Home is where the trees are!

While most houses could be spruced up with a bit of greenery, some architects have begun to embed living trees within the structure of their buildings

Vertical Forest’ by Stefano Boeri.

Mr.VoTrong’s ‘Tree House’ is a modest, low-cost and readily reproducible residential project. It is hemmed in between modern buildings in Tan Binh, one of the most densely populated districts of Ho Chi Minh City. In Vietnam’s capital, just 0.25% of the urban fabric comprises green space.

The house is made up of five concrete boxes clustered around a courtyard and screened off by sliding glass doors. When these are open, rooms and courtyard become one. Discreet bridges connect the bathroom and bedrooms on the upper floor.

The concrete boxes double up as planters, each nurturing a local weeping-fig tree. As the trees’ foliage spreads, it forms a green canopy over the courtyard, creating a shaded, temperate space usable all year and abounding in greenery and birdsong.

“The Tree House,” says Vo Trong, “is a device to connect people to nature. It is a miniature park, and if we can build lots of houses like this, then we can make the whole city a big park.”

With the commissioning of an entire Tree House-style housing estate by the PhucKhang Corporation, a property development company, as well as a Tree House-style student hostel for FPT University, Vo Trong is attempting to transform Ho Chi Minh City. He may well have hit upon a way of greening crowded cities worldwide.

Growing trees inside buildings might seem whimsical, but in a way branches and bricks fit comfortably together, for trees have formed the essence of at least two of the greatest approaches to architecture: Classical and Gothic.

The tree trunks that supported the earliest buildings were refined into the marble columns of Greek and Roman temples, while Gothic cathedrals celebrated their close relationship with woodland both in their glade-like naves and their elaborate stone vaults, which resemble the intertwined branches of trees.

Architects working in a strictly modern idiom have also managed to include trees within crisp, linear designs. Mr. Stefano Boeri has completed two ‘Vertical Forest’ residential towers in Milan’s PortaNuovaIsola district. Apartments here are rather like tree houses, but with all modern conveniences and views across one of Europe’s great industrial townscapes.

Wind-tunnel tests have been carried out to ensure high-rise trees planted on these will remain upright in unforgiving storms. But there is no great secret to, or difficulty in, building in the company of trees.

Planting in pots restricts the growth of the trees, although they will need pruning. The planters are lined with waterproof membranes and polypropylene grids designed to keep errant roots away from walls and damp at bay.

Architects have chosen a wide variety of slow-growing deciduous trees. These include cherry, Persian ironwood and Holm oak, with maple and beech, which require less sunlight, on the north sides of the towers.

These architects believe that air-conditioning ought to be necessary only on the hottest days. The trees will also help soak up odours and pollutants, filter particulates from car exhausts, muffle unwanted sounds and, for those sitting on their balconies, go some way to reducing exposure to harmful ultra-violet rays.

In Sydney’s Vaucluse suburb, b.e.architecture has incorporated a mature lemon-scented gum tree into a renovated modern house overlooking Sydney Harbour. Neither client nor architect saw the tree as an obstacle!

There is both precedent and a particular logic in combining trees and buildings. And, unlike so many current proposals for sustainable architecture, intelligent buildings such as these are both peaceful and genuinely green.

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