In the future, homeowners may grow their houses instead of building them.
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 (S.M. 2001, Ph.D. 2005) and architect Javier Arbona-Homar (S.M. 2004) -- 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.
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; wastewater 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," said 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 said. "Nature -- life -- does the rest."