Monday, 22 November 2010

Whole Trees Architecture in Thailand

The architecture and builder, Roald Gundersen and his wife, Amelia Baxter set up Whole Trees Architecture and Construction in 2007 in Wisconsin, USA. It was the culmination of Gundersen's fascination with using whole trees to make houses.

From his 134 acre property in Stoddard he designs and makes houses from whole trees. He chooses trees from his forest carefully and then strips them of their bark. This allows the wood to dry while it is standing. Then the tree is cut down and planks and poles are taken directly from the tree to the construction site. Whole Trees Architecture doesn't send its timber to a mill to be cut to regular pieces.

This not only saves money in transport and wood, it also changes the aesthetic of the construction entirely. Smooth lines placed into regular patterns are replaced by knobbly, uneven wooden structures. Gundersen also bends tree parts prior to stripping them of bark so he can use curved pieces of wood in the construction.

So far Whole Trees Architecture has designed 35 structures. Gundersen estimates that he can use his forest to make 15 houses a year without damaging the forest. He is also keen to use trees that are normally overlooked by timber companies.

If you see the pictures below you will get a good idea of what Whole Trees Architecture is achieving.

The question for this post is: is any of this relevant to Thailand and Thai architecture? My immediate answer would be yes. For many Thais building their own homes they cannot afford many building supplies. Instead they must use what is around them to the best of their ability. A good example of this is the traditional coconut thatching used for roofing. This is used ‘straight from the tree’ (after drying) and not taken away to be processed. Similarly all over Thailand you can see structures that use un-milled branches of tree for the integral bones of the construction. The shapes of the tree remain in the building and help give the construction an organic feel that blends in well with the surroundings.

Also Whole Tree Architecture’s ethos of sustainability and local sourcing is relevant to Thai architecture. It is a country blessed with lots of forestry and a great wealth of hardwood species. Doing audits of the local forest and taking in a sustainable way for building nearby makes a lot of sense in Thailand. It reduces carbon emissions and helps to maintain the health of the forestry. Forests are vital in Thailand to absorb the huge deluges of rain the country experiences. If they are clear cut flooding ensues and top soil is lost, not to mention roads flooded. Living with the forest and benefiting from the forest is a traditional Thai way of life and should not be forsaken because of the lures of modernization and the desire to economically reform the country. Thailand should look to Malaysia as a case in point of what not to do. The Malaysian government has woefully ignored the country’s rain forests and allowed laissez-faire economics to turn most of their primary rain forest into mono-culture: millions of acres of forest have been clear cut to grow palm oil trees. Biodiversity has been lost, the people have lost the forest and environmental damage is irreparable. A few plantation owners get incredibly rich; the local farmers become wage earners. Only a few benefit. Thailand must protect its natural resources and whole trees architecture is one way to do this.

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