Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Building a Modern Usonian Home

Anyone who is familiar with Frank Lloyd Wright is probably also familiar with his Usonian designs. The Usonians were meant as a small home the everyman could afford. The first couple may have adhered to this ideal, but the following designs quickly grew in scope and price, often costing the owners double the initial estimate. However, even with the cost overruns, the end result was always a unique home that delighted the owners, some of who still live in them today. Usonian homes were as much art as they were building.

There were many, many Usonian designs, none being exactly the same. There may have been several basic layouts, but each design was modified enough from its predecessor to be unique. In addition to being unique, Wright’s Usonian homes were also built in non-traditional ways, not only in how materials were used, but also in the basic layout and structure. The Usonians also used unpainted wood siding and panels inside and out. Almost without exception, the materials list mainly consisted of wood, concrete, brick and glass. Very few if any surfaces in these homes were painted.

Below are a couple of pictures of Usonian designs I like, the Melvyn Maxwell Smith house and the Pope-Leighy house. Usonian homes are scattered across the country and I highly recommend visiting one that is open to the public if you have the opportunity.

A question I have wrestled with for several years is: If a customer wanted a Usonian style home, to what extent would you emulate the original design and what types of finishes could be substituted but still achieve the same feel? In the design, there would have to be some changes to the layout itself as some of Wright’s spaces were too small to meet today’s building codes. I believe most people would also want some changes to kitchens and bathrooms as Mr. Wright’s were typically small and basic.

Also, what finishes would you use? If money is not an issue, then you could utilize the same types of finishes used in the original homes, specifically lots of natural wood. But, I believe most people could not afford to do this. So, would it be acceptable to utilize modern finishes in a home that has the same basic spatial feel of a Usonian? It is quite the quandary.

Even though compromises will most likely be necessary in creating a modern Usonian, I do hope to someday be able to work with a client in pursuit of such a home. For I have always felt that Wright’s Usonian homes were his best and most livable designs.


  1. What building codes would limit the size of a room for a residential occupancy? Tks.

    1. Most building codes do specify a minimum square footage for various areas in a home. However I feel that it is the occupants who would want the rooms to be at least slightly larger than as they were designed in Wright's Usonian homes.