[permaculture] Building With Whole Trees
qazingulaza at gmail.com
Thu Nov 5 20:45:43 EST 2009
(pics on the NYT site, good to see Roald getting a bit of attention..)
Building With Whole Trees
ROALD GUNDERSEN, an architect who may revolutionize the building
industry, shinnied up a slender white ash near his house here on a
recent afternoon, hoisting himself higher and higher until the limber
trunk began to bend slowly toward the forest floor.
"Look at Papa!" his life and business partner, Amelia Baxter, 31,
called to their 3-year-old daughter, Estella, who was crouching in the
leaves, reaching for a mushroom. Their son, Cameron, 9 months, was
nestled in a sling across Ms. Baxter's chest.
Wild mushrooms and watercress are among the treasures of this 134-acre
forest, but its greatest resource is its small-diameter trees —
thousands like the one Mr. Gundersen, 49, was hugging like a monkey.
"Whooh!" he said, jumping to the ground and gingerly rubbing his back.
"This isn't as easy as it used to be. But see how the tree holds the
memory of the weight?"
The ash, no more than five inches thick, was still bent toward the
ground. Mr. Gundersen will continue to work on it, bending and pruning
it over the next few years in this forest which lies about 10 miles
east of the Mississippi River and 150 miles northwest of Madison.
Loggers pass over such trees because they are too small to mill, but
this forester-architect, who founded Gundersen Design in 1991 and
built his first house here two years later, has made a career of
working with them.
"Curves are stronger than straight lines," he explained. "A single
arch supporting a roof can laterally brace the building in all
The firm, recently renamed Whole Tree Architecture and Construction,
is also owned by Ms. Baxter, a onetime urban farmer and community
organizer with a knack for administration and fundraising. She also
manages a community forest project modeled after a community-supported
agriculture project, in which paying members harvest sustainable
riches like mushrooms, firewood and watercress from these woods, and
those who want to build a house can select from about 1,000 trees,
inventoried according to species, size and shape, and located with
global positioning system coordinates, a living inventory that was
paid for with a $150,000 grant from the United States Department of
According to research by the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison,
run by the USDA, a whole, unmilled tree can support 50 percent more
weight than the largest piece of lumber milled from the same tree. So
Mr. Gundersen uses small-diameter trees as rafters and framing in his
airy structures, and big trees felled by wind, disease or insects as
powerful columns and curving beams.
Taking small trees from a crowded stand in the forest is much like
thinning carrots in a row: the remaining plants get more light, air
and nutrients. Carrots grow longer and straighter; trees get bigger
And when the trees are left whole, they sequester carbon. "For every
ton of wood, a ton and a half of carbon dioxide is locked up," he
said, whereas producing a ton of steel releases two to five tons of
carbon. So the more whole wood is used in place of steel, the less
carbon is pumped into the air.
These passive solar structures also need very little or no
Tom Spaulding, the executive director of Angelic Organics Learning
Center, near Rockford, Ill., northwest of Chicago, knows about this
because he commissioned Mr. Gundersen to build a 1,600-square-foot
training center in 2003. He said: "In the middle of winter, on a 20-
below day, we're in shorts, with the windows and doors open. And we
don't burn a bit of petroleum."
"It's eminently more frugal and sustainable than milling trees," he
added. "These are weed trees, so when you take them out, you improve
the forest stand and get a building out of it. You haven't stripped an
entire hillside out west to build it, or used a lot of oil to
transport the lumber."
Mr. Gundersen had a rough feeling for all of this 16 years ago, when
he started building a simple A-frame house here for his first wife and
their son, Ian, now 15. He wanted to encourage local farmers to use
materials like wood and straw from their own farms to build low-cost,
energy-efficient structures. So he used small aspens that were
crowding out young oaks nearby.
"I would just carry them home and peel them," said Mr. Gundersen, who
later realized he could peel them while they were standing, making
them "a lot lighter to haul and not so dangerous to fell."
Mr. Gundersen, who built most of the house singlehandedly, also
recognized the beauty of large trees downed by disease or wind, and
used the peeled trunks, shorn of their central branches a few feet
from the crook, as supporting columns in the house. "I thought they
were beautiful, but I didn't think how strong they were," he said.
"In architecture, how materials come together and how they are
connected is really the god in the details," he continued. "The
connection is where things will fall apart," he said, adding that the
crook of a tree "has been time-tested by environmental conditions for
200 million years."
He refers to that first house — which cost $15,000 (for plumbing,
electrical, septic and other basic amenities, as well as $4,000 in
paid labor) and a year of his own labor — as his master's degree in
architecture. Divorced in 1997, he now lives there with Ms. Baxter and
their two children.
After finishing the A-frame, Mr. Gundersen built a 100-by-20-foot
solar greenhouse next door with thick straw-bale walls on three sides,
banked into the north slope. He used small-diameter, rot-resistant
black locust trees for the timber framing.
A wall of double-paned glass, positioned to optimize the low-angle
winter light, faces south. Growing beds angled slightly toward the sun
are planted with rows of mustard greens, kale, chard, arugula,
lettuces and herbs. Hanging trays of micro-greens and a fig and bay
tree promise fresh food for the fall and winter.
But it is the Book End — the little house attached to the greenhouse,
which is home to the firm's project manager and his wife — that
quietly vibrates with the spirit of the forest.
"We used a lot of standing dead elm here," Mr. Gundersen said,
pointing out the delicate trails, or galleries, left by the beetles
that killed the tree. Peeled of their bark and satiny smooth, these
trees have a presence that seems to draw one's arm around their trunks
and invite a viewer to lean into them, to soak up strength from these
powerful old souls.
In this quiet farming community, where people may not have a lot of
money to spend, but do have plenty of wood and straw, word of the
beauty and practicality of Mr. Gundersen's structures has spread.
Solar greenhouses made of local materials can extend the growing
season through winter, even in a place where temperatures can drop to
30 or 40 below. In the last 18 years, Whole Trees has built 25 of them
It's part of a vision Mr. Gundersen developed after spending three
years as a project architect on Biosphere 2, the three-acre glass-
enclosed miniature world constructed near Tucson in the 1980s, which
tried to replicate the earth's systems, but foundered on carbon
dioxide, acidic seas, failed crops and internal intrigues. After that
experience, he wanted to build something more basic to human needs.
Mr. Gundersen grew up in nearby LaCrosse, where his Norwegian great-
grandfather, a doctor, founded a local institution, the Gundersen
Clinic; he comes from a clan of doctors and tree lovers. "There are 23
doctors in the family," he said, including his father and uncle and
four great-uncles, but he seems to be wired more like his great-
grandmother Helga, whose family still owns a tree farm in Norway. He
and his grandmother would often picnic on this piece of wild land,
where he remembers picking watercress and wildflowers and building
Now, to be in his buildings is to be among the trees.
"It almost feels like we're in a forest, the trees have such a
presence," said Marcia Halligan, a client who is a farmer and Reiki
instructor, standing among the birch posts of her airy bedroom.
She and her partner, Steven Adams, who grows seed for organic seed
companies, worked with Mr. Gundersen on a design that uses 22
different kinds of wood, most of it from their own land outside
Viroqua, southeast of Stoddard.
The economic downturn has put commissions for several large buildings
for nonprofits and a 4,600-square-foot residence on hold, Mr.
Gundersen and Ms. Baxter say, but the demand for small houses like
theirs is up.
"It's remarkable how many people have called this last year asking for
1,000-square-foot houses," Ms. Baxter said. "People are downsizing for
their retirement homes, and even younger folks are thinking about
energy costs, environmental awareness and simplicity."
Whole Trees can keep construction costs as low as $100 a square foot,
not including site preparation, if the client is willing to shop for
secondhand fixtures and the like.
As people begin to see forests as a resource, they may begin to take
care of them rather than cutting them down to make room for cornfields
or pastures. And the forests keep giving back.
"I've taken 20 trees per year off one acre, for 12 buildings," Mr.
Gundersen said. "You can never tell that we've taken out that much
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