Notes and Notices

On art, architecture and design


Roots as bridges, caves as homes

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

We are often trained to think of nature as a raw material. We build tables, chairs and whatnot out of wood. Builders regularly transport marble and limestone across continents to be made into flooring. In some parts of the world though, that isn't the case. Nature becomes the finished material.

In the Cherrapunji region of northeastern India, one of the wettest places on earth, the living, breathing roots of the Indian rubber tree is trained to stretch across rivers, forming bridges across the swift-flowing mountain streams.

According to this Atlas Obscura entry, this ingenious design is credited to the War-Khasis, a tribe in Meghalaya. The tribe noticed this tree's powerful roots and then devised a way to guide the roots across the river by using betel nut trunks, sliced down the middle and hollowed out. Once the roots reach the other side, they're allowed to take root. After 10 to 15 years, one has a bridge worthy of an Indiana Jones movie.

The bridges are so strong that it can take fifty or more people at a time. Plus--and this can't be said of steel bridges--they actually gain strength over time. Some estimate the root bridges to be over 500 years old.

Images via
While roots trained to be bridges, in the Shaanxi province of China, people still live in caves. That's not actually a bad thing. More than 30 million Chinese people (mostly farmers) live in caves on the Loess plateau, according to this Los Angeles Times article. These yaodong dwellers say their homes are naturally energy efficient. "It's cool in the summer and warm in the winter. It's quiet and safe," says Ren Shouhua, who was born in a cave and lived there until he found a job in the city.

Despite its low environmental impact, cave living can be a little spare. It's difficult to get a set-up for television, phone or internet, that's for sure. But one trades a simpler, more communal lifestyle for it. The cave dwellings are dug in a cluster configuration, an instant neighborhood, if you will. Each dwelling comprises two or three arch openings interconnected on the inside. Here's a quick video report from Current TV:

Seeing the traditional model's potential, especially for low-cost DIY housing, Professor Liu Jiaping of the Research Centre of Green Building has made some improvements based on the concept. He added another story, a sunspace to increase daylight levels, plus roof planting and thermal mass protection. As a result, the dwellings are warmer during winter and sunlight and ventilation were improved.

In southern Spain, cave dwellings look positively ethereal. They have been whitewashed and filled with modern conveniences: electricity, running water, telephone, cable and parking. No AC though, these caves keep 60 to 70 degrees in the winter and summer.

While we continually tout LEED ratings, energy efficiency and whatnot, these examples from around the world tell me that there could be better ways to work with our environment. After seeing some of these examples, I wonder if we've been too inelegant about finding solutions for our basic needs. Instead of hacking, can we finesse? Instead of destroying, can be build upon? What would housing and infrastructure look like then?


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