Other Fellow Usonians I Found…

I’m going to keep a list of other sites I have found of people building Usonian Houses here.

http://lakewayusonian.com – Looks like it is progressing well as of February 2012.

You can also see a Youtube channel of another Usonian going up or their website is here.

austin cubed: the misadventures of building a modern/contemporary/green home in austin, tejas: http://austincubed.blogspot.com

Usonian Redhouse – Built in 2004: http://usonianredhouse.com/

PrairieMod.com – Great FLW site.

http://www.matttaylor.com Matt has loads of architectural and Usonian data.

ARTICLES:

Wright History Inspires Modern Design

Wright’s Legacy Continues at FSC

 

If you know of anymore, please email me and I will gladly post them.

 

 

My thoughts on future Usonians…

broadacres city rendering

Broadacres City was Frank Lloyd Wright's vision of a Usonian future.

I’ve been thinking deeply and had many discussions with my wife lately about what our Usonian lifestyle and house will be like. We are both SO excited to start it.

My largest concern is that the original precepts that Frank Lloyd Wright based a Usonian house on have largely changed due to extremely high energy costs. Specifically his need to live as far away from a city as possible so it will not encroach into your backyard in too short a time (which happens to be one of our main WANTS).

However, this means having to travel back and forth to the city almost daily for both my wife and kids to the University) and sometimes myself. I’m concerned about the short term gas bill that may surprise us at the end of the month. Gas is currently at $1.25 a liter or $5.25/gallon in our area. As time goes on, this bill will thankfully reduce as the kids finish school and my wife works out here.

The other item to do with energy is the large glass surface of the house. In fact, from rough calculations, about 40 percent of the walls are glass. Now, reading a lot of Frank LLoyd Wright’s comments he says in floor radiant heating is much more efficient, the bills may not be as bad as I thought because the nature of it is such you can turn it way lower than a regular heating system (63 instead of 72) because it heats your feet, not the air. It also retains the heat much longer and the heatwaves are directed upwards towards the ceiling, which really needs the heavy duty insulation and reflection. I’m going to do much more research into this aspect before finalizing any design and will devote a few posts later to it because its importance to this lifestyle.

The other plus to the energy situation is we will not have a large AC bill with all those windows and the land around us providing a nice breeze. We do not use the AC much here now but when we do, it creates a massive electric bill. So again, we are hoping this offsets the glass.

A possible solution to this energy issue is we may plant Miscanthus, an oriental grass that is being considered by our government as a biofuel. In fact, several growers in our area are testing it to be used to heat greenhouses and make biodiesel, which would solve both our problems of energy (Biomass for the heating and Biofuel for the vehicles). There are co-ops that give you diesel in exchange for selling them your biofuel crops (which are self sustaining meaning they comeback year after year once established without planting seed). Win win situation on this but then we will not be able to rent the unused land to farmers to cover our yearly property taxes. Will have to do more of a cost analysis on this later.

On the plus side of the column is that I believe as the Gen X and Baby Boomer population begin to retire (and retire into economically depressed times), the demand for a Usonian type house will certainly skyrocket. The lower cost, all on one level, no basement issues (lowers insurance especially in our area) are going to become HIGHLY sought after features of homes. And I will be one step ahead of the game with it.

I just feel no one has integrated enough of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian design elements into houses yet. In fact, our area is projected to become a retirement area and would further support my need to live this way instead of the opulence that is being seen in Toronto, a few hundred miles away. I can see some of these Baby Boomers selling their McMansions in Toronto and living the Usonian lifestyle here that is not even possible in Toronto (as I did).

In fact, I recently talked to a couple approaching retirement that just built a 4000 sqft, two level mansion on the side of a golf course and when I described what we were doing, she fell in love with the idea and said “I wish we would have done that. I can just picture having to sell this place as soon as we retire and finding a more affordable and smaller, easier to maintain house.”

My wife’s concerns are mostly with having enough room for our stuff. To solve this I took her to the end of our property and walked 66 feet away and said now imagine, the main closets in the hallway (gallery as Frank Lloyd Wright called it) and our bedroom will fit in this space and be 67 inches tall and 2 feet deep. That is 730 cubic feet of stuff. It would hold enough to fill a 10′ X 10′ normal room top to bottom. And this does not include the girl’s rooms storage, the kitchen or the 2 car garage/shop that will be outside. Is it enough room for our stuff?

OK, I was being a bit snarky but she got the idea and we both had a laugh.

We both agree this lifestyle will require some adjustments but look at the gains we are going to get! We will have a house that connects with our surrounding land. Our closest neighbour will liked be a couple hundred feet away instead of feet away. Our land is going to sustain itself. We are going to work the land that we do not rent out to farmers. Our family is just going to love visiting us. Our minds will be more at ease about the future…

The Natural House – By Frank Lloyd Wright


I received a copy of this book soon after I finished reading the Usonian Houses book.

It was written by Frank Lloyd Wright in I believe 1954 and describes his thinking process of how he designed the first Prairie homes as well as Usonians.

It was quite complicated to read the first section, but well well worth understanding his mind state.

In the next post, I will give you the most significant line I have read about Frank Lloyd Wright about what made him such an architectural genius for America. I bet it is even a fact most architects have no idea about…

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….

The Bank slows our Usonian Dreams Down…

Banks

Banks are about as friendly as they were at the end of the great depression.

In my last post I spoke about the Bank’s reluctance to fund houses of unknown design back in the 1930′s just as they are basically doing now.

In the earlier part of the century, banks would basically finance at a maximum of twice the annual income of the family. So if a family makes the equivalent of $50,000/year in today’s dollars (which is 2011 average income), it meant the most they would finance was a $100K house. In rare cases, they would finance at a ratio of 3 years of income, so in this case they would go up to $150K in today’s dollars. This would have made it nearly impossible to own a home as the average house price is now around $175,000.

Real estate agents I know are telling me it would cost about $125 to $250 per square foot to currently build. This would make our 2500 square foot home cost around $300K to $500K without the land. Now I know by doing a majority of the work myself will reduce the cost to about $125K in materials + Labor (usually equal to twice the materials). I am roughly estimating the entire 25 acres and house to be around $300K. Acceptable. We can carry it without getting into serious issues.

However, the bank is now basically not financing empty land. They will give what is called a construction loan for 65% of the final value but you have to have a proven contractor build the home on a set deadline and of typical construction.

The other problem is one of having a place to live while the house is being built.

We currently are in the black as regards to Assets/Liabilities (one of the only ones in our HUGE family, which I will write more about later the importance of this fact). So carrying two places is not possible.

We did consider buying a mobile home and placing it on the property while the house is being built but after talking with a few of the municipalities, they do not allow this easily.

In other words, in 75 years, we have gone full circle into the bank’s view of what an investment is…

…and it does not involve a Usonian dream house.

So what we are now considering is truly along what Frank Lloyd Wright intended and that is to buy the land, build the house over time and to our specs in stages that will allow us to do what we want — not what the bank wants.

My wife’s income is stable but mine is growing over time and becomes more passive. This means that 50% of my income…I do not have to raise a finger to earn. This ratio will of course change as time continues. It’s called building the pipeline instead of carrying buckets (which I will also get more into later because it is central in the Usonian lifestyle we wish to live the rest of our lives in).

This will slow down the process but at the end, we will own the land, the land will pay for itself, the house will be paid for and we will be solvent and have a beautiful place we could enjoy instead of working for the rest of our lives. To me that is a Usonian Dream lifestyle!

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…