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House and Garden

Architects design a living home.

In the future, home owners may grow their houses instead of building them.

The Fab Tree Hab (Credit: Mitchell Joachim.)

That’s the vision of MIT architect Mitchell Joachim of the Media Lab’s Smart Cities group. He and his colleagues – environmental engineer Lara Greden, SM ‘01, PhD ‘05, and architect Javier Arbona-Homar, SM ‘04 – have conceived a home that doesn’t just use “green” design but is itself a living ecosystem. They call it the Fab Tree Hab.

The basic framework of the house would be created using a gardening method known as pleaching, in which young trees are woven together into a shape such as an archway, lattice, or screen and then encouraged to maintain that form over the years.

[For images of the Fab Tree Hab, click here.] 

As the framework matured – which might take a few years in tropical climates and several decades in more temperate locations – the home grower would weave a dense layer of protective vines onto the exterior walls. Any gaps could be filled in with soil and growing plants to create miniature gardens. On the interior walls, a mixture of clay and straw beneath a final layer of smooth clay would provide insulation and block moisture. On south-facing walls, windows made of soy-based plastics would absorb warmth in the winter; ground-floor windows on the shady side could draw in cool breezes during hot months. Water collected on the roof would flow through the house for use by people and plants; waste water would be purified in an outdoor pond with bacteria, fish, and plants that consume organic waste.

“The concept of a living house is really incredibly exciting when you think that people in tropical and semitropical locations have fast-growing trees available,” says Richard Reames, an Oregon-based “arborsculptor” who uses grafting techniques to grow living furniture.

For now, Joachim is working on MATscape, a house project in California incorporating about half recycled materials and half living materials, such as grasses, plants, and soil. But Joachim and his team hope to plan a Fab Tree Hab community someday, creating homes that don’t interrupt the surrounding ecosystem but become integrated with it. “Design intervention only guides the growth,” he says. “Nature – life – does the rest.”

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