Each person deserves the land they can use…

broadacre-city-frank-lloyd-wright

Broadacre City - Frank Lloyd Wright's answer to urban sprawl.

A little known fact about real estate (at least in my country) is the government owns the land and merely let’s people use it to profit from their labors. In fact, the origin of every property can be traced back to the ownership of the Crown (King/Queen of England).

Ever doubt this fact, just try to stop paying your property tax one day and see how fast the Government takes it back from you.

It’s a weird and sort of useless fact, but one that resonated with Frank Lloyd Wright when he was conceiving what was to be known as Broadacre City.

FLW HATED cities…

…and in short, Broadacre City was to be Wright’s solution to urban sprawl.

Currently, If each man, woman and child owned one acre of land (an acre is a plot approximately 200 Feet X 200 Feet), the entire population of the US and Canada would fit inside Nevada, California and Texas. So that would leave 47 states and 10 provinces empty.

That’s a lot of land!

In the US, if we took the average number of persons living in one dwelling as 2.41 (in 2009), then placed every family dwelling on one acre of land, it would fit into Texas alone…with 30 million acres left over.

Back in the time Wright was designing his utopian house (Usonian House) he conceived of a city full of Usonian homes, each different than the next, each on a one acre plot of land that the owners could build their Usonian dream houses and generate their income (make a living) from that land. In addition, there would be common parks, shops, central government and ‘architect’ offices.

The concept was largely based off Wright’s beliefs of organic architecture and self-sustainability he had modeled at Taliesin in Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Arizona.

Wright was quoted as saying;

“Land, by whomever held, is to be made the most of, by human strength, and not defiled, nor left waste. But since we live in an epoch assuredly of change, and too probably of revolution, I affirm the one principle that each man shall possess the ground he can use — and no more — USE I  say, either for food, beauty, exercise, science, or any other sacred purpose… That each man shall possess for his own, no more than such portion…”

When I first read that line, I gained the greatest understanding of the Usonian lifestyle and Usonian Home up till now. I’ve lived in cities were the size of the lots were 30 Ft X 100 FT and KNOW where he was coming from.

I did understand a lot more when I received my next book that was actually written by Frank Lloyd Wright titled, “The Natural House”. It was the one book that resonated strongly with artisans, entrepreneurs and creative people of the 1930′s, 40′s and 50′s (Wright’s Usonian clients) and now resonated with my wife and I….

Getting into Frank Lloyd Wright’s mind about the Usonian House…

Frank Lloyd Wright

FLW's thinking on the Usonian House was based in experiencing the Great Depression and his own economic hardships

The first thing you must consider about the Usonian House designs is Frank Lloyd Wright’s state of mind and the times he was in.

This is my interpretation of what that was from reading books, watching videos about FLW and from my own 42 years of life experience.

FLW was a successful architect in the early 1900′s designing Prairie Style houses in the suburbs of Chicago (Oak Park mostly). He is designing for well-to-do people after leaving his mentor’s (Louis Sullivan) firm to go off on his own.

Little did he know, the pending economic disaster about to hit around 1929 — the Great Depression.

FLW goes through what I can only describe as a mid-life-crisis in his 40s and 50s , leaves his practice, wife, kids and goes off to be with another woman. This slows down his practice (almost to a total halt) and FLW buys a huge track of land and builds Taliesin, his new studio. I’m drastically shortening the story but he ends up marrying another younger woman and they live on the huge farm property as the Depression hits. She comes up with an idea to help get through it — Frank can train apprentices on the farm. He charged young men to come stay with him, help build up his studio and property, farm the land and ultimately teach them his design techniques.

So 1935 roles around, it’s deep in the middle of the depression and he gets the commission for Fallingwater. Despite its unmatched beauty, it is considered a home far out of reach of the common man.

So here is Frank Lloyd Wright (now in his 60s), living the Usonian lifestyle, living off the land and his skills/knowledge (his largest asset as he was virtually penniless at this time) but still working for well-off clients. He wants to begin showing people that living off your skills and the land is a solution to the economic times.

The Fallingwater commission makes him famous again and he gets a letter from a journalist by the name of Herbert Jacobs that asked if the great Frank LLoyd Wright would consider designing a house of moderate cost ($5500) for the common man. No one thought he would take it…but it was the EXACT commission he had in his head because he saw how important this type of dwelling would be as the Depression raged on.

If you asked me why he had this magnificent obsession to design not only the house but the construction methods and even the furniture to meet the current economic times, it would have been to see his creations popping up all over America and being rewarded for the Usonian Concept he had in mind. After all, it was a concept that would benefit a HUGE part of the population in the times they were in.

So how does that relate to our current times and why do I see the importance of that? Because once again, we are going through some tough economic years that have slowed housing starts to virtually zero. The banks are only financing McMansions or as FLW said, they are only financing houses that are ‘built to sell’ instead of houses people can live in forever and enjoy the beauty and space around them.

I can really relate to his frustration at the state the banks were in because we are beginning to hit a major hurtle ourselves, probably the same one average people were hitting at that time in history…

Finally get my Usonian Houses book by John Sergeant…

I don’t know what it is about Canada, but things move at a very slow pace. Took over 40 days to get my copy of Usonian Houses.

I’m sitting down each morning with a coffee, in front of the kitchen window and reading bit by bit, imagining and yes daydreaming what it will be like to live in a Usonian house.

I’m usually a really fast reader but I wanted to take my time and really absorb what I was reading and get a mental picture of what was being said.

Once I began reading, I realized I made a lot of mistakes in my design and promised myself not to design any more until I finished reading the book.

John goes into great details about how Frank Lloyd Wright came up with the idea of the Usonian house and what he called “Broadacre City”.

There are also a lot of drawn floor plans of houses I have not seen the plan for. I was looking for a commonality and found it.

The next few posts will be about what my major mistakes where in the planning of my family’s dream house and what I realized about Frank Lloyd Wright and his designs…

The importance of materials selection…

I am writing this post after the fact of understanding a bit more about the choice of materials that are used in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses.

I had a great misunderstanding in the materials USUALLY used in a Usonian home. The problem was my wife and I had been basing our concept of a Usonian home on Kentuck Knob which happened to be sort of an oxymoron of a Usonian (very expensive to build).

One of the most important factors of the Usonian house is the honesty of the material. In other words, drywall covering up cheap spruce studs is not honest. A solid exposed brick wall would be.

Hence there is a major problem with the different between old Usonian houses designed by FLW and what I call a Modern Usonian. Please bare with me as it is complicated but worth understanding.

Usonian House Materials

Typical Usonian House Materials - The Rosenbaum House

The old Usonians used five basic materials. They were not hidden. They were cheap at the time, but not as much now. They are what people find so beautiful about a Usonian home. They are all used in an honest way and not hidden behind faux finishes.

  1. Cement for the foundation AND floors (the foundation doubled as the floor). Much more on this later.
  2. Brick/Stone (masonry). Used for walls and what FLW called the ‘masonry core’. It’s sections are what held the house up.
  3. Wood – Plywood and Board and Batten. Usually made from pine or cypress. These formed the none masonry walls (more details below).
  4. Paper – Acted as a cheap insulation (more likely an air barrier) between the layers of wood.
  5. Glass – The signature of any Usonian is its wide expanses of glass to bring the outside in.

The walls are what I want to explain now. Take a lot at the photo of a wall cross section in the Pope-Leighey house.

Most interior walls where composed of a core of plywood and then horizontal panels of cypress board and batten. This means there is a thin strip (around 1″) of wood running the length of the wall that is screwed into the plywood and holds a much wider board (around 12″). This is done on both sides with thin paper between (see the black areas in the photo). It forms only a 3″ thick wall.

The walls would be built and then placed on rods all in one shot. In other words, the inside walls WERE the outside walls as well. No need to hide studs behind drywall. Very simple to make. Very honest.

BUT…

…not energy efficient in the least bit and in fact not very strong. In fact, before the bookshelves where full in the Rosenbaum house above, you were able to go outside and push the wall inwards.

I will go more and more into the importance of materials later but I just wanted you to know the state of mind I was in. We had thought Usonian meant all STONE OR BRICK WALLS and now saw it was a variety of cheaper materials used in honest ways…It is something we would both fall in love with just as much as we did the stone of Kentuck Knob and Fallingwater…

The $20K car that could have bought a Usonian style house instead…

car-or-usonian

For the same monthly cashflow, would you want to own a car or a usonian house?

We really began to look at debt and Frank Lloyd Wright’s fascination with designing houses that would not put their owners into debt forever. The original Jacobs house was in fact so elegant in its savings of materials and labor that I do not even think it would be possible to duplicate it for the adjusted cost of $87,000 today. But a smart architect following FLW’s concepts probably can.

To understand the importance of this OFF THE GRID concept, I will tell you a story:

My oldest stepdaughter recently purchased a new $20,000 car. She is literally right out of college.

She won’t honestly tell us the payments on it but with high insurance I am positive it is around $600 to $700 per month. This is likely 1/3 or her monthly expense. In fact, most new vehicles cost around this much per month for ownership.

This same monthly cash flow she is putting out for the car would easily finance a 2 to 3 acre plot in the country with an average to low cost Usonian based house on it.

The payments only last 5 years you say? My sister did the same thing when she was young and continues to buy a new car every 5 years or so and thus, in her 30s, still lives in a rented small house.

The thing about the choice of the land/house versus a new car is the land appreciates an average of 10% per year over time. So the same monthly cash flow you wasted for 20 years on a new car ($144,000 down the toilet) could instead be a $288,000 asset in real estate in the same time.

Which would you chose as a young adult just starting your career?

Frank Lloyd Wright’s goal for the Usonian home was to make affordable housing that was beautiful. He went to enormous lengths to make sure it was affordable including using cheap unskilled just out of the depression labor and factory methods. He would stack three 2X4s on top of each other instead of one 2X12 because it was a cheaper structure. Each house was customized to the client’s needs and budget.

In other words, for the cost of owning a modern car, the average person could live in what are now considered to be historical pieces of art! Some Usonians are in fact worth a million bucks!

Affleck House in Michigan

Affleck House in Michigan - How could you not want this over a new car?

Now I’m not saying building a modern Usonian structure will make it worth millions…but I am saying the debt-free living makes sense.

Get a cheap car and spend the money on the asset instead!

This is something to consider if you are thinking about switching to a Usonian lifestyle.

Consider each and every purchase CAREFULLY and if it ultimately puts you in debt…dump it for the beautiful Usonian house and acres of land that will be an asset in the future.

Now we are getting to the heart of what living a Usonian lifestyle is about…

Usonian Houses Book

Quite early on our journey I found this book title by John Sergeant:

It took awhile to send it to me because it was only available as a used book in my area but it was worth the wait.

There are many floor plans of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses including the one we were beginning to focus on, the Rosenbaum house.

Anyway, I highly recommend this book if you are interested in learning more about the concept behind our Usonian dreams…

 

Frank who?

Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright

Most people have no idea who Frank LLoyd Wright (FLW) was.

He was in fact one of the most famous (perhaps THE most famous) American architect that has ever lived.

They have no idea of his contributions to our modern architecture.

They have no idea of the drama, sex scandals and amazing comebacks he went through.

But I guarantee they know of his buildings!

I personally knew of Mr. Wright from my architecture classes in high school. He designed some of the most famous houses and buildings in the world. Here are just a few that you may not recognized the names but have certainly seen these structures in movies, photos, everywhere.

Fallingwater

Fallingwater - Angelina and the FLW fan, Brad Pitt

Fallingwater. Yes that’s Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Brad was a big architecture fan. Completed in 1937.

Johnson Wax Office Building

Johnson Wax Office Building

The Johnson Wax Office Building – has been described as almost a holy place to work. Completed in 1939.

Unity Temple

Unity Temple

The Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois.

Taliesin

Taliesin

Taliesin was Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio/Usonia Test location in Wisconsin (much more on this subject later).

Taliesin-West

Taliesin-West - FLWs summer home/studio

Taliesin West. FLW’s summer studio in Arizona.

Robie House

Robie House

Robie House in Oak Park. One of my favorites. It’s a style that I will later described called “Prairie Style“.

Imperial Hotel Tokyo

Imperial Hotel Tokyo

Imperial Hotel Tokyo – One of a few buildings that survived a major earthquake in 1923. It was replaced by a larger building in the 60′s but the legend remains.

Ennis House in Blade Runner

Ennis House in Blade Runner Movie

Ennis House – California – Famed for being in Blade Runner.

 

Those are just a few of the over 1000 designs,  500 completed structures he created over the span of his 89 or 92 year old life (more on the confusing age later).

His colorful personal life will also be revealed as our journey to Usonia continues…