One mans path to Eco-tecture: An Interview with Jo Scheer

  

We are seated in a hooch, a 6' by 6' space 15' in the air. The poles supporting this treeless treehouse converge as a single point at the base, while cables to surrounding trees maintain a perfect balance. The hooch is lit with candles inside bamboo "shadowcasters". We bask in the radiant heat of a fire crackling inside the chiminea, and we drink hot tea that was heated in the exhaust flume of that same chiminea.
This is the backyard "hooch" of Jo Scheer, a self described artist and designer, and it is an otherwise cool evening here in Ashland, Oregon. We keep warm with an abundance of wool blankets, and, of course, the radiance of the chiminea.

OutlawArchitecturemag.com: "First of all, let me thank you for inviting us to this most unusual place. This is very cool"

JS: You're welcome, of course. I love bringing people up here. They are all amazed."

OutlawArchitecturemag.com: "So, I'll bet the kids love it as well"

` JS: (laughs) Oh yes. My daughter has sleep-outs all the time. We all have sleep-outs. It's a great escape from the regular life down there in that normal house. (points towards the house) . We call it our "escape hooch"

OutlawArchitecturemag.com: "It's a treehouse, but its not." It doesn't sit in a tree. Could you elaborate."

JS: "Of course. It is a treehouse in that it relies on trees to anchor the cables that maintain its balance. The trees become part of the structure. It doesn't sit in a tree, but amongst the trees. In a sense, the hooch becomes a part of the natural environment, part of the tree."

OutlawArchitecturemag.com: "Why not just build a conventional treehouse?"

JS: "Well, first of all, you wouldn't be here if it were an ordinary treehouse, would you. Actually, there are tons of reasons. As you can see outside, we do not have a perfect tree to build one in. But besides that, the hooch is a pre-fabricated, universal treehouse. It fits anywhere. It does not require any elaborate design to fit a particular tree. It does not require any alteration of a particular tree, or of the site in general.
Very environmentally benign."

OutlawArchitecturemag.com: "Why not just build a tall pole building?"

JS: "Ah, there are all sorts of problems, and costs. The hooch has a single point foundation, just a stump base, which acts like a pivot point for any movement of the structure. The cables keep it up. Multiple poles would require multiple foundation supports. It would tend to warp in any wind, and soon fall down. The hooch moves as a unit. Stress is on the cables, not on the structure."

OutlawArchitecturemag.com: "I see. How in the world did you ever come with this design?"

JS: "Well, I certainly did not set out to design it. I guess you could call it an evolutionary design. One thing led to another. The original version is in Puerto Rico, though it is not quite the same design strategy. "

OutlawArchitecturemag.com: "You have another in Puerto Rico? What is that like?"

JS: "Yes, that one is built with bamboo poles. This one has Douglas fir poles."

OutlawArchitecturemag.com: "How else is it different?"

JS: Well, it has a bonafide foundation. Actually, that is probably how this thing evolved. The foundation was a five foot by 7 foot cement septic tank. I wanted to build a structure out of bamboo, and the septic tank was a logical perch to set it upon.

OutlawArchitecturemag.com: "It has the same shape?"

JS: "Yes, five feet by 7 feet isn't very big, so I slanted the bamboo poles up and out, to make a floor area of ten feet by fourteen feet. The design provides for a huge overhang to protect the bamboo from rain, and direct sun, both of which eventually deteriorate the bamboo. The bamboo I used, Guadua angustifolia, is known for its resistance to rot and termites. So, it should last for a while."

OutlawArchitecturemag.com: " and you used cables for support?"

JS: " Actually, just a couple. Mostly, the structure was tied into the foundation of the main house with a strong bridge." It sits down the hill from the main house, so the bridge hooks in very nicely."

OutlawArchitecturemag.com: "What about hurricanes"

JS: "Believe me, that was a concern. I tied the foundation in well with lag bolts, and through bolted all the joinery. Still, I did not know until hurricane Georges hit."

OutlawArchitecturemag.com: "What happenned?"

JS: (laughs) "That's a story in itself. It survived. The hurricane was a category three, that's like 120 mile per hour gusts, and it was a direct hit. I watched the hooch through the storm. If it was going to go, I wanted to see it fly off (laughs). It would do all sorts of contortions, only to bounce back to its original shape. The bamboo was the key. It is extremely strong and flexible.

OutlawArchitecturemag.com: "So, you are in to bamboo as well"

JS: "Oh yes, bamboo was my original obsession, and still is. The hooch is just one design extension. In Puerto Rico, bamboo is common, so it is a logical building material, as well as artistic medium. There is plentiful bamboo here in Oregon as well, just smaller. You can see bamboo is a major part of the hooch, not the poles, however.

OutlawArchitecturemag.com: "Yes. Woven bamboo walls, candleholders, and a bamboo chandelier. Very nice. So how did the hooch evolve to this version?"

JS: We moved to Oregon to get a decent education for our kids. It has opened up many new horizons, literally, but we all missed our hooch. The design evolved with the intention of making it portable. The ecologic consequences became almost an afterthought.

OutlawArchitecturemag.com: You did not intend for the hooch to subscribe to the principles of eco-design?

JS: Actually that has always been my underlying design criteria. I just did not realize that this path was so in tune with the concepts of other designers and thinkers.

OutlawArchitecturemag.com: "Such as?"

JS: " Well, it was when I was working out the details of the hooch that I read "Biomimicry", the book by Janine Benrus. As it turned out, I had been student of Biomimicry and I didn't know it. The hooch is like a culm of bamboo, tall, with shallow roots. How does it stay upright, when any decent breeze has the capacity to topple it? Well, bamboo grows in dense clumps, and branches of the canopy intertwine, giving support to adjacent bamboos. They do this by tension mostly, just as the cables of the hooch hold up this single culm of a hooch. I call it bamboomimicry. This is nothing new, bamboo has used this structural strategy since forever.
The other thing is that the hooch is a great place to experience nature. Up here, birds are everywhere. Deer walk below oblivious. We see, we hear, we feel this place, this natural spot. I did not realize the basis of these good vibes until I read Biophilia, by E. O Wilson. It's a fundamental need of human existence to experience nature. This is a great way to do just that.

OutlawArchitecturemag.com: "And the structure, as you say, is environmentally benign."

JS: yes, it fits anywhere, with almost zero alteration of the site. It is pre-fabbed off site, then erected on site. I like to say it has the smallest footprint of any land based structure. And isn't that what eco-tecture is all about. Living lightly, with a small footprint.

OutlawArchitecturemag.com: "Still, though, the hooch lacks a few amenities."

JS: "Oh yes, But I am just getting started. This is like the first step to eco-awareness. It is a platform upon which to embellish the ideas of living lightly. I plan to make the hooch encloseable for the cold months (like now), maybe a small kitchenette on the landing, and, of course, an alternative, renewable energy heating system. "

OutlawArchitecturemag.com: "The wool blankets and hot tea work for me."

JS: "Me too. And we all enjoy the chiminea. Though the heat is pretty transient. I built a hooch in Eugene along the Long Tom river. It's bigger, with a bigger chiminea, but I am thinking of generating some current from a water wheel to heat an electric blanket. It might work.

OutlawArchitecturemag.com: "You've built several hooches."

JS: "Yes, two in Puerto Rico, three in Oregon. There are possibly others.

OutlawArchitecturemag.com: "Possibly others?"

JS: " I've put together a booklet that is a step by step construction manual for the do it yourselfer". I've sold a few. It requires some carpentry skill, but at least some people see the light .(laughs)" I'd love to see a bunch of hooches as the private space for an eco-resort. Kind of a bed and breakfast deal. That'd be cool."

OutlawArchitecturemag.com: "The hooch isn't your conventional building strategy. It certainly does not fit the building codes. How do you deal with that?"

JS: "True, it certainly doesn't. I've looked into getting a structural analysis, and, although it is fundamentally structurally sound, the fact that it connects to trees, with an unquantified strength, makes it not permittable. Also, the analysis is only valid for a particular location. So, the strategy is this. I keep the floor area less than 120 square feet, making it exempt from the universal building code. And, it is a temporary structure- no permanent foundation, and easily dismantled, not unlike a tent.

OutlawArchitecturemag.com: "One last question. Where does the name come from?"

JS (laughs) "Most everyone associates hooch with an illegal, homemade beverage. And perhaps a correlation could be drawn. The word derives from a Japanese word, meaning "shelter". I learned "hooch" as a word we used in Viet Nam to describe the small dwellings of the rural Vietnamese. There is no structural similarity, however. They both are just small, and efficient."

OutlawArchitecturemag.com: "Well, this sure has been an experience to remember. Thanks you so much for sharing your hooch and your time. I'd love to spend a night in one, sometime."

JS: "You are certainly welcome. And you are welcome to stay, tonight if you like. Summer is better, though. More tea?"

OutlawArchitecturemag.com: "Yes, please."

(Jo Scheer markets his tropical treehouse in Puerto Rico as a vacation rental. His website, www.tropical-treehouse.com, also has a devoted section to his hooch design, offering a construction manual and construction services on the West coast of the United States.)

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