View Full Version : Extreme Trees: The Strange and Wonderful World of Arborsculpture

Saturday, December 10th, 2005, 09:06 AM
Arborsculpture: An art form utilizing the tree trunk as the medium by grafting, bending, framing and multiple planting.

"Using the medium of the living tree has shown me there is huge untapped potential in how we interact with this unique life form. if we can develop ways to grow trees into habitable structures the ecological benefit's would be huge. already live trees for fencing, outdoor furniture, and landscape interest trumps the use of dead wood any day. I am continuing to experiment with different species and discovering that each has it's own nuance making it more or less suitable for different design's. once begun, learning this art form is a lifetime project." - Richard Reames; arborsculpting pioneer

Some photos:

source (http://www.growingvillage.com/Team_Members_Richard_Reames.htm)

Saturday, December 10th, 2005, 02:13 PM
Fascinating. Still, I have to much respect for trees not to be troubled by it. It reminds one of the old "bonsai kitten"-phenomenon.

Saturday, December 10th, 2005, 02:55 PM
Wow, Chair trees hm? I wonder how they would go about scuplting a house from live trees...

Fascinating. Still, I have to much respect for trees not to be troubled by it.

It does not look that immoral, we have been cutting them down and chopping them up for centuries, but this way, even though mutated, they are still alive.

Saturday, December 10th, 2005, 03:01 PM
Isnt that how elves are supposed to live in the deep forrests.
Full cities, but without cutting down a single tree.. just forming them into homes, roads etc..!

Saturday, December 10th, 2005, 09:06 PM
I wonder how they would go about scuplting a house from live trees...

That's the part about this, that I found so fascinating. :) I did some searching, and I found the following... I hope that gives you a better idea of how it could be done.


by P.J.Wilkin

In a Nutshell:

If cuttings struck from the same young tree were planted closely together in a circle and their advancing shoots woven into a sort of large upside down basket as they grew, the stems would graft together as they thickened and an artificial hollow tree could be produced. As time went by all the little holes between the stems would fill in with new wood to exclude the elements, making the tree ready for habitation.

http://i19.photobucket.com/albums/b184/eydi/bbf6a3f7.jpgt is every sane person's desire to minimise whatever detrimental impact they have on the Earth, and even to contribute to its beauty and glory if at all possible. The following essay outlines an idea which I hope may give some people the opportunity to reduce this impact to nearly nothing, while enhancing the leafiness of their environment at the same time.

The idea of living architecture has been explored to some extent in fantasy and science fiction, Harry Harrison's West of Eden trilogy for example, but there was always mentioned some hypothetical genetic manipulation or mutation to achieve that result. I believe (And Geoff Hyde, a plant physiologist friend of mine at the University of New South Wales agrees with me on this) that certain species of tree which already exist in the world lend themselves admirably as subjects for the technique that I propose here.

No genetic manipulation will be necessary, but a careful and sustained application of skilled craftspersonship in the handling of the developing shoots certainly will be.

It will require a degree of experimentation to perfect the technique of growing rather than building houses and other structures, and to reap the various rewards of this. Because of the diversity of the climates to consider and the variety of potential species to be discovered, it is an experiment best carried out on a number of fronts by as many people as possible who want to give it a go.

It is not the sort of experiment that requires a laboratory, unless for expedience's sake you choose to propagate the hundreds of saplings required for your house using tissue culture techniques. (You'll need to do your own research there, or if you are lucky perhaps you can enlist the aid of a local plant nursery, though this will cost money.)

To begin you will need a sunny patch of land with good soil and adequate drainage, and a young specimen of tree that you know will graft to itself readily, can be propagated by cuttings, grows fairly quickly and vigorously in the area where you live, and does not have very large leaves, as these will get in the way when you are weaving the young shoots together as they grow.


Many cool climate trees have thick insulating bark which make it more difficult for them to self graft and seal over. Earlier this century Axel Erlandsen (http://www.designboom.com/eng/education/trees_erlandson.html) discovered that you can facilitate this by abrading the epidermis with sand paper or a blunt knife.

Perhaps willow will prove amenable in cool climates, pussy willows especially, or even certain poplars, these certainly have the advantage of fast growth.

Sycamores or Plane trees of the genus Platanus are very eager to self graft and are quite fast growing. These would be very suitable in temperate areas, although they have large leaves which would ordinarily make very fine weaving difficult, they are deciduous, so weaving could take place late in their dormancy, preferably as they are becoming supple in preparation for the breaking of their buds.

Oaks, Quercus, are slower growing, but they are extremely long lived. In cool climates, an oak house would be there to stay for the duration.

In dry areas Adansonia digitata, otherwise known as boab or monkey bread trees, could be employed. Boab trees are naturally very fat, as they age they develop water retaining tissue under their bark, allowing them to survive periods of drought. Inland in Queensland (Australia), there is an ancient hollow boab tree (http://www.traveldownunder.com.au/western_australia/Kimberley/Boab_Prison_Tree.asp) which was used in the Nineteenth Century as a temporary prison.

Some kinds of tree will be impossible to even contemplate using for this purpose because of their reluctance to graft, their unsuitable physical characteristics or because of their tortuously slow rates of growth. If you want to try the experiment, put a lot of thought and research into the species of tree that you choose for your climate and soil. This technique of making a house will require tremendous creativity, manual skill and perseverance. It will require proficiency in basketry, pruning, plant nursing and propagation, topiary and carpentry. Experience with bonsai would be a definite advantage. If you wish to extend your house or need to repair it, you will need to acquire the skills of bud grafting and tree surgery.

We have all seen that members of the Ficus genus have a tremendous ability to self graft. Two branches or roots that happen to touch one another simply fall in love to the point where they actually fuse and become one. Most kinds of tree will do this, but some kinds of Ficus carry it to perverse lengths. Entire jungle temples have been smothered with their woody tangled membranes and buttress roots. They are like a vegetable form of amoeba. Eventually every trace of the graft is obliterated by fresh epidermis. The vascular tissue underneath realigns as its new layers grow and sap then flows across the boundary between the grafted stems with perfect finesse.

For warm climates, the common house plant, Ficus benjamina (which is actually a vigorous tree) would be the easiest to procure, and with the help of hormone rooting powder, it is simple to propagate. A couple of years of taking cuttings, and then cuttings of the struck cuttings, from the one original tree will give you enough saplings to plant your walls and start weaving (see drawing, below), or you could begin after one season of propagating, by planting one section of wall and adding to the weave as you go along with cuttings taken from its prunings. This may prove difficult to manage however, as the oldest section of woven shoots will thicken at the base first and reach the closure of the roof before the newer ones nearby. This might be remedied by pruning all the shoots even and developing new leading shoots on the same new level (This may have to be done anyway, if ever the shoots absolutely refuse to grow at a similar enough rate and become impossible to weave, or if you neglect the tree during a period of rapid growth). For simplicity's sake it would probably be easier to wait until there are enough cuttings to plant the entire perimeter of the house. The more cuttings you have the better. The closer you can plant them together and weave them the sooner they will finish coalescing. Plant two parallel ranks of cuttings right next to one another, one leaning in one direction and the other leaning at the same angle in the other direction, and then twist each one around its neighbour to make the most simple weave possible. (Or if you are willing to take the risk, and have the skill involved you could try something more complicated to give your finished interior walls a more decorative pattern) Depending on the length of your saplings, you may have to weave them in a little as you plant along.


As the walls are woven higher and higher it will be important to keep lateral shoots pruned to keep the strength of the plant focused at the tips, and to provide lots of bushy foliage to feed the wood with fresh cellulose. Also it will be necessary to ensure that before grafting is under way, each stem is thickening at a roughly similar rate. This depends on the quantity of foliage supported by each one. You can control this by pruning extra foliage off the stems that are thickening too fast. If you allow some stems to overdevelop before the tree has begun to graft onto itself, they may choke the weaker ones to death. This is another reason why the whole tree should ideally be made of cuttings from the same individual. The walls must grow with an even rate along the top, to ease the process of weaving them, and evenly thick, to prevent the walls from deforming. Cuttings of different trees of the same species or seedlings might not be trusted to have similar enough vigour and robustness to make them manageable.

If you choose to grow your tree from from seed (this will make the exercise faster, easier and possibly cheaper) Plan to germinate many many more seeds than you think you will need. That way you can inspect them carefully and sort them according to vigour, discarding the weak and the overbearingly eager ones, keeping only the healthy and well behaved.

The different behaviours of homogeneous compared to chimeric biostructures will only be discovered over time.

As the house got under way, it would resemble a very large topiary bush. During the growing seasons you will have to keep an eye on the tree, and visit it almost daily with a pair of secateurs in your hand until it is sealed and established. If you think this all sounds a bit involved and next to impossible, talk to someone who practices bonsai and they will tell you stories of plant manipulation that will curl your hair.

The woven walls, while young should be braced with lengths of wood and secured against any wind storms by strong lines and tent pegs. The stems could be tied together as they are woven with something biodegradable, like jute twine to provide even more security in that event. As the domed roof begins to close over, you will have to buy or build an arrangement of ladders to keep the top pruned, and to weave the last stems together. If you have been very ambitious and your house is to be very large, you might need to buy or hire a cherry picker for these purposes.

As the domed top of the house comes together leave the stems out of the weave one by one in rows ranking up and up making sure their tips are on the exterior. This will have the effect of closing the roof.

The roof will need to be of a certain steepness, to keep the leading shoots high where the tree concentrates its growth. The finished form of the newly woven house would best resemble a series of recurved Moorish domes flowing into one another along corridors, perhaps with the pointed tops splayed into ridges. The necessity for the tips to continue growing will make it impossible or at least highly inconvenient and impractical to close the dome smoothly like an egg.

The rule of thumb will be to make a nice simplified organic shape that you would feel comfortable and happy posing in if you were the very fat trunk of a very hollow tree.

Once it was established, the basic form of the house would be more or less hidden by branches and foliage. For a few years after completing the basic shape of the house, and even after it is sealed and occupied, it will be necessary to keep the foliage pruned fairly close, still almost topiary fashion, from one to two meters from the skin of the house to ensure that the wood is thickening evenly all over. If branches are allowed to extend and develop too far while the tree is very young, there will be a danger of them breaking off due to the immaturity and weakness of their support. Once the house was established though, as it got older, it would get stronger and ever stronger, and the branches could eventually be allowed to extend naturally.

The house could be made large enough to be very comfortably lived in, with ceilings of height limited only by the potential height of your tree, your sense of proportion, the reach of your ladders and the time you are prepared to wait for the shoots to grow. Rooms could be made of quite large size, the maximum width being probably somewhat similar to the spread of the natural tree's branches, though the increased strength afforded by the dome shape may allow the tree to exceed its natural dimensions.

The rooms could assume almost any roundish shape, circles, ovals, octagons, hexagons, compounds of these, perhaps even squares, though I doubt I would feel comfortable as a hollow tree made to assume a square plan. I think I would rebel! Squares are convenient for the people but hexagons and octagons would seem like nice working compromises. Flat walls are desirable if you want to include furniture of conventional design, or hang paintings.

The floor plan must be designed remembering that the exterior of the house will need to be one continuous living surface of vascular plant tissue. A house with many rooms would be essentially a group of separate domed rooms linked by passageways, and separated by light wells and courtyards to allow the tree access to the soil.

Although there will be a natural limit to the size of the domed rooms of which it will be comprised, the house itself could sprawl unlimited on the land. In Tasmania there are single specimens of Nothofagus cunninghamii that cover whole hillsides. There are similarly expansive examples of the banyan, Ficus benghalensis in Sri Lanka. A town consisting of this type of house would resemble a forest. The productive potential of the land would not be diminished as it is under the expanse of roofing that one sees in a town of conventional buildings.

In rural areas the homes and outbuildings themselves would help to serve as windbreaks and habitats for pest eating birds.

Once the tree has sealed, it is likely that the interior surface of bark would die as the constriction of the grafts cut off the sap supply. This would not be a problem. The interior of all hollow trees consists of dead wood. The interior walls of the house therefore unless plastered will always carry an impression of the initial weaving. Though who in their right mind would want to plaster over a solid wooden wall that could eventually be sanded, bleached or stained and polished into perfection, revealing a marvellous tessellated pattern of woven wooden stems merging into one another?

Windows could either be cut through the wood later, or woven in from the beginning, by creating an opening through weaving the adjacent stems more closely, leaving some of them loose out of the weave and then reincluding them as the window closes. The loose portions of those stems would then be removed after the house had sufficiently grafted. Circular, oval or tear shaped windows would best compliment the living form of the house. These unusual shapes will require some carpentry skills and ingenuity to glaze. Lead lighting would be ideal to fill the more irregular shapes.

A house of this nature will tend naturally towards either a Beatrix Potter sort of quaintness, or a sort of soaring Gothic majesty. If the more irksome manifestations of these extreme alternatives are to be avoided, great care, ingenuity, and a touch of intuition will have to be put into your initial designs. Personally, I think that I would prefer to err on the side of soaring Gothic majesty, that said I think it is likely that the natural charm and character of the species of tree that you have chosen may well shine through enough to make the form of your house underneath its spreading branches almost secondary as an aesthetic consideration.


As you weave them in, it would be a good idea to form a sort of bonnet or eyebrow over the windows and doors to deflect run off. This could be accomplished by tying the ungrafted young weave over a temporary form made of soft wood and/or expanded polystyrene. Such an eyebrow would help as a fail safe for any putty or beeswax sealants around your window frames in times of particularly bad storms (If the dismal predictions of the greenhouse pessimists are anything to go by, we could be in for some doozeys). Here I want to make another point. In a fearsome storm, would you feel safer in a frame house made of matchwood tacked together by metal pins, or in a solid house of living wood rooted firmly into the earth? In the English hurricane of Nineteen Eighty Seven, many homes were unroofed or destroyed, and many great solid and healthy trees were broken or uprooted, but it was discovered that the ancient hollow oaks presented a more formidable resistance to the wind, and tended to survive intact. A hollow tree has a root mass that is more extensive by dint of the fact that it extends from the perimeter of a rough circle rather than from a point. It is therefore more firmly anchored in the soil. Another thing that saved the hollow trees was the superior strength of the dome shape as opposed to the cube of a house or the stick of an unhollow tree. Apart from these factors, a living tree employs the fullest tensile strength of its wood, an efficiency that can be lost when the material is dried and sawn into lengths for joining.

Before the planting of your walls, make provision to bury lengths of pipe at intervals across the perimeter of the house to avoid the trauma and difficulty of cutting through roots when it comes time to install any power, communications cables or plumbing. All you need is to mark where these are on your plan, and you have a ready made link between the inside and the outside for all your utilities.

The floor could be made of flagstones or pavers on sand, reinforced concrete or wood on pylons like a frame house. (I favour the concrete, although it does require a fair bit of the earth's precious recources to make it, it's relatively cheap, it lasts forever and you could paint it or do beautiful ceramic mosaics on it and cover it here and there with rugs.)

Of course you would not need to bother doing anything about the floor until the tree was sealed and therefore ready to move into. This will take time of course. Not including the initial propagating, I estimate an absolute minimum even in tropical areas with optimum growing conditions of eight to ten years before the house would be weather sealed and rigid enough to move into, (which you would not do until it had demonstrated the capacity to ride out a powerful storm). The duration of this time would tend to depend on the skill of the person growing the house, the vigour of the species they have chosen, the fertility of the soil and the fickleness of the climate. Even if it took twenty or even thirty years before the tree is weather sealed and ready to move into, would it matter? I can't help thinking it would still be worth doing if it took a hundred years.

The unfinished house need not be useless while you are waiting to move in. You could employ one room as a deluxe home for the chooks, another as a shady fernery, one more could be a place for your compost, and another with sacking over the window, a mushroom farm. Perhaps one wing of the house will seal before the others. This could then be used for storage. Your tree might get very rigid and robust and yet have some recalcitrant holes. If you are impatient to move in, these could be sealed up with cement, putty or beeswax; or pieces of coloured glass could be cut to shape and glued in with sealant to keep out the weather while you wait for wood to form over the outside. Human beings have been known to get away with putting silicone inside their bodies so I'm going out on a limb and assuming it would not be too much for a tree to cope with. If the tree does suffer any inconvenience at least you have the consolation of knowing that it isn't likely to sue you.

Richard Reames in the U.S.A., Miekal in the U.S.A., Konstantin Kirsch in Europe and quite a few other people around the world already have biotecture projects underway. (Miekal had problems with deer eating the young shoots. Being an Australian and therefore unfamiliar with deer, I think that's really cute, though I'm sure he would not agree).

If you look at the picture of Axel Erlandsen's Sycamore Tower in Richard's Arborstudio page (Linked to below) you will get a flash of optimism like I did and realise that what I have described here, and what Richard and Konstantin and Miekal are working towards is a very realisable and practical new discipline in Architecture.

Some Suggested Biostructural Planting Plans -


A simple cross plan for a small building of five rooms. Put doors and windows anywhere! Each of the outer rooms has three protrusions for bay windows or built in storage. These would be about the size of a small bathroom and one or two could be closed off for that purpose. Leaving one of the long axes free of partitions would make for a dramatic internal open plan space, and still allow two rooms to branch off opposite one another.


Rounded freeform rooms requiring custom furnishings strung along a recurved corridor. One or both of the open bay shaped areas outside could be enclosed with a pleached fence contiguous with the house to make private courtyards.


Four units connect at a central circular atrium.


A building with rooms surrounding a large central hall.
Non biostructural internal partitioning in yellow.


An institution of learning: Four units of 2 lecture halls each, with tutorial rooms and offices radiating out along corridors, frame a central quadrangle. Any of the units could be adapted for other uses, canteen, gymnasium, library, dormitory etc.

For anyone with a further interest on this subject, this book is available for purchase; Arborsculpture: Solutions for A Small Planet (http://www.arborsculpture.com/)