Usonian Dream May Soon Be Reality…

Have not updated blog in some time. I will write a more detailed post soon but just know we will either be in our new Usonian-Style House soon (with the help of a very prominent Frank Lloyd Wright style architect) or we will be moving to newer digs for a few years until we are capable of then building. The perfect storm of low interest rates, perfect job situations and much mojo working together may actually let this happen very soon. Can’t wait to share the possibilities with  you once we know more details. It is a very long and detailed story that others looking to build a Usonian Floor Plan may want to do so now as well.

Best, Your Usonian Dreamer.

Usonian Roof Study

I’ve been inside a lot during this very cold winter so far and slowly learning Google Sketchup. Have finally come up with what I think is a good solution for the two roof levels to intersect. The living room/office wing and bedroom wings will be in the 7′ height range and the kitchen/core in the 10 to 12 foot ceiling height range and it has been bothering me that I could not visualize how to make this work for the inside and out.

I know Frank Lloyd Wright would have preferred a flat roof but there is no way the wife is allowing that in this climate (higher snow load). So instead we will cathedral the ceilings in all three sections which will allow plenty of lower and higher sections throughout the house. The goal is to draw the air through the house from the wings into and out the top of the core as Wright would have certainly done.

Forgive the crudeness, still learning Sketchup…but at least I am getting the hang of it.

“How Much Would a Jacob’s Usonian House Cost Today to Build?” Revisited…

Jacobs House would be about $170K to build with land in our area in 2013. Original cost was $5500 in 1936/37 or about $86K in todays dollars. Jacobs House would be about $170K to build with land in our area in 2013. Original cost was $5500 in 1936/37 or about $86K in todays dollars. Photo ©J. Adams 2013

After seeing the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Jacobs house in Madison Wisconsin in real life I have been obsessing about how much in today’s dollars it would realistically take. My previous estimates were about $70,000 in materials (which either way I calculate would be around the same).

This would be a 6″ slab (Wright’s original “concrete mat” was 3″ thick). I was going to reduce that estimate slightly for the heating as I have seen really cheap broilers go for $1500.

However, I have since found out in Canada starting I think Jan 1, 2012 we must meet a certain energy efficiency that would be totally impossible to meeting using Wright’s sandwich, board and batten constructed exterior walls. I would say you would need face brick, air gap, foam board, 8 inches of blown in, 2″ rigid around the entire foundation and under, triple pane glass and the list goes on. So let’s leave the materials at $70K.

The part I did not understand is Wright was including the cost of the property in with his original $5500 1937 dollars. However, it is unclear to me if Herbert Jacobs bought the two 60 foot parcels in that price (which I do not think so). The story is long and detailed and in one of my last posts, I linked to his own story about it here.

So let me revise the original land requirements and make it slightly outside the suburbs here. We have seen 100′ X 200′ properties (and larger) go $25K to $30K. Let’s say labour is $70K. Permits and hooking into sewers and electrical and gas, let’s say $5K. So we are up to as low as $170K, which the average home is going for $189K now in our area and rising. At about $100/sqft with land, that is a hell of a deal here where the average price is climbing to over $200/sqft for new construction.

I’d like to hear from anyone that has done equivalent estimates.

Usonian Floorplans – Revised


adams_usonian_floorplans_plotThought I would post these quick to show everyone some of the refinements to our plans.


The most notable is the swapping of the tub in the main bath to the master bathroom. We thought hard about this one and figured the kids or guests would likely never use the tub so we shifted around to the master. This made room for the moving around of utilities and gave us some storage space for our tools and things we use in the house all the time (the same space that is currently in our laundry room.

Usonian Property Considerations…

A lot has been going on with the progress of our Usonian dreams over the past two weeks.

We found the area we likely want to purchase in and found several properties that are basically lakefront on a bluff and extremely affordable. It is approximately 40 miles from our current location but suitable in the future. However, once we began to research this, the more possible expenses, risks and considerations came up.

1) Conservation Authority.

Because the bluff erodes away at apparently about 1.5 feet per year average (sometimes more, sometimes less) the setback for the house must maintained a safe distance for at least 100 years and more likely 180 years. The current regulation is around 180 to 300 feet depending on the location. Not a problem unless someone builds closer to the bluff and sort of blocks our potential view.

2) Foundation.

I have been speaking with both the local building authorities and a reader of this blog regarding the unknown expenses that may arise from building in this general location. One is the soil. It is considered “fox gravelly loam” which drains very well but you may run into soft spots or high water tables that will add expenses. The other is that in the area, an engineered foundation is required adding yet another expense. We are still considering about 3 foundation methods, piering/suspension foundations, Frank Lloyd Wrights slab on grade method (which I suspect would work well in this situation but apparently is harder to get approved in that area) or standard footer/4 to 5 feet foundation walls. The building authorities told me to consider up to twice the normal footer specs depending on the soil conditions…which add another expense…the soil report. My rough estimates after calling around a bit would be around $50K for a solid foundation which is about double or higher my original estimates. However, the soil is more suitable for a septic bed which can save some of that added cost. This is a significant consideration because we can literally be paying more for those two items than 4 acres of land!

3) Real Estate.

After some preliminary research, not many properties are selling in that area which changes our purchasing strategy. I’ll describe this more in a moment. For now we realized…we can wait a seller out. Not much is moving in the price range we have looked at. In some cases, if the seller does not sell within the next few years, the authorities won’t let them sell it as a building lot…period. So eventually we may be looking at a reverse bidding (more selling) war where the people purchasing the properties and building will begin to be courted by the land owners at the last minute. That my friend is a good bargaining position!

4) Financing.

I spoke to a friend that manages a mortgage department for a major Canadian bank about our financing options again. He basically told me what we heard before…banks do not want to take the risk of financing land because of the lack of potential equity in the land versus a fully built home. In other words, a piece of land is likely harder to sell in the case of a default than a built home.

This falls in line with Frank Lloyd Wright’s comments on the subject which was paraphrased as “Banks don’t finance homes to live in they finance homes to sell”. We have certainly found that in our own lives and were stuck in that thinking before we realized we may build a house we can spend forever in. A very romantic and real notion.

However, my friend had a fantastic idea. Because we are not likely ready to build for about 2 to 3 years time he said take what you would have put into that property in interest and taxes for 3 years and put that amount into an interest baring account each month instead. That way at the end of the 3 years we have a significant down-payment and a private mortgage lender will likely finance that…no problem because they are protected with our 35% down. This allows a better bargaining position all the way around, better rates and lets us wait to see if someone else is building in that area to predict the risks we are going to encounter with the soil and foundation situation (which we found out happened a few miles away). Also, we will have more equity in our current home which we can then refinance to use for building costs on the new property. Made a lot of sense to me because instead of losing money each month, we are gaining in the long run on interest and taxes saved. It is entirely possible to have the entire property paid for in that 3 years which puts us in an amazing situation because then we can build with the equity in land and not touch the equity in our current home. I was stunned at my friend’s thinking because it is a totally Usonian way to do things because at the end of the day, we will be carrying very little debt throughout the process of achieving our Usonian dream!

VIDEO: Contemporary Usonian Floorplan modeled in Google Sketch Up

Video 2 shows the inside a bit without furniture. Lots of work to do but at least it’s moving along.

Spent the day going to another lumber mill discussing what woods are available and costs. Will update this information soon.