Building from Bones or Residing in Living Beings?

When I was at the Council of All Beings I spent a night in a cabin that a few years ago I would have thought gorgeous. This “Tulip Log Cabin” was spacious, had a nice central woodstove, a loft, and enough space to sleep a dozen or so. In the evening, we enjoyed the warmth of the fire, spent time there making our masks, and by the end of the long and eventful day, I happily passed out on a little mattress against the wall.

But as I woke up in the morning twilight, I had a chance to examine the wall, which was hewn from massive tulip poplar trees. I put my hand against a log and caressed it. The wall was made from trees that I could not have even wrapped my arms around, and looking at the score of these that made up the cabin, I simply felt sad. It felt as if I were resting inside the carcasses of great beings, slaughtered for our comfort. Especially considering I was calling up the spirit of a tree for the Council, it felt deeply wrong.1

The Tulip Poplar Log Cabin, made from many (unwilling) trees. (Image from Sticks and Stones Farm)

Ironically, today, we’re entering a renaissance of building with wood. Architects and planners praise wood as all natural, sustainable, and even a natural sequesterer of carbon.2 We’re now even designing entire skyscrapers from wood, using glues and cross-laminated boards to make these structures extra strong, which I remember learning about some years back at the Timber City exhibit at the National Building Museum. And this field is developing fast: a recently approved wooden apartment building in Australia will use 580 trees to create a 627-foot 50-story tower (trees will make up about half of the overall building material).

But in reality we’re slaying beautiful beings for their bones. Imagine building a home with the bones of a whale and ask yourself how it would feel living in a structure like that. Of course, humans have done this, such as in Indigenous whaling cultures, and ancient peoples even built a grand (or more accurately, a mammoth) structure from the skeletons of 60 mammoths.3 If one were deeply interwoven with these species for survival, then perhaps it is a sign of reciprocity and respect to utilize all parts of the being (just as using hides and making bone tools would be). The same can be said of trees, except that typically they’re factory farmed in tree plantations and so far removed from our reality so that we just have relationships with their remains (like meat in plastic wrap). Worse, as with meat, we don’t typically even recognize wood as coming from these beings as they come prettily packaged as wooden planks rather than as logs.

Imagine a memorial wall in the new apartment building that has pictures of all 580 trees and a deep expression of gratitude/apology for taking them and converting them into this building. (Image modified by Erik Assadourian from a DALL-E image)

Moving from Dead to Living Trees

Now I’m not saying we give up wood as a building material4 but I will share my daydream. Is it possible to imagine one day residing in living buildings? Not in the current sense of that term—buildings that have green roofs, maybe green walls, maybe living machine eco-sanitation systems in their basements. That is a worthy aspiration (especially when combined with using recycled steel and recycled carbon-neutral concrete). But what about houses grown from trees and woody plants that continue to live as they provide structure and shelter to their inhabitants?

That may sound crazy—but there are architects who have been developing this idea for quite some time. In fact, I remember first seeing the idea discussed on the Colbert Report in 2009, and watching that interview today it is still as inspiring. As the architect, Mitchell Joachim, notes, this technology has been around for 2,500 years—it’s a gardening technique, in which one grafts (or pleaches) plants together and shapes how they grow.

Image of Joachim’s vision of a living tree house (Still from Colbert Report)

I could see a simple shelter as already possible to design and inhabit—perhaps the equivalent of a (non-movable) yurt, grown and fused into a circular shape and gently worked over the years to become more and more watertight. (And in the early years, this being addressed with thatching (or perhaps wool-carpet-walls as are typically used in yurts) below the building structure—thus using all natural and sustainable materials.5

As the art and technology evolved, I could imagine far greater works: Gaian Guild meeting centers, ecovillage housing, tiny homes for the unhoused, school and recreation buildings, even a Living Cathedral (imagine the feeling of awe walking into not just a giant stone building but a colossal living cathedral grown for over 100, 500, even 1,000 years from tiny Redwood seedlings).

There are many trees (not to mention more than one thousand species of bamboo) that could surely play a role in orchestrating these living structures (adapting them for local climate and ecosystems). And this could be an entire rich focus of scientific and architectural research (and hopefully already is). But along with deepened knowledge, living buildings will need a market and demand to live in and use such buildings. And unlike buildings built from dead trees, these would be true sequesterers of carbon, adding carbon to their living structures year after year, as well as providing habitat for other species beyond us, filtering local air and water, being resistant to fire (as moist, living beings), all while being beautiful and alive.


1) And not just any tree, but the Eastern White Pine, which was slaughtered in the millions by American colonists for ships and masts as this powerful documentary details.

2) Until houses burn down or rot, the wood inside them holds their carbon rather than releasing it into the atmosphere.

3) We’ve built with human bones over the centuries as well, including the Chapel of Bones in Portugal, which feels even more disturbing!

The Wall of the Chapel of Bones (Image from Alonso de Mendoza via Wikipedia)

4) Partly because that’s unrealistic. But also because in places where people have continuing interdependent relationships with trees, harvesting them for their bodies is no worse than hunting an animal or slaughtering a humanely and sustainably-raised farm animal.

5) Could these be 100% plastic-free? One major problem with houses is that when they burn all the plastic and technology within them melt and create a hazardous waste site. Imagine if homes were 100% natural and sustainable, so even if they burned down, they’d cause no harm (though that would mean the clothing, furnishings, and belongings of the homes’ inhabitants would also have to evolve….).

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