Meet Huib Sneep

As an urban tree expert, Huis Sneep planted many thousands of trees every year. Today, apart from a tree expert and horticultural consultant, he is also a sustainable developer and an vertical gardening entrepreneur.

 

Huib Sneep’s fascination with trees began as a child, when the cherry tree in his parents’ garden was threatened by a parasitic fungus: “I’ve always lived in the city. When I was fourteen, the cherry tree in our garden suddenly sprouted an enormous sulphur-yellow mushroom. I never imagined something like that existed and I was intensely fascinated. Nobody could tell me what it was, nor what it meant for the tree. Not long afterwards I made a little money doing a summer job, which I invested in books about trees. With the knowledge I had picked up from these I started trying to rescue the tree by using fertiliser, aerating the soil and pruning. By this time, I was aware of the fact that the tree was affected by the fungus eating into the wood, so I also secured it with lines to make sure it wouldn’t break. It survived for another fifteen years; that cherry tree was the starting point of my love for trees, which never went away. I knew there and then that one day I would be doing it for a living.”

 

 

New green

Enrolling at the Rijks Hogere School in the Dutch town of Boskoop to study Garden and Landscape Design was a logical choice: “I didn’t particularly want to become a garden or landscape architect but because I was so fond of trees as aesthetic elements, I wanted to know all about them. My goal was to use my knowledge and passion to create well-appointed urban spaces with beautiful, healthy trees. In 1990 I started a company that specialised in doing this: planting, replanting and maintaining trees, creating good spaces for them to grow, tree safety analysis… After twenty years of that, though, I wanted to be involved in my field in a different way. I wanted the freedom to develop all kinds of new initiatives, like vertical gardening, food forests, urban farming, sustainable energy projects and future-proofing old houses. As a tree advisor, I’ve been more involved in the expertise part of the industry for the past six or seven years. I’ve been acting as a consultant for the government and for companies, but I also help private clients with tree-related questions.”

 

Trees in time

When Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam organised an exhibition about wood two years ago, they asked Huib to give a lecture about trees. He took the audience for a walk around the Museumpark, a beautiful landscape park where both Het Nieuwe Instituut and Museum Boijmans van Beuningen are based: “The theme of that evening was that tree structures and species mirror the social vision and fashion of the time. An oak tree is not just an oak tree, just as much as a chair isn’t just a chair. You can tell when the trees were planted from the species and the tree shapes. Not by the thickness of the trunk, but by their form and arrangement. Elms, for example, are typical for the Amsterdam canals. And ginkgo trees, with their beautiful duckfoot-shaped leaves, are trees that belong with the modern villas around the Rotterdam Museumpark.

 

 

New function

Huib met Arco’s Jorre van Ast after the lecture, and the two quickly discovered that their fields of interest overlapped: “I’m a tree expert and he’s a designer and producer, but we’re both interested in trees as aesthetic and mechanical entities. Arco is of course more concerned with trees as a product, as wood, as a material, but in my job that plays a role too.” That might come as a surprise from someone who prefers their trees alive, but Huib is quick to correct that assumption: “The life cycle of a tree always plays a role. A tree has to be safe. It can grow to enormous heights, and if it’s close to a parking lot or children’s play area, then safety is an important consideration. As long as a tree is healthy, there isn’t really an issue, but as soon as a tree becomes less so, the strength of the wood diminishes and it is less firmly rooted in the ground. A tree will then start to become weaker under wind loading and wood rot will be more likely. Monitoring that process is also a part of my job. One often sees trees that are affected from the ground to up to 1 metre, but above that you still have a perfect product to process for the furniture industry. As far as I am concerned, a tree can fulfil a lot of tasks – aesthetic, recreational, et cetera – but when its structure is compromised, when it becomes dangerous or is too close to other trees, it would be a shame to just allow the tree to go to waste. I believe it’s a wonderful thing to give it a new lease of life by using it for furniture, for example, or to use it as fuel; I’ve been heating my own house with wood from rejected urban trees for years. I have planted many thousands of trees and now I use them as fuel. That closes the circle and at the end of the day also makes one energy neutral.”

 

Feeling and structure

It’s not surprising that Huib prefers wood when it comes to interior decorating as well: “I’m not saying plastic is forbidden, but wooden furniture is so much more logical. Trees are just there and when they deteriorate, it takes relatively little energy to make them into something useful that lasts for years. On top of that, wooden furniture is very beautiful. I can see the tree in there and that evokes a certain feeling. It’s soft and tactile and it makes you want to run your hands over it. I am especially fond of Scandinavian design from the 40s and 50s; the designers were masters at showing the wood structure in the furniture they made. The Chieftain Chair by Finn Juhl, for example, is just like sitting in a tree. Having said that, I also love sitting next to my wood burning stove in my Fly Chair that Ineke Hans designed for Arco.”

 
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