Usonian Floor Plan Revised…but not complete

I have been trying to use a cad program but just can’t get the hang of it or get it to run on my computer. I have been using chief architect still but using cad elements to bypass some of the rules built into it. Sort of working.

I have changed the ends of the Master Bedroom and Living Room area to reflect a request from my wife (a cozy banquet).

The office/library is not yet full drawn but you can see it is getting more and more refined. Will post the final draft when ready.

This is actually a really good exercise because you begin to see many issues when truly dimensioning.

You will also notice the outside is not yet drawn in. My wife has promised to help with that part so for now, I have a picture in my head what that space will be and how the two flow together. Just have not got it to paper (bits) yet.

Not yet completed on the library and living room section but getting more refined…

Slab on Grade – Usonian Foundation Issues…

I cant remember if I had mentioned this in a previous post or not but a continuing thing on my mind is how the foundation will be created. I know ultimately I will need a foundation engineer to design it as it is totally unconventional but an architect gave me some ideas.

The Problem with Foundation Codes in Ontario

My biggest issue is going to be the over-all cost to pour the foundation to the point of being able to build walls. In Ontario, the building code states a foundation depth to the bottom of the footer of 5′ due to the frost line (even though the frost line is literally only 18″ or so here. That is A LOT of digging, A LOT of cement, A LOT of cement block and A LOT of fill. What is confusing to me is 100 miles to the south the depth is I think 3 feet and would save thousands and allow a much simpler foundation design.

What I think is the issue in Ontario, pardon the language, is that it is one big damn Province and it gets really cold at the top, but down here at the most southern point of Canada, it can be MUCH warmer throughout the year. So it sounds whiny, but why are we having to deal with codes across such a large latitude?

Frank Lloyd Wright actually said that this footer/block wall/slab at grade method was not necessary that you could dig a small trench, fill it with rocks the size of your hand, place a slab and grade foundation and build away. The idea is, if there is no water trapped under the foundation, what is there to freeze and push the foundation up? It was used by the old welsh builders and is now used in places like Sweden and Iceland with great success.

In my case, this method would save about $10,000 to $15,000…but is not really known here.

I did find one document however put out by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. called: A Design Guide for Rural, Northern and First Nations Housing. It outlines methods to use a monolithic slab foundation that is haunting familiar with Wright’s method.

Another document I found was this: It outlines different methods for slab on grade foundations.

There is also this great document that is emulating my thoughts exactly:

I think what is going to happen is as more people start insisting on NO basements that only breed diseases, molds, radon and clutter, this method will become tried and true.

What I am seeing done now is the digging of a 12″ deep trench that the footer is placed in at regular ground level, a block wall is then built on top of it to the level of 5 feet and then they back fill or raise the surround area around the home with soil. I am told there are even some agencies that will pay you to build a wild life pond on your property so you can then use that dirt to surround the “raised” foundation. This is seeming like a better and better option due to the flood plain we live on.

I will go more into detail about the decisions and issues with the foundation, footers and so on later but for now realize, there are MANY options to build a Usonian foundation…just some may offer resistance from the authorities and are certainly non-conventional for our area.

Picking Colors (ok Colours)

Frank Lloyd Wright did not believe in “decorating” a house. He felt it was a way for a person of lower means to try and imitate the house of someone much more affluent.

Instead he pushed the idea of letting the beauty of a material speak for itself. It did not really matter what the material was, as long as it was honest and not wearing a disguise for the sake of looking like some expensive material that it was not. For example, think of plastic siding that is imitating wood siding or paint-soaked drywall that is covering up the wood beneath it.

He felt the same of the occupants (live within your means and build within your means). The philosophy of this  is way beyond this individual blog post but for now, realize Wright wanted the homeowners to be and show who they were and that the materials show WHAT they were (not something else). For this reason, paint was hardly ever used (if ever) in “decorating” a Usonian house.

I recently read a quote from the daughter of a couple that literally hand-built their Usonian house in the 40s and 50s that described what FLW was trying to achieve. She said, “The living room had glass on three sides, so we were very much affected by the seasons and the changing colors. In the summertime it was absolutely incredible, but the house changed with every season. There was a huge sugar maple outside the living room, and when it turned yellow in the fall, that was the color scheme.”

This is a critical quote as my wife has been very concern about the fact she will not be able to paint the place (after-all, we met when I came to paint her house as a favor to a friend).

I keep trying to tell her that by changing paintings on the wall and placing items will give the sense of changing decor you are looking for. However, that statement says it all because we are lucky enough to live in an area that has seasons and each has its colour palette or its color picker!

OK, saying all that we have been working on the specs of the house (picking the materials and quoting them out) and we have pretty well come to these conclusions (actually mutually agreed on them).


Brown Brick color for Usonian House

Before we began this project we both agreed we would not want red brick but actually preferred a brown brick. Since the decision to start this project, homes are now popping up all over with the brick color we prefer. It is a two tone brown color.

My wife is still thinking it should be even darker but I don’t think she is fully considering how dark it will be on interior walls.

Sorry about the McMansion picture but subconsciously I think I picked it to show the absolute waste of materials in that roof. There has to be $5000 to $10,000 in wasted wood, insulation and extra shingles.


We want the natural color of the wood to be the showpiece of the house so this is EXTREMELY important. In other words, no stain to cover up the beauty of the natural wood.

For most of the columns and windows we have mimicked Tim Sutton’s Usonian Redhouse in picking Douglas Fir. It has this super rich red and brown tone that no other wood really has and it is somewhat native to the area (and pretty cheap). The only other more proper native material would be oak and it is not a good choice of exterior applications. After talking with a local saw mill, we are certain the fir is going in.

The board and batten on some of the walls and the soffits will likely be cypress. We considered douglas fir, oak, pine, cedar and poplar but fir tends to crack over time in thin board, pine is just not the look we want and poplar is too greenish. Cedar would be our second choice. We originally thought the cypress would be out of our price range due to shipping costs but the guy at the mill told us he can order the logs and almost match the price of pine. Bonus!


Usonian Concrete Floor Color

Frank Lloyd Wright’s color of choice was of course “cheyenne red” for floors (and just about everything else including his cars). My wife and I both HATE the color inside a house. Well hate is a strong word. I would say its like ice cream and hamburgers to me…I can eat them but do not prefer them.

The process of coloring the concrete floor is done with something called Lithochrome Color Hardener. It is a powder that is placed on as the concrete is drying. The advantage to this is you can pick multiple colors to give it that “leather-look” we want.

I think the colors we are going for are “Dark Walnut” with an under-tone of “Padre Brown”. This will bring together the redness of the wood and the brown of the brick and certainly give us that leather look we are looking for.


As for the rest of the colors in the home, that is up to us to hang paintings and rely on the beauty of nature to paint right outside our windows…

How Much Would a Jacob’s Usonian House Cost Today to Build?

I have been doing estimates on our home after refining the design over and over and began to think what it would cost to build the Jacobs home in today’s dollars in our area.

It has been awhile since I have posted and I will give an update soon but I wanted to get this out first.

Here are the rough material costs:

  • Foundation: $8,600 (slab construction)
  • Brick: $5,500
  • Board and Batten and Overhang wood: $10,000 (pine)
  • Framing: $10,000
  • Roof: $3,000
  • Plumbing, Electrical and Fixtures: $10,000
  • Cabinets: $10,000
  • Windows: $5,000
  • Heating: $8,000

So that makes around $70,000 in rough materials. Some substitutes would likely need to be done according to local building codes.

That is not including any permits, architect fees, utility hook ups, labour or land. If I had to guess based on a small lot (maybe a half acre), and standard labour rates around us, I would expect to pay around $150,000 more for the rest. That is about $220,000 when the average 3 bedroom raised ranch is going for $170,000 around here. Still not too bad.


Usonian House – “Windows to Nature” instead of Walls behind nature…


Fallingwater is truly living within nature, not hiding from it...

Recently I have been thinking about energy issues to do with our future usonian house. I began to do calculations on the amount of energy being lost while heating the home for the year.

I will get more into these calculations later but for now realize that you lose heat through a house’s walls, roof and foundation (and leaks in venting). The more resistance to heat transfer each of these surfaces has, the more energy efficient the house is.

In fact, theoretically you could build a house that can be heated with a candle in the arctic. Now of course there would be no doors or windows or air circulation or anything…

…which brings me to the point of this post. Are we cutting ourselves unnecessarily off from nature in order to save nature?

I mean think about it. Allow me to paraphrase Frank Lloyd Wright; “A house should provide shelter from the elements no more than needed and still promote your access to nature.”

It is what “organic architecture” means.

So this REALLY got me thinking about the amount of windows on the walls of our new usonian home and the balance between connecting with nature and the monthly winter heating bills. Our home’s walls will consist of about 40% double paned glass which is about 16 times less heat resistant than the insulated walls. But I think it is worth it…and can be offset…here is why and how:

  1. The “gravity heat system” or in floor heating operates at a MUCH lower temperature than the “hot-air-blowing everywhere” system.
  2. The predominately south-facing windows will create a greenhouse effect in the winter and the floors and brick will store a lot of heat thus helping to take away some of the heating load and variances throughout a day.
  3. We will be using a geothermal system to help bring the floors up to a temperature of 60 degrees without having to add one BTU of heat to it. So this will reduce the load on the broiler by we believe 1/2 according to studies.
  4. The surface that loses the most heat is not the walls, it is the roof/ceilings. In our case the most insulation will be in that position (I’m thinking spray foam there up to R56 if we design it as such). Frank Lloyd Wright also theorized that a snow covered roof adds to the over-all insulation value.
  5. Insulation around and under the foundation will offset a lot of heat loss.
  6. The house’s concrete and brick will act as a thermal mass storing heat that is normally lost in today’s McMansions. In fact, FLW was known to say you could open all the Usonian house windows in the middle of winter to air the home out and close them awhile later with very little drop in the house temperature. Try that with a forced air gas system.
  7. No 20% loss of heat through venting because there is none!
Window To Nature

Would you want a box with no windows or this?

The alternative is of course a home which is super energy efficient with few windows and expensive and dishonest materials in the walls.

Everything is a trade off in the world but I do think the windows are worth it. I just can’t picture building a beautiful new home in the country and not being able to see the world around us. Who the heck want’s to live in a windowless box???

My first REAL Usonian house plan…

Usonian Hand Drawn Floor Plan

Usonian Hand Drawn Floor Plan - First attempt

Let’s review the big mistakes I made first designing our new Usonian house…then I will describe the drastic changes:

  1. No floor grid used.
  2. No vertical grid considered.
  3. Not picking materials based on their natural use or beauty.
  4. Not understanding the visual tricks Frank Lloyd Wright used to make the house more visually stunning.
  5. Not considering the site or location (much more on this later).
  6. Not considering the masonry core and how it supports the house around it.
  7. I was not including the outside in my design (remember bringing the outside in and inside out?).

Which brought me to a few big realizations:

  1. I needed to hand-draw my house on a 4′X4′ grid.
  2. I needed to re plan the fireplace to the center
  3. I needed to plan the outside the same time as the inside.

So I whipped out my old school drafting equipment I have had since high school and began to draw, erase, stare, think, ponder show my wife, discuss it, and in general learn how to draw a floor plan the way Frank Lloyd Wright did 75 years ago.

I started with the 4′ X 4′ grid. I began to think of the Rosenbaum Usonian house floor plan layout and the visual tricks he uses in it and figured, hey why not, it looks like the plan we are describing, just the kitchen and bedroom wing are different.

It is certainly not a true Usonian in that the kitchen is much larger. I would call it more a modern Usonian house plan. It sort of addresses a lot of the problems that people had with FLW’s original designs.

So I learned first hand why he wanted his apprentices to draw on the grid system. I came up with a decent plan and it still meets our goals.

I must say, I am pretty happy with it and enjoyed using my hands to draw instead of the limiting computer. Bit of a side story but when i was learning architecture, the computer was just beginning to be used to draw houses. To this day, I still feel it is easier to draw it out by hand then by mouse.

I will describe the plan more as I go along but for now realize, I am sure we have the design we are looking for and it will be around the size we had in mind…the rest is in the details…

Vertical Modular Grid…Helps quickly figure out heights…

board and batten usonian walls

Usonian Vertical Unit Walls

Not only did Frank Lloyd Wright design the floor grid system, but he also standardized the vertical plane into ‘one foot, one inch’ units.

This means a wall is measured vertically on increments of 1’1″. So a room could be for instance 6′ 6″ or 7’9′. Yes I said 6′ 6″ (too short for my 6’4″ frame). You will later learn why he made the ceilings so low but for now realize he wanted to standardize the vertical units to make things easily readable and buildable.

As you have seen, many of the Usonian Houses used a board and batten construction.

The board was around 11″ wide and the batten around 2″ making a unit height of 1′ 1″. The floor would also contain a two inch batten plate.

So six board/batten courses would make a height of around 6′ 6″ plus the 2″ bottom batten, so a standard door height is 6′ 8″ (although some where brought down to 6′ 6″). A Usonian living room typically had seven vertical units totaling 7′ 7″ plus the 2″ base to make a ceiling height of 7′ 9″ (very close to our current 8′ standard).

The vertical units were also applied to the window and door sizes. As well, Frank Lloyd Wright would design the furniture to sort of interlock within the battens. You can see that a 2″ thick counter-top, desk-top or even a bookshelf would align perfect with the battens.

Some of the later Usonian houses would vary the board and batten width, but the end result was always a 1′ 1″ vertical unit.