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Scott Constable’s House of Tree rises above the ordinary

“It feels like it’s always been there,” says designer Scott Constable of his House of Tree project, a unique and exquisitely crafted cabin perched twenty feet off the ground among the redwoods of Northern California. Its timeless beauty is a direct result of Scott’s design philosophy, which integrates site, materials and sustainability.

In House of Tree you’ll find no plastics, very few inorganic materials, and no electricity. You will find extensive use of local materials and an implacable attention to craft and detail. The focus on materials and site is consistent with the rich portfolio of work Scott has built up across the country together with his wife, Ene Osteraas-Constable. Check out the work of their firm Wowhaus, and enjoy Scott’s design insights from his recent interview with Green Technology Forum.

GTF: What aspects of your design helped you achieve the feeling that House of Tree has “always been there.”?

Scott: Having a building feel like it has emerged from the site, or is somehow obviated by the site's conditions, is always a goal for me, especially in a natural setting like House of Tree.

GTF: What role did the materials you chose play in achieving it?

Scott: Materiality is a big part of this--using materials that are from within the bioregion leads to a visual integration with a site, and how these materials are ordered and arranged can lead to a functional integration with the site's conditions- weather, seasonal variation, light, moisture, etc.

GTF: What about the siting and integration with the site?

Scott: Approached this way, buildings can be highly site-specific, even site generated to some degree, and their 'look' is as much a result of cumulative local knowledge about materials and the forces that affect them, as it is about a client's functional requirements. You might say that each bioregion suggests a specific building style.

GTF: What role do materials play in your concept of “the luxury of the essential”?

Scott: For the client, or for anyone who experiences this building, knowing that many of the materials grew where the building stands creates a feeling of connectedness with the place. This is reinforced by the natural warmth of wood, both visually and to the touch, and to its changing character over time, gaining patina and polish where worn. Darks get darker and lights get brighter with age and use, bringing out a natural beauty that is unique to that particular material and how one interacts with it. It's a haptic experience, like taking a bath, engaging all of the senses.

GTF: What were some of the other criteria for the materials you chose?

Scott: How a material is maintained and responds to maintenance is a major consideration for how I assess a material. I aim for a situation where Maintenance=Improvement. I also try to design things to be easily repaired or adapted by people who use them. I give a lot of thought to the life cycle of a material when I consider how to use it- how readily available is a material should it need to be replaced, and how does the material's natural life cycle resonate with how it is being used in a structure.

GTF: How does your design approach complement your material choices and vice versa?

Scott: I hinted at this a bit in the previous question. I'd add that the two are inseparable when I work in such a highly site-specific way. It's a bit like song writing. Sometimes you start with the lyrics and sometimes with a melody. Certain materials lend themselves to performing particular functions, and certain functions obviate a set of material properties. I've gleaned a lot by studying any region's vernacular patterns and seeing what works and why things sometimes fail. The fun of designing this way is trying to invent within these patterns.

GTF: It seems that simplicity is one of your main goals. Can you describe a few key features of your approach to design, site and materials that enable you to achieve that?

Scott: It gets back to my concept of trying to provide a kind of 'luxury of the essential'. What do we really need? I think that most people are happiest when they have eliminated distractions as much as possible, like when camping or on a road trip or even when the power goes out for days on end. Something else starts to emerge that is just under the surface, something a bit primal that we forget is even there. We feel more like the animals that we are, more alive, more alert, more present. In a project like House of Tree I try to abandon nonessentials and reinforce elemental, sensoral pleasures as much as possible. This leads to making design decisions that vary with the client and their sense of deep comfort, so part of the design process is unpacking this with the client. We hang out on site, go for walks, cook dinner together, stay up late and get stoned kind of thing. The rest just falls into place.

GTF: You’ve also said that you wanted House of Tree to have a low impact on the environment. How did you achieve that?

Scott: In the redwood forest it's important to protect their complex root system and the deep duff that comprises the first layer over the soil. To make such a tall structure, we engineered a foundation that used four 12-foot long, helical anchors made of steel, screwed diagonally into the ground at each of the structure's four corners. These are then embedded in a shallow, reinforced concrete perimeter footing, allowing rainfall to drain relatively unimpeded. We also milled wood from the trees we had to fell to make room from the structure, using very little fossil fuel compared to buying stock from the lumberyard. We chipped branches from the fallen trees, and all chips and sawdust were added to the duff layer to naturally decompose.

[photo credit: Tim Maloney]

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