From: Elizabeth Janicek, Radish Magazine
Published September 24, 2007 11:41 AM

Whole Tree Architecture

When you hear Roald Gundersen use the words “local,” “sustainable,” “better for us and for the environment,” you probably assume that he is talking about food. But he's not -- he's talking about houses.
Gundersen is a “whole tree architect,” which is exactly what it sounds like. His designs incorporate the whole tree: round timbers, curves and “what a tree does so well” -- branches.
“Right now we have a very dysfunctional relationship with our forests,” says Gundersen, who lives and works near Stoddard, Wis. “The forests aren't winning, and humans aren't benefiting either. We need to have a mutually beneficial relationship.” His work, he says, “gives us a way to do that.”
Forests benefit from whole tree architecture because Gundersen practices young growth forestry -- he takes younger trees that are invasive, diseased and wind-bent, leaving the oldest, tallest, and straightest to repopulate the forest. “Much like a garden, if you thin and prune woods, they can actually get healthier and sequester more CO2,” he says. With healthier trees come healthier forests, and, yes, he maintains, healthier houses.


“Round timbers don't burn as easily as steel does, and even concrete has its problems in fire,” says Gundersen. “One of the key points here is that wood is a very complex material. It's as strong as steel in compression and twice the strength in tension.” And while the processing of conventional building materials creates carbon, says Gundersen, whole tree architecture actually sequesters it -- a ton and a half of carbon is locked up in every ton of wood that's used.
Of course, trees also have a certain aesthetic appeal that steel tends to lack. But incorporating their forms into buildings does have its challenges. “It's a design challenge as well as a construction challenge, because we're very much in a machine age,” says Gunderson. While machines are good at straight lines, trees love to do curves, he says. “We need people doing beautiful, skilled, artistic work, not just a wood butcher who knows how to run a miter saw and can slap together the framing of a house.” To Gundersen, building a house is far more than putting a good roof over someone's head. “This is sculpture, this is intuitive, it's spontaneous,” he says.
Whole trees also offer an economic advantage. “(Milled) wood comes from British Columbia and Indonesia,” he says. “But who in Iowa doesn't have standing dead elm on their farm? For a lot of the local farmers, woods are a non-profit part of the farm.” Young growth forestry, as Gundersen sees it, provides farmers a bit more income and offers builders an affordable, local alternative to expensive, far-away materials. “In the future, if people do start using this material more and in a much bigger way, there can also be this whole economy that doesn't now exist in our area.”
To enable such an economy, Gundersen trains skilled professionals in whole tree methods, but he's quick to affirm that anyone can incorporate the methods in their projects. “It doesn't take a rocket scientist or the skills of a highly trained organic farmer to use this material,” he says. “You don't need a lot of capital. You need a pickup truck, a chainsaw and some strong backs or a tractor.”
“I'm finding a lot of excitement to see that one can build much more locally,” he says. “Just like with the local food movement, somebody could take the local challenge and build from within 150 miles of the house. That'd be an interesting challenge.”
For photographs of Roald Gunderson's work or more information on Roald Gundersen Designs and Whole Tree Architecture, visit
Copyright 2007 by Radish magazine, a guide to healthy living from the ground up. For more stories visit

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