, on the other hand, evolves based on its surroundings, so its design emerges more unpredictably (see Davies paper “Machines for Living In” for more on these differences).

What would it mean for a house to evolve in response to its environment? Could it grow another bedroom when a guest visits? Could its insulation thicken when the temperature drops? Could its ventilation change depending on humidity levels? While these questions may seem absurd, not all of them are far out of reach. Checkout Michael Murauer’s smart fabric based on plant stoma.

If you have another vision for tree houses and evolving architecture, please share it with us!