By this point in the 21st century, western civilization pretty much has home building materials figured out.
Wood, cement, drywall and asphalt shingles are common. But master landscape architect Bonnie Gale has another medium in mind — living willow.
“We plant a tree, wait 80 years, cut it down, mill it, dry it, then build a house out of it,” she said. “Why not just build it out of living wood?”
Gale’s love of willow basket weaving led her to experiment with weaving structures of living willow. Saturday she’ll lead a four-hour seminar on basket weaving at the Schoharie River Center, followed by a lecture on the potential of her living structures.
“This is the cutting edge of green architecture,” she said, adding that there is serious potential for living structures to make it into the mainstream culture.
Gale’s willow buildings look conspicuously like very large baskets. As it turns out, the plant is as well suited to living construction as dead.
Willow is self-rooting, which means Gale can just poke a stalk of it into the ground and it will start growing. She works with 12-foot stalks kept frozen until the start of the project.
Perhaps the best attribute of willow is its self-grafting capability.
“If you tie live willow to live willow,” she said, “inevitably they become one.”
So a structure woven from dozens of plants will, after years of growth, become one strong, hollow plant.
“It would be ecologically useful,” said Ellen Mchale of the Schoharie River Center, who set up the visit. “A willow house would supply shelter and oxygen.”
The idea is to build truly sustainable houses, but Gale’s work still has a long way to go. Right now, her buildings are more like garden features and gazebos than single-family homes. There are some significant hurdles to be cleared before people can reasonably live in them — particularly leaking roofs and the lack of indoor plumbing.
Gale believes with some work these problems can be fixed.
“When Henry Ford first manufactured the motorcar, everyone thought he was bonkers,” she said.
Her lecture will also cover progress made overseas. In Germany, scientists are working on integrating manmade materials into living structures. Willow will grow around metal frames and Plexiglas windows, which makes for more civilized living conditions.
While her basket-shaped structures have been featured in House and Garden, Vogue, even on the Martha Stewart Show, Gale said the greatest problem with living structures has more to do with society than willow.
“We have to rethink our expectations of time,” she said. “We want everything right now. Growing a house takes time.”
The basket weaving seminar runs from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and costs $30, with a $38 materials fee. The lecture is free and starts at 3.
For more information on Gale’s living structures, visit www.englishbasketrywillows.com.