Auroville is a place for experimentation: in education, in economy, in green work, and in housing! Among the architectural innovation that takes place in Auroville there is one that stands out, aaaaall the way up above the canopy.
Tree House Community is a youth-run unit of Auroville that dedicates itself to building sustainable, low-cost housing up in the trees. Aside from being better for the environment, these houses are aesthetic wonders and each one is unique. We asked the founder, Philipp, about his experience starting this unit, which now builds tree houses all over India and the world.
An Amazing View
Philipp grew up in Auroville and has been up in the trees since he was a kid: “I guess it just grew naturally in me. I’ve always had this passion to plant trees and to harvest fruits that are growing at the tips of the branches. That brought me up to the highest parts of the canopy, which gave me an amazing overview onto the landscape and different kinds of perspectives. Here in this Auroville forest, I rarely have the opportunity to look far, so climbing to the top of trees gave me that opportunity. And I love it so much that I like to share it with other people and my friends. I say: “Come on, you have to have a look around!”. Since I was a tiny kid, I had these tree experiences and then I learned how to climb better, and learned how to climb with equipment.”
This was about 15 years ago. Around the time TreeCare was set up, which is the tree-pruning service in Auroville, Philipp further explored his love for trees and climbing them. “I did tree pruning for quite some years with the group of people that started TreeCare. I was pruning with them and learning more about tree engineering, how to rig trees, how to work with them. And that gave me more confidence to build tree houses. I started simple with a couple of planks in a tree, a little place to sleep overnight. And then having the advantage of using ropes, tools and equipment, it was possible to make houses to live in.”
Philipp wanted to get more knowledge about how to build good tree houses, but it seems that tree house education remains a pretty obscure topic of learning. “I went around the world looking for a ‘tree house university’, some kind of institution that could teach me all the ins and outs of building a tree house. I didn’t find any.”
Of course, other things could help him move in the right direction, so he decided to try his luck in Europe. “I started looking for different universities that could lead me in the same direction. I was traveling around Germany looking at four universities that I applied to – sustainable forest management, Geo-ecology, that sort of thing. This is when I experienced my first winter in Europe. I thought, ‘No way, get the hell out of here.’ I’m not locking myself into an insulated box like they all do there, renting a little square room to confine myself to for six months of the year. Screw that. I decided to come back here and that’s when I said, ‘OK, I’m going to fix myself a plan.'”
Every new endeavour of course requires time and research to flourish, and the Tree House Community was no different. “It was the first time I made a plan for more than a couple of weeks ahead. I told myself I was going to start a company, make it my livelihood and do research. Research is the primary way to learn things. So for the first five years or longer, I was putting everything to the test. I tried every material, every size, every tree, we even did tree implants, we did all kinds of nonsense. Things that worked, things that didn’t work.”
This wasn’t just done haphazardly – he turned it into a pakka research project. “To understand the results of the research I started documentation. I kept track of what we did and how, and then referred to that documentation when something changed. And there we go, at a certain point, after many jobs all over India and all over the world, a new cosmic responsibility fell on my head. It said: ‘Work more and better, do more!’ It was now time for the 500 Tree House Project.”
The project is a goal set by the team: building 500 tree houses in a decade’s time. “This was something that happened in Brazil. It was like a little personal enlightenment that said: Do it. You can’t just keep on doing research. Now you’ve got the majority of it. So just pretend like you know what you’re doing and go for it. That was also the time when I got my doctorate in tree engineering. I had more confidence to finish the job and start the 500 Tree House Project with a rough time frame of 10 years to do it. I did realise that it would take a lot more effort and a multidimensional approach.”
Learn How To Build Your Tree House
One way Tree House Community incorporated a more multidimensional approach was by teaching and encouraging through example. “We’ve been training people to build tree houses. Whoever’s interested, we try to entertain their interest a little bit. And this has kind of distilled down into the fact that we can’t entertain everybody’s sporadic interest whenever they come and show up. But instead we structure ourselves to offer particular times that we’re really focusing on transmission and we’re inviting people. Interested people, they need to structure themselves around those timings. “
Tree House community now offers two kinds of workshops for two levels of interest. “We do tree house workshops, of which there are two kinds now. One is for really serious people that want to make long lasting tree houses. They take one month to build and one month for the training. The simpler version is for those who don’t want to give it a month’s time, and just want to build a little shack at their farm and have it for maybe 5 or 10 years time. The simpler workshop is one where we don’t need to talk about tools, safety equipment and all that. We do everything with hand techniques and tools and the whole thing can happen in one week.”
Changing People’s Consciousness
Another mission for Fillip and the team is to promote tree house living as an alternative and more sustainable solution, since the public still has a very narrow view on tree houses.
“In most people’s consciousness, a tree house is something very cheap, very simple, very kind of DIY. It’s mostly for kids, it’s hard to get up and down. There’s probably a rope or some kind of rickety ladder that’s about to fall apart. And it’s a childhood thing, it’s nothing serious. So our mission is to change that concept in people’s minds by example, because there’s no better way to teach anyone anything. You can just show people and say ‘Here is a tree house that you can live in, that has more comforts than some houses on the ground.’
There’s so many advantages, and some tree houses have lasted 10 years already. So we have the confidence it can last 100 years. Besides that, all the materials used are completely biodegradable and short term crop rotation type for production. We call these sustainable resources because they grow in a couple of years. And during the time that the tree house decomposes over 10 years, a new crop of that material can be grown.”
But the dream for bigger tree house building still looms large in the minds of Tree House Community.
“Auroville is the worst place in the world to build tree houses after the Sahara Desert because it’s a young forest. All the trees are tiny. So it becomes boring after you’ve got to the top of most of the biggest trees. There’s other forests in the world which are calling so loud.”
“So that’s what we do now. What we’re really interested is in changing the consciousness of the public. We want people around us and the world to broaden their consciousness of what a tree house can be and can mean. There is an infinite amount of things to learn about tree houses.”
Would you like to see how Tree House Community builds their houses? They filmed the process of making one. Check it out below!
Also check out the Tree House Community website to meet the team and see when their courses are happening, or follow them on Facebook and Instagram. Highly recommended, as the pictures of their finished tree houses are works of art!
You can also find some handcrafted wooden items made by the Tree House Community in the Auroville Online Store. These include some funky wooden spoons and a bamboo electrical extension plug!