Deep Roots, Strong Branches: Whole Tree Architecture

A pair of biodynamic farmers settles into a home built from whole, unmilled trees.

  • Architect Roald Gundersen shaped the roof from wind-bent trees to mirror the hills of southwest Wisconsin’s Driftless Region.
    Photo By Paul Kelly
  • Architect Roald Gundersen and homeowner Marcia Halligan at the 81-acre Chrysalis Farm
    Photo by Barry Rustin
  • Tucked in a corner nook, Marcia's desk seems to grow from the support of sturdy willow branches.
    Photo by Barry Rustin
  • A south-facing glass wall overlooks some of the homeowners' favorite views of the gently rolling Wisconsin landscape. The windows also let in sun for natural light and passive-solar heat. Inside, a mezzanine, crisscrossed by graceful branches, anchors the home's central open space.
    Photo by Barry Rustin
  • In the upstairs bathroom, floors are local rock and wood milled from trees on the farm.
    Photo by Barry Rustin
  • In the dining room, which shares space with the kitchen, every meal comes with the opportunity for all sorts of wildlife viewing.
    Photo by Barry Rustin
  • Load-bearing hickory (on left) and soft maple trees (on right) weave throughout the ceiling into the room upstairs. The kitchen cabinets came from a burr oak skidded by Marcia and Steven's horses and milled at an Amish sawmill 16 years ago.
    Photo by Barry Rustin
  • Marcia's bed is framed with birch trees, which recall fond memories of her youth. A cedar drawer beneath provides the foundation for the mattress. She can see the river from her balcony.
    Photo by Barry Rustin

When selecting trees from their southwest Wisconsin property to use in the construction of their new home, farmers Marcia Halligan and Steven Adams passed over the stately oaks and the sturdy maples, choosing instead the weak and diseased trees. They didn’t need the forest’s strongest old-growth trees for their house, built using architect Roald Gundersen’s revolutionary Whole Tree Architecture. His technique uses whole, unmilled, “Charlie Brown” trees—in this case, weedy box elders, slender ironwoods, invasive black locusts, wind-bent hickory and diseased elms—to create sheltering, graceful homes while preserving mature forests around them.

“There’s a feeling in our house like we’re in a grove of trees,” says Marcia. “There is all this tree energy. It’s very beautiful and very nurturing.”

Rooted in place 

Biodynamic farmers Marcia and Steven bought the 81-acre land just outside Viroqua 23 years ago. From their first walk through the rolling woods and pastures, Marcia felt a connection to the place. “Sitting on the ground with my eyes closed, I felt my roots sinking down into this earth,” she says.

Calling their new home Chrysalis Farm, the couple moved into the drafty, 19th-century farmhouse that stood on the property. Initially built as a log cabin in the mid-1800s, the house had grown over the decades in the hodgepodge fashion of so many expansions gone bad.

Eight years ago, they began planning a new house, which they hoped would honor their spiritual bond with the earth. They researched several building styles, including round, straw bale and cob houses. Then a friend suggested they take a look at a home that architect Roald Gundersen had built with whole trees. Marcia was struck by the simple grace the wood lent the structure. More importantly, she recognized that she and Steven already had an abundance of the resource they would most need: local trees.

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