Wednesday, November 9, 2011

More….Building a Modern Usonian

I have been thinking more about the possibility of building a modern Usonian home. As I said before, I have pondered this question many times over the past few years. I have been thinking about what modifications would need to be made to Wright’s general Usonian design criteria, not only to accommodate modern building codes but also to be more compatible with today’s lifestyle as well as the owner’s expectations. Below is an example of a modernized floorplan.

A Usonian style home is a design that might still be considered radical, even today. Realistically, only people who are familiar with Wright or who are very interested in modern design might possibly be interested in pursuing such a home. I love Wright’s Usonian designs for their beauty and simplicity as well as their uniqueness. And, I think there are other people out there who feel the same way; who would be willing to make some sacrifices to live in such a unique home.

One of the biggest issues for someone considering building a Usonian style home would have to be cost. In Wright’s day, these homes always exceeded their budget. Because of extensive wood finishes and the small living area, I believe a Usonian style home would be very expensive compared to other homes on a square footage basis. This is important for financing and for potential resale, someday. Ideally, the owner will not need financing and would never want to sell the home. But, the reality for most people is they will need to finance the home and they may someday need to sell the home.

Wright utilized natural wood siding and paneling extensively in his original designs. While wood is still available, such extensive use would be fairly expensive. This is another area where compromises may be considered. If the budget is not an issue, then wood finishes would not be a problem. But, if the budget is a concern, what materials might be substituted? Options might include stucco or cement siding on the exterior and drywall or stucco with wood accents on the interior.

Another consideration is the floorplan. Most people might find Wright’s original Usonian designs too small. They are certainly smaller than what is typical today. I believe most people would be happy if the size of a new Usonian home was increased slightly. Specifically, the size of the kitchen, bathrooms and bedrooms might need to be a little larger. I personally don’t see an issue with minimally increasing the size of a design. The size of the hallways and doorways would also need to be increased in order to meet current building codes.

Some additional changes will be required to some structural elements in order to meet current building codes. Wright supported some roof sections of his Usonian homes in unconventional ways that would not meet code requirements. I believe these changed can be accomplished without too much deviation from the original designs, but would require some structural engineering analysis to satisfy most code officials.

But, in the end, by working through some considerations and around problematic issues, I believe that a modern Usonian style home can be successfully built. Regrettably, Mr. Wright is no longer among us to create a new design himself. But by using his principles as a guide, there is an opportunity to create reasonable, modern variation.


  1. I have been thinking of this for a few years. One of the things Wright envisioned was the owner-builder using cement blocks to build and save on labor. This didn't work out too well because of the quality of the blocks available at the time.

    Today there are several CMUs designed specifically for dry-stack building - like the Haener Block, Vobb (which is certified to Miami-Dade Hurricane codes), etc. Even the current crop of "standard" CMUs are regular enough to use in dry stack - with rebar and grout.

    His habit of keeping 1 wall as a buffer to the outside world, would make earth-berming at least part of the north wall possible.

    But as you say, his designs are small, but an interesting place to start.

  2. Enjoyed reading your thoughts on updating Usonian design. I just came back from visiting the Rosenbaum house in Florence, Alabama. So many great spaces in that house. Got me thinking about an updated version. I think maybe the flat roofs have got to go! Anyway, enjoyed your thoughts and the sketch too.

  3. I've been thinking along these lines too, inspired by the 99% Invisible podcast where I learned about Usonian homes. The practical criticisms were useful to evolve it: kitchen is too small, overall size too small, hard to reconfigure. The modern kitchen is a gathering place and part of entertaining so it needs to be incorporated into the primary living space instead of partitioned off. It's too bad Wright wasn't able to control costs and incorporate feedback to get them closer to a usable standard home idea.

    Have your ideas evolved since this post with new floorplans? I am no architect, but thinking of incorporating ideas from Usonia and of ancient Roman homes, especially Pompeiian. Both emphasize a blocking wall separating the outside world from the family's living space.

    1. I have played with a couple other possible Usonian style plans over the past year, but nothing substantial. I may find some time this winter to put some more focus on this idea. It is really something I want to do!