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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

GreenBiz: Construction method goes beyond just lumber to focus on 'whole trees'


By Gregg Hoffmann
After he earned his degree in architecture from the University of Minnesota in 1984, Roald Gundersen worked as a project architect on Biosphere 2, a $250 million experiment in creating a sustainable, ecological, indoor living environment and education center in Arizona.

That work had a marked influence on Gundersen, as did his love of spending time in the woods as a kid. When he returned to his native Wisconsin, Gundersen knew he wanted to find a way to spend time in the woods, make an eco-friendly living from the trees that surrounded him and contribute to the environment in the process.

Thus, Whole Trees was born. As the Whole Trees web site says, “Gundersen is an architect by profession and a forester by avocation, and he uses Whole Trees to bring those two callings together by creating healthy, sustainable buildings that create a healthier forest.”

“I work with wood, while most construction works with lumber,” said Gundersen, who is based near Stoddard. “I garden the forest for my wood rather than mine it.”

Through this approach, Gundersen has earned a reputation around the nation, getting coverage in the New York Times, Natural Homes magazine and many other media.

Through Whole Trees Architecture and Construction, he and his staff have designed and constructed more than 30 residential, commercial, greenhouse/agriculture and other buildings since the founding of the company in 1991.

These buildings are unique. As the company promotional materials read, “Whole Tree structures are timeless, deeply familiar and comforting. They are at once ancient and avant garde. Unlike conventional building materials, machined to fit rigid dimensional modules, Whole Trees are sculpturally fluid and elastically supple. Trees love curves and will produce curved structures inexpensively; whereas machines will do curves only at great cost. When we harvest you a home, we will utilize the resources of your land and community, not global construction modules.”

Gundersen said at a recent Driftless Dialogue at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve: “Whole trees, or round wood, is 50 percent stronger than an equal section of lumber. A tree’s strength is derived from tubes of fibers, growth rings, that create tension that allows the tree to resist shear forces of the wind. When we cut them into lumber, we remove the strongest fibers. The strength of any timber cut from any log will be less than a third of the original log.”

Some of the longest standing structures in the world were made of whole trees. They include structures in Egypt and Greece, Il Duomo in Florence, Italy, temples in China and others.

Whole trees also compare nicely with modern materials. They have “weight to strength rations” comparable to steel in compression and twice that of steel in tension.

Gundersen is part of a grant-seeking study with Forest Products Lab and a researcher from the Yale School of Forestry to do some of the first actual tests on the strength of trees as a whole. Observation and early testing indicate that trees are at their strongest at the intersection of branches. That allows for that gardening of the forest mentioned by Gundersen.

“Builders traditionally look for the tallest, straightest tree and take it for the trunk, which can be made into lumber,” he said. “Using the whole tree though, we look for branches, areas curved by the wind. We actually use what many traditionally would consider the waste wood in the forest.”

“Natural architecture” of whole trees also sequesters much of the CO2 given off from any functioning structure and contributes less to global warming.

In addition to using what nature has bent and shaped, Gundersen has been bending and pruning living trees into the shapes he designs. He calls this practice “biofacturing” or “topiotechture” and considers it the next frontier of “growing buildings.”

For more than a decade Gundersen did his work largely on his own. It started with his work at the Biosphere 2 project from 1988-91. “That really focused my work on designing and building structures that could be part of the environment, living structures if you want to use that term,” Gundersen said.

“It was an incredible experience. But, I knew I also wanted to concentrate on buildings that were part of everyday people’s lives. Buildings that could be built for $50 a foot rather than $500 a foot, and still be environmentally friendly.”

Gundersen returned to the Driftless Area and began his work, first from a small facility in La Crosse and later from his own farm. In 2007, he joined with Amelia Baxter to found Whole Trees Architecture and Construction. Several new staffers have joined the company as the workload has expanded.

They work out of a “whole tree” and straw bale office building and a new factory space which gives them room to work on peeling branches, making connections, storing completed piece and other fabrication work.

This home office, and Gundersen’s home, was his first whole tree and straw bale project, with its timber coming from the 140 acres he calls Driftless Farm and Solar Greenhouse.

The solar greenhouses have become one specialty of the company. One can be found at the Wellspring Retreat and Farm in West Bend. Others are part of residences and other developments around the country.

Other Whole Tree completed works can be found at the Chrysalis Farm near Avalanche, Wisconsin, at the Driftless Café in Viroqua, the Ott Spott Cabin in Three Lakes, the Angelic Organics Learning Center in Rockford, Illinois, the Native American Heritage Center in Iowa, the Christine Center at a Franciscan retreat in Willard, Wisconsin, and elsewhere around the Midwest.

The company has been part of Maharishi University’s Sustainable Living Building. That project is in Fairfield, Iowa, and is part of the university’s sustainable living program.

Gundersen also worked on the Punta Vista building in Costa Rica. Whole Trees has attracted more international attention after a story on it appeared in the New York Times. An article ran in La Repubblica, an Italian publication, and a Norwegian online publication called www.oftenposten.no.

Baxter and Gundersen also have started the Driftless Farm Community Supported Forestry program. Its purpose is to “support a new model of forest economy where a healthy forest provides both land owner and members abundance, and preserves that which sustains us ... Trees.”

Members get selective access to whole tree timber, sustainably milled lumber, use of garden plots and greenhouse greens, as well as unlimited access to fresh spring water and a variety of other forest products and activities. The goal is to establish ways of using the forest that also contribute to its health.

The model being used is somewhat similar to that used by CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs.

“Movements like those in food, and what we are trying to do, keep the work and revenue local, as well as provide healthy food and products from local sources,” Gundersen said.

“Our efforts are to create sustainable lifestyles,” he added. “The question we ask is ’how can we clean the environment by building buildings?”

-- Hoffmann has written many columns and features for WisPolitics.com and WisBusiness.com over the years. He writes the GreenBiz column monthly.

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