Instant House

A blog tribute to the manufactured, mass-produced, modular and kit homes that grace the American landscape.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian Homes

Frank Lloyd Wright

Usonian Homes  
Imagine you’re a famous architect, and you’ve just designed two masterpieces—hallmarks of your career.  You’re known as an architect for the rich and well to do.  You’re notorious for running over-budget and not always listening to clients.  What would you say when a young couple of very modest means approached you and asked you to design a house for the “average” person?  If you’re Frank Lloyd Wright you’d say…FINALLY!  In the final third of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life and career, he devoted a large portion of his output to designing homes for average people, with the goal of the entire cost of the house (including furnishings) to be under $5,000 (excluding the price of the land)—about $100,000 in today’s dollar value.

Jacobs House - View from back yard
The History
In 1936, Herbert Jacobs and his wife (a journalist and author) approached Wright about designing a house for them.  Rather than look at this task as a “how the hell am I going to fit in this budget” problem, Wright chose instead to view it as a creative challenge—how could he boil down everything he believed about architecture into a modest home with a modest cost?  Despite the multitude of the “Usonian” houses he built, he never quite hit the $5,000 mark—though he came very close a few times.   And what’s with that name?  It’s short for United States of North America, and he changed the word form to Usonia—his word for an entire reformed American society, not just architecture for the common man.  He subsequently built an entire philosophy around this idea, including plans for an entire decentralized city.

Jacobs House - View From Street
The Usonian Model
Wright realized that the way Americans live had changed—and sadly, domestic architecture had not.  (It still hasn’t.)  People did not usually have live-in servants, they did not dine formally, they loved their cars, and above all—they valued their privacy in an increasingly cramped world.  Subsequently, Wright’s Usonian homes had no formal dining room, a carport replaced the garage, the kitchens were compact and flowed into the living spaces, and the house generally turned away from the street with the large windows facing the backyard.  The houses lacked basements and attics—these were useless spaces that people hid their junk in.  (Guilty.)  If Wright were to visit one of our developments of McMansions today, he would probably burn it down.  (Warning:  Rant to follow.)  The ugly two-car garage door sticking out like a bucked tooth, the neo-colonial ornaments that remind us of southern plantations, the useless two-story foyer that does nothing but drain heat, the formal dining room that serves as a dumping place for mail and other papers (but cleaned off twice a year for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner), a needlessly oversized kitchen that hardly gets used, and the large windows that face the street and invite people to cover them for privacy, closing out light in the process and turning the entire house into a hermetically sealed cave.  And then the master bath—oh the master bath.  I have had apartments smaller than some of these master baths.  It’s a BATHROOM.  You POOP there—why does it need to be the size of a Toyko condo and include more crystal and brass plating than your local Hilton lobby?  These are things Wright worked to eliminate—and yet, we wonder why people are in debt up to their eyeballs mortgaging these McTrashHeaps two and three times.  And these McPlantations are usually stick-built—often under the guise of being “custom” to justify the extra cost.  “We picked that chandelier out ourselves.  The house is custom!!!!”  News flash:  picking the color of your bathroom and requesting granite countertops doesn’t make a house “custom” any more than picking what flavor toothpaste you use makes your mouth custom.  I remember going into these McNightmares of people I went to school with and seeing almost no furniture—because families were paying all their money for the pile of lumber and aluminum siding and the address in the “good” neighborhood!  And our school district wasn’t even that good!!!!!  (Rant: over.)  The Usonian houses weren’t perfect, but talk to anyone who lived in one and they will remark that they were surprisingly efficient, even if you didn’t have an attic to hide the Christmas ornaments in.
When did this 2,000 square foot tasteless monster become the "standard" for American homes?
Jacobs House Site/Floor Plan
The Jacobs House—The First
The Usonian houses were stick-built, but there were prefabricated elements and other non-traditional construction techniques.  In the Jacobs house, Wright pioneered three then-revolutionary construction techniques—board and batten walls, a planning grid (visible), and radiant under-floor heating. The simple board and batten walls eliminated a lot of costly and time-consuming finishing work—while still giving the house some insulation (though not much) and aesthetic appeal.  The grid system standardized measurements and made the workmen’s job easier.  The under-floor heat was the forerunner of today’s radiant floor heat.  This abolished radiators that were costly and took up valuable space.

Bazett House Site/Floor Plan
The Bazett House—The Jacobs House With a Twist  
Wright quickly realized that the planning grid made things simpler for the contractors, but also allowed for the de-right-angleization (yup, that's me inventing words again) of the house.  If the workmen were following a grid, does it matter if the grid is a square?  Why not a rectangle?  How about a hexagon?  The Bazett House is just that—the Jacobs House built on a hexagonal grid.  This house also has a small guest cottage on the other side of the carport.  Both houses are remarkable examples of a basic Usonian house that ends up being exactly what the family needed—a small, efficient house with aesthetic appeal. 

Bazett House Approach

Bazett House "Prow"

The Next Usonian Update:  The Solar Hemicycle Homes!


  1. Found your article at random and enjoyed it. Thanks.

    Though Wright still missed that cooking would become a social activity.

  2. Enjoyed your article and rant. I feel the exact same way about houses today...ugly, huge...why do people want to live in "hotels"?? I abhor these huge monstrosities. Anyway, thanks!