Message - RE: Building a house around a tree -

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Posted by  Chris Reid on January 28, 2003 at 15:26:46:

I can see how you would find the idea of building a house around a tree very appealing. I am certain it has been done. The question is, to what effect on the health of the tree? My take on the idea as a landscape designer is that it would be better for you than the tree. Here are some thoughts to ponder. The design would need to take into account the house's outlasting the tree. The typical scenario would be that the house being built around the tree would likely stress the tree, and contribute to an early demise. Considerations: First, have a very skilled arborist look at the tree and tell you how healthy it is and how long it has to live, and what the factors will be in its survival. Not all arborists are created equal. Get somebody with lots of experience and training. For actual design, even if you don't enclose the tree within the house, the amount of tree root area to be protected from compaction and which would need to have undisturbed soil to allow aeration and moisture to the roots is frequently underestimated in designs. Vague recollection -- Kim Coder of U of GA a way of estimating allowances for tree root areas I think, but I don't know if his method has been verified. People think of tree's roots as upside down trees, but most of the critical roots are very fine and in the top foot of soil, extending well beyond the drip line (how much moisture can a tree find for itself within the drip line?). Soil is either removed, filled is placed for the landscaper's design to work (tolerance for root disturbance varies depending on the tree; over 4 inches or even less could severely impact the tree or kill it) or compacted by construction machinery over critical roots that are then damaged along with the soil. (I don't agree with everything in the following link, but it will start you thinking about trees and construction: ) When the tree dies a couple of years or a decade later, most people don't realize they were in effect writing its death warrant with how they tried to protect it. Likewise, moving a tree is tricky because a tree grows roots and branches adapted to a particular environment -- a sheltered, relatively calm forest, let's say -- and then via removal of trees around it or moving the mature tree to an open site, the tree fails from wind damage or expires prematurely due to the stress of moving it to new environment. All of which is to say -- it's not a piece of furniture, but gets treated that way often. To get the info you need, I recommend that you find a very experienced consulting arborist who has no financial interest in the matter -- just is paid to give you good advice. For online information, try the ISA (International Society of Arboriculture) website for general tree info, or look at books/booklets/material by Al Shigo (very good on cause and effect). A design that is well informed technically is essential here. Other considerations: allowing for tree movement, whether or not to thin the canopy, regular maintenance to prevent storm damage to the house by falling branches, insulation that prevents you from being kept awake by tons of falling acorns (it may seem quaint in the design stages, but when lots are falling, it can make quite a racket). By the way, things like tree wells and cute little stone enclosures for reduced-size root balls usually don't work, even though they are widely used. It's just that trees show their stress years --not usually days or weeks -- after the damage has been done. In closing, I'll tell a quick landscaper horror story: I know a designer who designed an entire garden around an aging Silver Maple tree. This type of maple, which does not like its roots disturbed and is host to dozens of pests and diseases, is a red flag to many city planners who won't plant it -- but it was never examined by a certified arborist for soundness/health before this design was created. It died within a year of the garden's being planted. Botanical Gardens may have arborists on staff with specialized knowledge that would be of use to you in your design considerations. If you consider the needs of trees you want to keep on your property before you design and build, you will be working WITH the ecology of your site and not against it or in spite of it. You'll have fewer surprises than those who turn their attention to the trees AFTER they've removed a bunch of them, changed the soil levels, and run heavy equipment over their roots. Good luck!

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