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Growing Edible Housing, for the urban poor in the tropics

 
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Growing edible housing, for the urban poor in the tropics.

I put this in projects, because it's something that is already somewhat in motion, as I am searching for the place where I will do this. I'll be in the Philippines in a couple weeks and be able to search out some of the parts.
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There are many quick growing trees in tropical countries that can be fashioned into living shelters that are ready to occupy within one year. Many have edible leaves or fruit.

They won't be totally watertight or windproof, but a vast improvement over the conditions that some are living in.
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In homeless camps or squatter camps or whatever they are called from place to place, people often toss together whatever free resources are at hand. This can be cardboard and pallet material mixed with anything else found in the waste stream. They nail or tie it together and cover it with whatever piece of plastic or tarp can be found. Sometimes banana leaves are incorporated. I've seen some quite serviceable little houses made out of this junk. All of the camps that I saw, were on land that is waiting for development. Owners will sometimes let people squat there, but they generally don't want them to build concrete block houses or anything else that might give them a claim to the land. The one closest to me had goats, cattle and chickens grazing, vegetable gardens, laundry hanging, bathing facilities and water piped in by the city. So not the really horrific sort of mess you see in places like Nairobi or Sao Paulo.

But the housing is generally shit. That's what the people can afford.

Sometimes on hot days, children, dogs and goats will crawl into the hollow spots inside big bushes. The kids climb and play around, while I think the livestock are just there to avoid the heat. If rain hits suddenly, these bushes provide shelter. There are many types of tree and bush that naturally shed water to the drip line.

So it's really just a matter of planning the growth of the right type of trees and vines, to provide a useful enclosed space that is out of the sun, that catches much less rain than the surrounding terrain and that blocks wind. There's quite a variety of food producing trees and vines that could be used.

They could be built square or circular. Many plants naturally find a circular shape. But if you use rows of small trees, they can be laid out in whatever shape is desired. Once the trees are 15 feet high and two or three inch diameter, the tops could be laced together and vines could grow to fill in the walls. This already happens in nature. But it would be nice to choose the size of the enclosed space along with the type of tree and vine.

Moringa trees can make 20 feet high in one year. They produce some of the most nutritious plant material available anywhere on the planet. The seed pods have eight times more vitamin C than oranges. The leaves are high in protein and many vitamins and minerals. When leaves are cut back, they come back within a month. An area of 100 square feet of moringa leaf is enough to keep a family in healthy greens.

Neem trees are naturally repellent to mosquitoes and some other bugs. The fruits are edible and the oil from mature fruits can be used for cooking. They are a very strong tree that lives a long time, but they also grow quickly in the beginning.

Cinnamon is very quick growing. It provides a nice spice but you don't need much of it, so it would provide something that can be easily harvested and sold on a regular basis.

The list of vining foods, is quite extensive. String beans, loofah, bitter gourd, passion fruit, starfruit a bunch of other little fruits that grow on vines that I don't know the name of, tomatoes and probably many more things.

Once the moringa and neem trees are a few inches around, they can be used to support some of the lighter vines. After about three years, they can support quite heavy vines. Bamboo poles or sisal rope tied between the trees, would aid in getting better coverage.
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It doesn't have to have a dirt floor. Bamboo is very cheap and floors of bamboo houses are made from large rounds as beams and then split bamboo is used to make the floorboards. The floor could be set on concrete blocks that are worth $0.25 each. This keeps bedding and everything else off of the damp soil.

There can be a simple roof, inside the enclosed space. Something as simple as a tarp that is stretched out and tied to the trees. It would be given a little bit of slope. Walls made out of bamboo panels or tarps could also be attached to the inside of the living walls. Bamboo walls really cut down on the amount of wind that infiltrates.

This would give a small house that stays fairly cool, compared to the tin roof shacks and junk piles that currently block the sun but get oven hot. It would provide a dry floor, wind protection and rain protection. And it would provide food. Lots of food if managed properly.
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Typhoons. Typhoons are a risk every year in Cebu Philippines where I lived for a couple months and where I'm headed in 2 weeks. Almost all new construction is being done with steel-reinforced concrete block, because it stands up quite well. Older style bamboo and coconut wood houses are vulnerable. But by far the most vulnerable are the squatter camps made from junk where there is no real attempt to attach them to the ground. They are held in place by gravity and a few stakes.

Compact buildings made out of trees and laced together with vines, would have many anchor points. It would never give 100% protection, but would be anchored much more securely than anything else I've seen in the squatter camps. A house like this could even take a pretty solid hit from windborne junk. Once the trees are 4-inch diameter with 2-inch vines lacing them together, they would be one of the most solid natural structures and very difficult to blow away. Imagine an igloo shape built this way, having trees laced together with vines. It would be hard to pull it down with a dump truck.
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I'm shopping for land in a few weeks. No matter where I end up, I am going to try this on my farm. Some of mine will be animal shelters and some will be set up as described for camping and to accommodate temporary workers. I will allow local officialdom to come and have a look, to see if they would be interested in providing a place where we could do it for the poorest people. This is something that I would expect to cost 25 American dollars per unit.
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Harvesting food. Many of the fruits I've described will naturally hang down into the space, just like they do when you build a bean frame. Some, like tomatoes would have to be harvested from the outside. Moringa leaf and pods could be harvested by kids who climb up on the structure after a few years, or harvested using a bamboo pole with a hook knife, a very common item.
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Jungle gym. Kids are going to climb this, and it's probably the safest place they could be, since there's no danger of falling very far and most spots would provide a fairly soft-landing. Kids do some very dangerous stuff in these camps, so I wouldn't be a bit concerned about safety. I imagine their mothers would give them a wicker basket and send them up on the roof to see what is ready to harvest. Some things like passion fruit, naturally drop off when ready, so you just have to quickly gather them up before the pig gets to them. Say we cover 200 square feet to enclose a small house. That's going to create quite a large dome, if neem, moringa and various vines are allowed to migrate 3 feet out from that. Just about everybody has a hook knife or machete that could be used to maintain the shape and balance of trees.

Managing shade. Within a couple of months a structure like this would be cooler than many of the current shelters. The neem trees and moringa to a lesser extent , might tend to shade out the fruit and vegetables below. The neem  could be managed as small coppice so that it doesn't send much up above the main structure. It is desirable to cattle and goats. That way sunlight would still reach the lower walls, to keep everything in leaf and to allow fruits to develop.

Watering. There is a dry season. Bathing and laundry water could be dumped wherever needed.

Grade. We'd want to build each unit on a small mound of soil, so that the floor never floods.
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It may prove to be too dark and gloomy in these shelters during the worst of the rainy season. But when it's blistering hot, something like this would be a great refuge from that heat.

I'm going to try to get to a few farms and maybe to some plant nurseries as I investigate this further. I'm hoping to make a number of living structures both as shelter and for bridge making and some things just for fun.
 
Dale Hodgins
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Google Images didn't provide exactly what I was hoping for, but imagine something more elaborate than this.

Banyan trees can produce some pretty good shelter all on their own, but without the amount of food I am hoping for. I think it's possible to do it where every plant is edible.
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Dale Hodgins
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The first two seem like a lot of work.

The church shape is much easier to achieve. I'd want to let it get much more bushy. We want functionality so it's not so important that the exterior shape be symmetrical or trimmed.
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Dale Hodgins
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This video shows a simple version of the concept using willow. Some of the trees I have in mind won't bend quite that much but they could certainly be lashed together at the top and they will grow together, especially if the bark is removed and the damaged portions held together.

There are many tropical things that grow faster than willow and they do it 12 months a year. So I don't think the problem will be getting the shape, it will be just a matter of constantly hacking at it, so that desirable stuff beneath isn't shaded out. But if the edibles are shaded out, that means that it's at least providing really good sun protection. It would also mean that a large amount of fodder is being produced. I would like to produce something twice as tall and three times as wide as the little structure here.



Few trees are as easy to shape as willow. But many can be bent over the course of a few days when they are young. It's really easy to shape ratan, so it could be used as formwork. It would rot away soon enough. Everything I find online is a single species, because it's geared to a northern market. But anything edible that can coexist with the support trees, would work. It would just be a matter of regularly removing the excess material as coppice and fodder.

 
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I saw a bean teepee as a kid and really wanted one. Great summer shade. Grew very quickly. And you could lie inside and snack on the beans/peas. Obviously that’s like a level 2 on the edible structures scale and you are probably aiming for level 8+. I don’t know what your snake situation is there but we have lots that will kill you and they loooooove vegetative shade and crawl spaces under blocked up floors, so maybe something to keep in mind.
 
Dale Hodgins
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There are several dangerous snakes. I have checked out botanicals that repel snakes and there are many.

Snakes are wise to keep away from people in the Philippines. They kill them, for a number of reasons. Some just kill every snake because they figured that will keep people from getting bitten, some eat them and some believe that snakes are in League with the Devil.

Dogs, chickens and cats also kill snakes. A big king cobra isn't going to be intimidated by them, but they kill baby snakes. So I think snakes have more to fear from people and the animals people keep.

While walking through a cornfield on Mindanao, I met two cobras inside of five minutes. The one in the picture did exactly what I want a snake to do. It crawled into a rock pile to avoid us. I thought it was over and I was satisfied that the interaction had gone well. But then Nova's cousin rooted around in the rock pile with a stick and he killed it.

The whole area is bustling with livestock, kids and dogs. I think the dogs would pursue any snake that's trying to live right with the people, but the jury is still out on that. I'll go with whatever is locally recommended to deter snakes.
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Dale Hodgins
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I'd like to say thank you to the benevolent overlord, who imbeded the videos.
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Vines... I decided to search out the longest vines in the world, expecting to find something in the hundreds of feet. I had never investigated this before and had no idea that a vine could grow to almost a mile long and 3 ft thick. The snuffbox sea bean, is a member of the pea family. Seeds are distributed on ocean currents. They take root in estuaries and then work their way uphill. Some of them grow further and further uphill, but some of the hollow seeds are washed down river and out to sea with heavy rains. Because of this they have a very wide distribution, having made it to pretty much everywhere that has a suitable muddy beach. That's how coconuts have made it everywhere where they can grow.

 Anyway, I could see building a big barn with these things, but I think every rose has its thorns. Many vines are notoriously difficult to control. There have been specimens of sea bean 3 ft in diameter. They may be larger than the giant Sequoias. I'm assuming that they root in many places along the length when they grow super long, so it would be like trying to get rid of English ivy, on a much more grand scale. There are other really substantial vines, such as the ribbon vine that can grow hundreds of meters long. And there's the monkey ladder, which looks very useful due to its ladder shape. If I try any of these, it will be on the farm, and hopefully somewhere hemmed in by rock or other means of preventing spread. I think the giant vines are something I will use in the touristy sections of my farming and motel enterprise. It would be fun to put a big treehouse in one of the larger trees and then grow a monster vine with 6ft beans, up to it. Naturally this tourist rental would be called, The Jack and the Beanstalk Suite. Every visitor would be sent home with a seed. In Africa, the seed is cooked and then use as an hallucinogen. I assume that just one plant would be enough to keep a crackhead compromised for the rest of his life, or until a big mistake is made, which might coincide with the end of his life.

Being a pea, I assume that this plant fixes nitrogen. Information on the Internet is scant. If it has leaves that livestock can eat, all the better. It will be interesting to see how much leaf drop It produces. I don't want to grow clover to get my nitrogen. Go big or go home. I expect giant luceana ( a tree) and tree lucerne to be my primary nitrogen fixers, but I'll take a giant pea.

Any building based on these huge vines is likely to be the last thing blown away in a super typhoon. You couldn't pull these stumps with a tractor. After I grow one that's only 4 inches in diameter, I will be offering a $100 prize to anyone who can pull it out of the ground with their hands. Any takers?

Here's a list of the world's longest vines. All are tropical. That giant Wisteria or Kudzu that you saw, doesn't even come close.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_longest_vines
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I'm going to make a separate thread in drivel, just so people can post the biggest vines that they have ever seen and so we can have a think tank, of how they could be put to use. I want a giant bridge. Giant. I hope the land I buy isn't really flat. Cuz it would be a real pain, having to dig out a gorge to bridge across. ☺
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Monkey ladder
 
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i've played around with this idea a lot. mostly in my mind, but also i have drawn a dozen or more different related ideas...

the best ones being
- start with a huge bowl shape in the ground, with the main advantage being then you do not have grow the trees/ main support as high to make it tall enough.

this idea would be best with a large over hanging roof, or possible, above the underground parts there is a treehouse on the very top.

then put the heat source in the deepest part of bowl...and make flat spaces/landings...like terraces coming up from this point for sitting areas/bed/different areas on a different tier.

another
- use recycled/found/randomly welded "junk" metal parts for the main frame/ to provide the basic structure, and for your vines and plants to grow around.
also use thick copper wires...or other cheap/free thick wire...decoratively, to fill in between metal supports, and to give the whole thing a basic shape to conform to...

and a third sketch of some ideas i had
- do this for the very outermost exterior walls, and then under and inside this build a very tiny house. so a teeny tiny house, inside a small enclosure...where the walls are made of plants/trees and yes, vines definitely to tie it together and make it thick.

o and a fourth idea i've had...although you have to have the right spot with established trees, and it would have to be very site specific how it would unfold...but starting with some mature trees...cutting them halfway ish through, and then bringing them down to the ground. ideally a species that would then re reroot/ regrow (as in why willow is awesome for this). so basically like laying a hedge, you chop part through the bottom of the truck, bend the top of tree to the ground, and that ideally will re root and then start to growperpendicular to the trunk and ground...making a quick growing "wall"....

the right combination of established trees, whether its hilly or if you could dig down(then push the trees over to cover your hole into a hill) etc... well theres a lot of ways that could play out depending on what you had to start with...
 
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Dale Hodgins wrote:There have been specimens of sea bean 3 ft in diameter. They may be larger than the giant Sequoias.


I want a giant bridge. Giant. I hope the land I buy isn't really flat. Cuz it would be a real pain, having to dig out a gorge to bridge across. ☺



Dale, I love what you're doing.  It's an awesome idea, and I'd love to see pictures as you go.  That vine isn't bigger than a Sequoia though.  Sequoia can be 30 feet in diameter, and the largest has a circumference of 102 feet.

Digging a gorge to have a bridge sounds like something I would come up with :)
 
Dale Hodgins
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I checked out a lot of the local trees during a three-month stint in the Philippines. Got married, there's a thread on that.

One of the best trees to give it structure would be ipil ipil, a form of lucena. It's a nitrogen producer that would help everything else along and it's eaten by livestock. It's probably the most commonly used firewood in the country. Breadfruit produces fruit and excellent wood. There are several native trees in the teak family, which are very long lasting.

Jackfruit take a little longer, but in a permanent situation, they would be ideal because we get great shade with abundant food production. They would be great things to have at the 4-corners, not where they would have huge fruit hanging over people who are sleeping.

I didn't buy land, because we had other financial commitments, this time around. I don't expect to try this on anyone's land other than my own, until I have total proof of concept. Then it would have to be somewhere close by where we live, because I have no faith in what people might do to young trees, before they are ready to be fashioned into a home.

There was mention of a sunken pit and a heating system. The record low for Cebu is 71 degrees Fahrenheit. People require shelter from the heat and rain, not cold. During typhoons, flash flooding is a real risk. So each living home must be on a mound, that will drain to the edges. A sunken area would just be asking for trouble. I don't think that I saw any home with a basement. This may have happened in some expat community, but I had to explain to people, what a basement is. None of them thought living underground with snakes, ants and runoff water, was very appealing. When I described it as a concrete box under ground, it was viewed as a good place to go during a typhoon.
 
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