One day, our houses may be planted and grown instead of built, says MIT architect Mitchell Joachim. Joachim, along with his MIT colleagues, Lara Greden and Javier Arbona, have created an award-winning house that goes well beyond any current thinking about green design because it is a completely self-contained, self-sustaining life system.

Inspired by the writings of Thoreau and Jefferson, along with a growing concern about the effects of global warming, Joachim saw a compelling need for a true paradigm shift in our thinking on how to best meet the world’s energy needs.

“I’m confident that this housing system is within the realm of possibility, and the sooner the better given the latest stats on the energy crisis,” he says. “It goes beyond green design and is a living ecosystem.”

They call the house the Fab Tree Hab, a natural, living structure grown by planting trees and shaping the trunks and branches as they grow to create the exterior walls and roof. The ancient gardening method known as pleaching –– a system of planting and weaving together vines and branches –– is used to grow and shape a thick, protective layer of archways and latticework for wall support and protection from the elements. The interior walls and ceilings would be made of clay, with a mixture of clay and straw used for insulation. And the windows would be made of a soy-based plastic, capable of slowly expanding as the structure continues to grow.

SOMEWHAT CONVENTIONAL

Joachim’s plans call for a two-level house with a somewhat conventional interior –– a kitchen, dining room, living room, three bedrooms, and a bathroom. Solar collectors store the sun’s warmth to provide heat and hot water. And the house harvests rainwater in a rooftop trough connected to a plumbing system that circulates fresh water for household needs. All the dirty water would be piped to an outside pond with fish, plants, and bacteria that consume organic waste. And the reclaimed pond water would complete the cycle of self-sufficiency by irrigating the home’s garden.

“The crucial aspect of our approach is that it’s not just a gardener or botanist slowly growing these plants. It’s a scientific method using computer-based analysis of growth patterns — something that just couldn’t be done until recently.”

Joachim says that trees like elm, live oak, and dogwood are among the more than 30 species growing in North America that lend themselves to this unique housing system, making it entirely feasible to establish communities of Fab Tree Habs in temperate climates, as well as in tropical regions. The houses would take between five and 20 years to grow, depending on the climate in which they’re planted.

HIS OWN HOUSE

Joachim’s dream house for the future may have been inspired by the avant garde house that his parents once owned. “When I was little, we lived in one of the first contemporary style houses in Ramsey, New Jersey,” he says. “It was a modern contraption that my father, who’s an artist and furniture maker, absolutely loved. It was on the cover of The New York Times.

“I wanted to be an architect since I was in the fourth grade. I worked in the New York City office of architect Karl Hess when I was 14, after winning a drafting competition in my high school.”

Not surprisingly, Joachim built tree houses as a child — five or six of them — one of which he designed for winter weather. Today, he lives and works in Brooklyn, New York, and he is a principal at Terreform, a nonprofit design collaborative that integrates ecological principles in building and design projects for the urban environment.

Joachim earned a bachelor’s in architecture from SUNY Buffalo, then got a master’s from Harvard in urban design and a second master’s from Columbia University in architecture. He earned a Ph.D. in architecture at MIT in 2006. While at the Institute, he collaborated on plans for a small, fuel-efficient car developed by General Motors and the firm of architect Frank Gehry.

“MIT gave me the opportunity to experience extraordinary things,” he says. “I couldn’t have asked for a better group, and this project was certainly a product of my experiences there, and the people I met. MIT is just fantastic.”

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