Update on a New/Old Usonian House in Florida

Usonian House comes to life in Florida Photos: Florida Southern College

It was fantastic to hear that the Usonian house on the campus of the Florida Southern College is complete. Original designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1939, it is of a concrete block and cypress masterpiece.

We have mentioned their blog here before but here is the link again to have a look at all the great content: http://www.buildingtheusonianhouse.com/

Congrats and a super job, FSC!

Property Update and the “Usonian Basements” Oxymoron

Flooded Basement Not a Porblem With Usonian House Flooded Basement Not a Porblem With Usonian House

Property Update

The property we were considering, we had one last look at it with the entire family and after a long discussion with the wife and the real estate agent we were using to represent our offer…the consensus is it just needs too much work for the insane price being asked. There was already 4 failed offers and we were not going to waste everyone’s time with number 5.

The picture here is somewhat appropriate because the house that was on the property we were considering had a flooded cellar that needed work right away as it is causing an allergen in the air that was effecting our whole family just during a walk-through, let alone living there. To make it worse, the furnace was placed in the cellar and in a flood, would easily be wrecked. This would be disastrous in the middle of winter!

The Usonian property hunt continues.

“Usonian Basement” – An Oxymoron

The reason I brought up the basement flooding situation is because recently in the local news, they mentioned the city was willing to help alleviate some of the local flooding problems by subsidizing getting people to disconnect from the storm sewers. They want homes to instead go back to the old way… gutters out to the yard and using a sump pump to a drainage bed instead of to the overloaded storm sewers.

I can tell you from personal experience with MANY flooded basements, it is not a permanent solution and your indoor swimming pool WILL fill up one day and you WILL have mold problems and insurance claims. I have personally stood three feet in water even after the sump pump kicked on full blast…it will happen!

Frank Lloyd Wright said “Nothing good ever came out of a basement” and never have I been so aware of this as recently.

Usonian homes RARELY have a basement and in the case of the Jacobs House in Madison Wisconsin, they have an area excavated for the “mechanicals” which I am pretty sure was not placed in many more Usonian floor plans after that.

Instead, a concrete pad (or mat as he calls it) is embedded with hydronic heating tubes and does triple duty as the floor, floor covering (no carpets or hardwood) and the heating carrier (thermal mass). The problem with this design is a lot of heat is heatsinked to the earth… but… with ground insulation…not an issue!


The reason most houses in our area have basements is because most construction companies are digging down 4 to 9 feet to get the footers below the frost line (which FLW completely advised against, btw) and figure “Why not just throw the concrete pad at the bottom??? Saves having to refill the space with dirt?”

Why? Because I have yet to see a house with a basement that has never flooded. It is literally a swimming pool you will be fighting with for the life of the house.

I know the homeowner’s thoughts are probably that it is extra storage but the problem is in today’s McMansion mentality, it usually becomes another living space fully furnished, floored, drywalled and heated…all awaiting the next big storm to fill up the gutters, overflow down the frost wall and into your tiling and overwhelm your energy sucking sump pump. AND if your mechanicals are in that pond, you are looking at a seriously high repair bill.

Frank Lloyd Wright had it RIGHT. Get rid of the basement… you will never regret 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 Cooling

Thoughts on cooling our Usonian house in the future.

Recently, in our current home we have been able to keep the interior temperature around 15 degrees F below the outside house temperature using only passive cooling methods.

1. Our property is very shaded and  provides excellent cross breezes. The mature trees are fantastic and perfectly positioned to literally cool the whole house in the summer and they are mostly maples so in the winter the leaves fall off and the lower sun warms the house in winter.

2. We close the windows in the morning and open them in the evening. Doing so it is 90 degrees outside and 75 inside for a majority of the day even with high humidity.

3. Ceiling fans provide direct cooling on the body.

4. We do not use this but in my childhood home we had what is known as a whole house fan. The idea is it draws cool air from the lower level and expels the hot air out the roof. This will certainly be going in the new home.

5. Another note is that because the whole house is on one level, the upper level is not even there to collect heat. In our current home the upstairs level just collects heat and is unbearable at times. It will not be missed.

6. Open property or on the lake. This will provide a nice cooling wind.

Now, I know at some point we will have absolutely sweltering days with no air movement and have to turn the A/C on but not for a few more weeks at least and by then summer is half over.

In the new house we will likely be running A/C duct work under the slab just because it is open and cannot really be done later. We may not install the A/C or backup forced air gas system for some time but at least the ducts are in place.

Well those are my thoughts on the cooling situation.

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.


Developing Usonian Floorplan…

It's getting there. Will update more soon.

It’s getting there. Will update more soon.

I’m sorry this is not a large image. I cannot seem to export a larger image than this from CA.

This is on a possible lot we are considering. It is a corner lot on the corner of a 50 acre farm. Fantastic view to the south.

I will be editing more and more of the plan. I am still not 100% happy with it. I think that will be the case up till we build it. For some reason, I keep thinking I am forgetting something in the plan.

I’m also learning Google Sketchup which seems to be a much better alternative to develop our dream into reality. Simple yet powerful program.

Also on the agenda is more attention on furniture designs. More to come…

Wood Choices Become an Issue…

My wife and I live in one of Canada’s richest farm lands. In fact, the area we want to move to is basically a winery area as well as being the tomato capitol of the world. The area also produces a large amount of corn, soy beans and just about everything else.

But the farm land came at a cost. Almost all the treed areas (the area used to be a MASS FOREST!) are literally gone to make room for flat fertile farm land. The area still has several native species of trees, but they are constantly disappeared in quantities and even if they are still around, are unusable as a building material.

Some of the native tree species of Southern Ontario are:

  • Red Oak.
  • Maple.
  • Poplar.
  • Tulip Poplar (one of only a few places in Canada that is grows in fact).
  • Ash (but most Ash Trees are dead or dying due to the Ash Borer Beetle).
  • Eastern Red Cedar and Eastern White Cedar (more white than red).
  • Hemlock
  • Willow
  • Sycamore
  • A more complete list is here: http://ontariotrees.com/main/alien_native.php?type=N

Frank Lloyd Wright of course said to use a material that is common to the area or native. Local materials. The reason being the home should not disturb the surrounding area’s appearance or more accurately, it should enhance the landscape. In other words, how the heck is a house made of bamboo and mahogany going to blend into a prairie environment?

Now saying that, FLW usually used Cypress as a the primary wood in most Usonian houses. Even though it is a native tree to Southern United States, he used it everywhere… If he didn’t use Cypress, it was usually Redwood (California).

Cypress has a beautiful finish to it. It is sort of reddish, almost a red oak look to it at a fraction of the price (at least back in Wright’s time).

After a bit of research I learned that a lot of the old growth Cypress was cut down really fast in the early 20th century for use in the construction industry.

Which brings me to my point…my wife and I both LOVE the look of the wood but it has become VERY rare and next to impossible to get in our area. In fact, the local woodshop down the street from us had a few pieces of it sitting on a shelf for years and when we asked if he could order more in, he told his supplier to not laugh when he priced it out.

Another mill out in the county that is a real wood milling place was trying to obtain it for us but was unable to.