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.

“The Fountainhead” movie about Frank Lloyd Wright?

The Fountainhead Movie “The Fountainhead” is a Warner Bros. movie written by Ayn Rand and loosely based on Frank Lloyd Wright – peppered with Usonian references.

I recently saw a documentary about the author “Ayn Rand” and they mentioned that Warner Bros. made her novel “The Fountainhead” it into a movie in 1949. I found it only here:

Most certainly this was loosly based on Frank Lloyd Wright’s colorful life and beliefs. I want to study more about the concepts mentioned in it which I am told are Ayn Rand’s musing about Objectivism.

I have also been watching the first two episodes of Atlas Shrugged but the Fountainhead movie certainly had me interested especially parts that semi-related to Usonia and the Usonian housing concept (Cortlandt housing project).

Funny enough, Ayn Rand was born “Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum” which I do not know if it relates to the Rosenbaum House we are some what basing our Usonian Design on. Well I do recommend watching the movie if not to see the really high quality B&W film they use.

As a short update, we are still awaiting word on if we should put offer in on property I mentioned in last post. The R/E agent is playing a bit of a game and we need to back away for a few days on it. More to follow.

Proceeding with Offer for Future Usonian Property…

Possible Property to Live In While Building Our Usonian House Possible Property to Live In While Building Our Usonian House

Well we are tentatively moving forward with option 2 from my last post, buying a 2 acre property 15 minutes from the city that has a 100 year old house on it. We can then later build our Usonian House on the property while living in the old house, then we are required by the town to tear down the original structure (sad but rules are rules).

We had our hearts set on another property closer to the city to do this but were disappointed when it sold before we were able to put an offer in. This is becoming common right now as baby boomers are scrambling to get out of the cities and go rural.

Here is our thinking on this. This property is about 1.74 acres square and it is extremely rare something like this comes up. It is usually a bowling alley property that is for sale (small frontage, long property towards back…total waste of time).

The only issue we have is its on the north side of the concession but the road is not busy and the closest neighbor is currently 1000 feet away. So we should be able to back the house into one of the north corners and create our court similar to how the Weltzheimer/Johnson House in Oberlin Ohio is now. See Google Maps view of it — its the only house canted 45 degrees in that shot. People would enter the property from a side driveway and not see the house or center yard at all. There is still an open view to the north and east/west. Should work.

What this allows us to do is live on the property for 3 years, convert the barn into a woodshop, save about $20K in development fees and build our Usonian Dream house on site. So we figured the cost of 3 years in mortgage/tax payments plus the savings on the develop fees will equal what we will pay anyway so we mind as well enjoy country life now instead of 3 years from now.

The area is actually closer to the girl’s school and a quick hop on the highway to just about anywhere we need to go. Very ideal.

The only issue is an old woman that grew up on this property and raised 6 kids on it (none of them want it) is being slightly difficult. But now the other one that was a direct comparable sold for $30K less with a brand new septic system, we are hoping she will understand our plea that we want to homestead this property and start a whole new generation of country dwellers. One girl is already excited to live out there so it may be in our family for as many generations as it was in hers.

Will keep you up to date on offers progress.

Street View of Possible Usonian Property we will put offer in on. Street View of Possible Usonian Property we will put offer in on.

Possible properties to later build a Usonian House or Move WAY up north to get more land…Update…

Have not posted in awhile but a lot has been going on that I will update here over next few weeks.

Autumn is a bit late and winter promises to be a bad one so I will certainly have more inside time to write and upload photos.

The biggest news is we have been considering two new options to arrive at our ultimate Usonian dream.

1. We were considering selling our current house and purchasing about 50 to 100 acres about 5 hours north of here and build a house. This would let us be completely debt free upon moving in and the areas we are looking are very cheap to live and we can use the wooded lands to help heat the house for free, thus saving the $2400/yr we are spending now. Can also grow TONS of food, hunt for deer, fish and work in one of the mid size towns in Northern Ontario to keep monthly expenditures down. We want to move to as much a self-sustaining model as possible.

2. Option 2 is we recently found out the house we are in now is worth WAY more than we thought with close comparables (including several of our neighbours) selling in a few days with no agent involved and in one case a paper sign on the lawn. We happened to live in the most desirable location with the largest amount of buyers looking in the ideal price range home. I will get into why this is so in future posts and our logic to sell now and not 3 years from now. The other factor is land in our area has gone up over 23% in one year making it nearly impossible to look 3 years down the road here. We just wont be able to beat the MANY others looking for the same thing. Then we looked at a few 2 acre properties with 100 year old homes on them and workshops and barns that we can easy “move sideways” so to speak. In other words, we would not go into debt anymore than we already are, we can live in the old house while we build a new one in 3 years. There are many factors to this and the one ideal property/house we had our heart set on is most likely sold… but we shall see. It would have easily fit our Jacobs style house on it and have no neighbours and be 15 minutes from the city still. We would be on site to do the work each day. But again, it is about 5 times more expensive than 5 hours north of here. Land is in some cases 20 times more expensive than even a hundred miles south of us in the US.

My wife and I have also been continuing to set up our Usonian Workshop and have been thinking about making a few products to sell online here. More to follow about that…

“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.

Quick Note on our Usonian Master Plan

Someone asked me a question about our Master Plan we figured out…

“Why not just place a mobile home on site and sell when the house is done?”

This was certainly something we considered from the beginning but unfortunately in all the areas we considered, unless you are zoned as a mobile home park, cannot place one on your property for any reason.

You will also have to have septic installed and electrical/gas run to a hookup, which the cottage/garage/shop will later need anyway (and in fact accounts for a large portion of the $30K cost).

If it wasn’t for those restrictions, we would have been out in the country already.

One thing that comes to mind is an architect recently told me one reason Frank Lloyd Wright said to go 50 miles out (or farther) was because the rural areas were not governed by such petty rules and building restrictions. It is so bad here in some areas that they even restrict the length your soffits can be, so I can understand his thinking.

‘Garage and Shop not so Usonian’…explained

A few people have mentioned that my plans have a large garage and shop and those that know Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian philosophy (if you can call it that) mentioned it did not include such opulence.

In fact this is true in most cases except it is my one dream in life to one day have a machine/wood shop to invent ideas that may later help to solve some the world’s messed up energy issues. Despite all the jobs I have had in my life, I feel deep down it is the one that I would need to achieve to call my life a success.

Without a shop I can stumble out of bed and go to in my retirement years (few off still but getting there), I would never achieve that life dream. The one thing I learned about a shop is if it is not easily accessible, heated and has it’s own designated space, it will go unused. And I do not want that so thus the shop and large garage semi-attached to the Usonian home.

The garage part will also serve as an area to help restore an old car or use as a welding area away from the wood/machine shop.

My wife’s one caveat was that we build the house first and the shop/garage later but our plans have changed as you can see in the previous two posts. Because the shop/garage/cottage is of such simple design, we also hope to work out some of the weird building methods we will be presenting to the local authorities for approval including the slab on grade foundation that will also act as the flooring. The 4′ on center douglas fir posts with windows between them are another.

Frank Lloyd Wright actually designed several houses with either extended car ports (including his own Taliesin) as well as houses with a tiny shop in them to match the needs of his clients. I truly believe this will be our retirement house and want it to meet all our future needs including the dedicated shop and garage that will get a ton of use once built.

The Usonian Master Plan

I have not finished my posts from our trip to Taliesin, Wingspread, Jacobs House, Robie House, Oak Park yet but will soon have some up-to-date information.

My wife and I were most impressed by the Jacobs house and the beauty it hides in the rear. I found a writing by Herbert Jacobs that details his life building the house and living in it for several years. Check it out, it an eye into the Usonian lifestyle that Frank Lloyd Wright clearly defined for the Jacobs family and many more families to come.

After seeing the Jacobs house and reading the passion all involved had for that house my wife and I began to rethink our path.

…and we have a really Usonian solution to the issue of living in a Usonian style house and achieving our dreams much earlier than expected.

We have decided to purchase a 150 ft by 600+ ft property on the north shores of lake erie within the next 6 months or so (for we hope between $60K and $90K). We may even be able to get a 3 year option on it for 10% down in some cases freeing up some cash to build with. We will then take the garage/shop section of our previous usonian floor plan, and design it into a 3 bedroom livable cottage. It will be about 900 square feet, use a slab on grade foundation, in floor heat. It can be built extremely fast (in about 2 or 3 months) for around $30K in materials and permits and hookups. The idea is to go as cheap as possible and retain the footprint of the future garage/shop.

Once complete we will sell our existing home, move into it and reduce our debt load by half, leaving a minimal house payment, a comfortable cottage on the lake to begin our Usonian lifestyle (minimal stuff) and it lets us complete the remaining 2,400 square feet house at our leisure and budget timeframe.

The decision to do this has a much longer explanation to it but for now realize we will be into a new property, new house and not have nearly the debt load. It also lets us only carry one property and not be a slave to two houses (my worst nightmare as we were once in that situation).

The other piece of news is while on our trip, we met up with a rather knowledgeable architect (that is significantly important in the field of Frank Lloyd Wright style houses) that will be helping us with our design and steps forward. He even gave us a way to reduce the house cost by about $20K (which will I hope easily make up for his fee). My wife and I are super stoked about this news.

Will catch up more later and have some photos of the Frank Lloyd Wright houses including panoramic shots of a few.