Frank Lloyd Wright unknowingly tapped into sustainable principals a century before ecology could even define what sustainability meant.
Frank Lloyd Wright was born in 1867 and his vision of architecture was shaped by his rural Wisconsin upbringing and his ego. Louis Sullivan taught him to think for himself and abandon recreations of European styles. His response was to create a unique American architecture with its own grammar and style. Almost unknowingly he learned to use steel, glass, regional materials, integrated lighting and beauty to define his “Organic Architecture.” One notable technique was to place the structure on the side of a hill versus on top of the hill. The peak of the “Prairie Style” was the Wasmuth portfolio, published in Germany in 1911. Mr. Wright then published his autobiography in 1932 and that led to the next phase of his career.
I’m reposting this blog because it is the most popular on the site. I’ve updated a few things. Still producing the local U.S. Green Building Council home tours and trying to understand how to motivate the public. My work with the Greater Cincinnati Earth Coalition is trying to partner with other groups in the region to migrate to an “Earth Education Weekend.” I’m always available to answer any questions you have and to help your project come to life, 513-260-9025, [email protected].
(Boulter House photo by Thomas R. Schiff)
To survive in the depression, the Wrights founded an architecture school that brought young talent and ideas to the school. Most of the students had read his autobiography and agreed with his rejection of the traditional types and fashion of building. New materials had been created in World War 1 and they were being used by the architects of Europe, notably Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. In response to their claims that Wright was a washed up architect, Mr. Wright responded with Fallingwater which became the most famous modern residence. Wright’s integration of the landscape with the home was in marked contrast to Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoy which stands alone in a field. Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth Residence appears on first look to stand separate from the surroundings but the 100-foot tall maple to the south plays an integral part in shading the home during the summer.
At the same time Taliesin created the Usonian style of residential construction that reinvented radiant heat in the concrete floors and the lanai for outdoor rooms. Other cost-saving measures included one-floor designs with flat roofs with no attic, no basement or garage. Frank Lloyd Wright invented the ranch style home. These smaller footprint homes encouraged less tempered spaces and less household storage. The photo is of the Jacobs Residence 2 built in 1943. It is the most advanced FLW home with integrated solar hemi-cycle home that uses passive solar design and an earth berm on the north side along with fewer windows. But like our home the earth berm leaked and there is far too much glazing on the south side. We’ve found that the only way to stop the sun effectively is by using external shading. Bamboo shades fastened to the exterior of the glass during the summer. When we did that it immediately solved our solar heat gain problem. You’ll see exterior shading in Germany but it hasn’t caught on in the US. Another major advancement from Wright construction methods is to insulate and isolate the home from the earth berm and the ground. The Moothart Residence in Northside Cincinnati has 4″ of insulation under the floor slab and the Kinsman Residence also in Northside uses an insulated concrete form to construct the earth berm north side wall of their home. The Kinsman home has no furnace, it uses solar hot water generating panels to heat the home. It is naturally cooled by designing for natural ventilation.
Wright’s designs brought back designing for the path of the sun to warm and cool the homes as well as integrating landscape as a cooling and windbreak element.
A significant aspect of Wright’s clients was that they were so passionate about his architectural principals and even founded several communities of homes, shared resources and common spaces. I believe that needs to be done again. The Wright communities like Pleasantville in New York have now become like many other gated, isolated home community.
In the 1970s, the William Storrer book, which published the addresses and GPS coordinates, caused a resurgence of interest in Wright’s buildings since it made them easily found and visited. Wright’s grandson, Eric Wright, founded a sustainable architectural practice in Santa Monica CA.
When Janet and I purchased the Frank lloyd Wright Boulter House in Cincinnati, Ohio, it rekindled my interest in architecture. I had abandoned my architectural school studies at the University of Kentucky to work at my father’s advertising agency. My best studio in school was my study of Wright’s Fallingwater. Other favorite architects were Le Corbusier and Buckminster Fuller. For the first several years living in the home, we visited many Wright buildings and attended the annual conferences. But all wasn’t sunshine and rainbows at the Boulter House. It freaked Janet out! Here’s a photo of the Kudi Cap her sister made for her to deal with the violent extraction from the small colonial home we had lived in for almost 15 years. Janet dearly loved that home. I would sit out on the front steps and wonder how was I ever going to get out of that neighborhood. It all happened so quickly. One Friday I was cleaning out my office and took home a Cincinnati Business Courier issue that had an article about the Wright home going up for auction. The issue was a month old and the auction was the following week. I drove by the home on Tuesday, we visited Wednesday. That evening we added up everything we owned and inherited and came up with a number. Janet didn’t go with me to the auction on Thursday. Either did my realtor. I sat there tongue tied and unable to make a second bid. The home went for less than we agreed.
Janet tells me she could see how depressed I was and she couldn’t live with me like that. Over the weekend, I called the young man who won the auction and he was in a bind. He didn’t realize that the auction house added 10% to any bid amount and the person he was bidding for wouldn’t go the extra 10%. I offered him 3% and a week later we were the owners of the Boulter House. “Instantly famous,” Shirley Dombar, said of any Wright homeowner. Shirley was the wife of Ben Dombar who was the Taliesin architect that supervised the construction of the home in 1956 and negotiated with the Cincinnati building department.
Visited the Farnsworth House May 12, 2006.
Visited Villa Savoy November 2006, built in 1929.
Looked to the past for architectural history and understanding, Greek myths and “The Ten Books on Architecture” by Vitruvius.
It was fun to travel and learn again about architecture. Starting with FLW and then learning more about the changes after the World Wars, ending with the Mid-Century Modern movement. Wars always give us new materials and lots of them. Architects use those materials to build less costly homes and buildings. Large plate glass created the outside-in. When steel was invented it allowed long span bridges and skyscrapers. While browsing the Milwaukee airport book store I found a book by James Marston Fitch about the effects the space program had on architecture. It was a significant turning point in my understanding of architecture. A more holistic view of building systems and how orientation, materials and technology can make them more efficient. This was the beginning of the home teaching me new things and not a rehash of Wright’s design and philosophies.
I wanted to grow my marketing communications firm’s building material clients and in 2005 joined a national organization for architectural, engineering and construction association called the Society for Marketing Professional Services. On April 10, 2007, I attended a SMPS presentation by Jerry Yuldeson, USGBC Fellow, about Green Marketing and that is what inspired me to learn more about the USGBC. I volunteered for the local USGBC chapter and served on their board for two years.
Visited Palo Saleri’s Arcosanti and spent the night there. This is when I started to realize that the “Organic Architecture” movement that saw a resurgence in the 70s had slowly decreased in significance. This was all that was left of a potential new city in the desert based on Soleri’s architectural philosophy of structure mirroring the governing body. The only thing built was the heart of the muti-story community building envisioned by Soleri. Soleri worked briefly at Taliesin West as a cook since Wright found him challenging his authority. “There can be only one Prima Donna,” Wright said.
It was the strange and foreign language the architects and engineers were using describe Green Buildings at the USGBC Cincinnati Chapter meetings. So I decided to study for the LEED AP exam. I registered my office to help me work through the requirements. It’s about the only way for a layman to pass the exam. I was struggling with the documentation required for a project when I got a job writing about the LEED Platinum Fernald Preserve. They gave me all of their documentation. It was from that resource that I finally learned how to pass the test. It was 2007, and the test was getting much harder in 2009. I started to teach classes to pass the test, and eight of them were held before June 2009. Continually using the office I was in as documentation examples along with the Fernald paperwork, I was able to learn what it would take to achieve a high level of LEED.
This is when I finally realized that Green Buildings had become more important to me. Never being very spiritual and not having a purpose in life had bothered me but I didn’t see any way out. The holistic way that the USGBC taught me about the full spectrum of mankind’s effect on the environment, gave me a perspective grounded in reality. I learned that the five categories of LEED, site, water, energy, materials and indoor air quality had equal effects on our environment. I learned the scientific foundations for why all five were equally important. From site I learned about the reasons for urban life and the best practices for transportation. I learned about combined sewer and stormwater overflows going right into our rivers and lakes during a storm. I learned that energy wasn’t the only thing important and that saving money wasn’t the only point. I learned how to evaluate materials and what harmful chemicals they can contain. I found a purpose in life and I chose to use my marketing skills to help make changes in the community, the city, the state, the nation and the world. Telling that story is why I’m here today.
Registered the Boulter House for LEED for Homes 2008.
2008-9 Taught Renewable Energy Classes at Cincinnati State. Melink Corporation tours.
In 2009 Al Gore published “Our Choice.”
In 2010, I moved the office to downtown Cincinnati, and because I had a concrete parking lot (low heat island effect) landscaping, a shower and more control over the space, we were able to achieve LEED Platinum. It’s the Greenest project in the Greater Cincinnati area with the highest number of LEED points. The office was even included in a GreenBiz article on the top ten Greenest Projects in the world! I’m flattered by being included with the Bullitt Center, the Greenest Building in the world.
2011 Certified LEED Platinum Greensource Cincinnati.
2014 Visited Shakertown in August.
2014 Certified LEED Dovetail Solar & Wind.
In 2015 I traveled to the USGBC Headquarters in Washington DC. Their new office was LEED Platinum 2009 Version like mine. So much of the visual effect of a sustainable building is part of the design and functionality of an office and I wanted to see first hand the best in class. I wasn’t disappointed. I was disappointed in the lack of employees at the headquarters. The USGBC is going through some growing pains and may have bit off more than they can chew. On the other hand much of the work of the USGBC and the GBCI (the certification, testing and accreditation arm) can be done remotely. I marveled at the detailed documentation and accuracy of the USGBC’s work when I certified three projects. I figure there must be an army somewhere but it isn’t at their headquaters. Jerry Yuldeson, who was one of the founders of the USGBC has left the organization and is now president of Green Globes. Green Globes is another sustainable building certification system that is much easier and depends on professional signatures to demonstrate that the requirements have been met versus submitting documentation. Jerry’s new book, “Reinventing Green Buildings,” describes some of the challenges he sees with the USGBC. I feel the USGBC will survive. The environmental sustainability organizations such as Cradle-To-Cradle, Permaculture and Living Building Challenge are advancing the cause.
The best idea I have had to promote Green Building is to hold home tours of significant Green Homes in the region. I learned this when in 2004 Janet and I along with an architect and a realtor that specialized in Mid-Century Modern homes formed Cincinnati Form Follows Function, cf3. It was fun to share our new FLW home with the group and get up to speed with Mid-Centry Modern from Charles and Ray Eames to Noguchi, Russel Wright, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Eero Saarinen, Willow Glen Atrium Eichler, and even local architects and builders Carl Strauss and Raymond Roush. We got to see many of the homes and created educational materials for display at local libraries. In the end I was disappointed in the Modern movement. It depended too much on plastic, cheap mass production and fashion. There was no underlying meaning to their design except to cater to individuals need for cheap housing and fashion. But it’s entirely different with the Green Home tours. Discussions aren’t about granite countertops and stainless steel appliances but insulation, HVAC systems, blower door tests and indoor air quality. Still all of these homes are incredibly beautiful and that’s included in the Living Building Challenge petals. Last year I included the Boulter House in the tour to attract attention but also to share the features of the home that are sustainable. We’ve done the calculations and the home is registered for LEED but we would need to install interior storm windows to the 450 square feet of glass in the great room and we’ve decided not to do that. We’ll just suffer through the dead of winter months and work on sealing the house so tightly that it requires an air-to-air heat exchanger.
And that brings us to Cradle-To-Cradle and the Living Building Challenge. The Cascadia Chapter of the USGBC in Northern California is a pioneering group of members that asked questions about what was the ultimate responsibility of civilization on the planet. It all came together when I listened to John Kricher, Professor of Biology Wheaton College, 2008 book “The Ecological Planet: An Introduction to Earth’s Major Ecosystems.” He teaches students the importance, power, and logic of organic evolution as an explanation for patterns of life both present and past, as well as how evolution has shaped the human species and its behavior, including development of moral values. Ecology, founded in 1970 along with the US Environmental Protection Agency, really didn’t have the tools available to answer the questions the public was asking about best practices for preserving species and managing human activities. The Living Building Challenge was the result of the Cascadia Chapter, and it currently is the most advanced environmental guidelines. LBC project cannot allow any carbon fuel combustion but you can have a fireplace. There are several banned substances such as PVC that aren’t allowed on the site. But probably the most difficult thing about LBC is the zero-water and waste requirement. All waste water must be treated to drinking water standards on site. All human waste must be composted on site. There is also a requirement you can meet for Cradle-To-Cradle, which means the building materials you use are so non-toxic that you could eat them. Ecology has taught us that an acre of healthy ecosystem provided more benefit to all the species on Earth than the limited benefit a mono-culture crop does for one farmer.
Living Building Challenge also requires that the site have a net-positive benefit to the ecosystem. That the site encourages the sustainability of other species, not just a limited number of humans. From touring the Painted African Dog House LBC project at the Cincinnati Zoo I came away feeling that they were building a space ship ark. A self-contained project that doesn’t depend on any other services and provides a positive habitat for other species.
All this is great for individuals that have the money to build sustainably. But Cincinnati’s Working in Neighborhoods Challenge goal is to build 50 net-zero affordable homes in Cincinnati. I’ll be involved in that effort.
We’re learning that eco-systems have a lot more to teach us about our place on this planet. Even artificial biophilic design can have a positive effect on humans. Photo from a National Geographic article titled, “This Is Your Brain on Nature.” Understanding the interactions of plants, insects and animals is difficult and time consuming. One half of the life on the planet is bacteria. And half of what’s left are ants. Our cities, our tranportation, our materials and our enviroments are far removed from appearing like any ecosystem on the planet other than the desert. There are many questions about what the future should look like. We have already cultivated all the easy to farm land. The oceans are turning into a global sewer. As the leaders of the sixth mass extinction, what questions must we ask going forward? A rural self-sustaining life style along permaculture principals may be the answer for a few but not for the planet.
I don’t know what the answer is but I do know I can’t do it alone. The community I’m creating around Green Homes in Cincinnati will make change. Last year, the local USGBC Chapter got a sustainability questionaire added to the Multiple Listing Service. Now realtors, appraisers and banks have a guideline to value sustainable features such as geo-thermal HVAC systems, triple-pane windows, added insulation and even a better blower door test which means the home is not draftly and uncomfortable. Also in Cincinnati their is a conscious community named Imago for the Earth. It’s a neighborhood of about 50 homes that includes several community owned green houses, a shared pick up truck and volunteers that maintain green space in the neighborhood. It’s refreashing to walk down the street and not see grass, grass and more grass. Front yards have native, adaptive plants and edible fuits and vegetables. I feel that’s a future of sustainabiltiy that everyone can get behind and have fun with. Every home tour I hold, I nearly cry when our guests are learning about real features and benefits that do improve the quality of their home versus meanless, wasteful, excessive, and outright poisionous to the environment “Homearama McMansions” that are built, promoted and finanaced by uneducated banks, muncipalities, government officials and the home building community whose sole goal is to cover as much space as possible for the least amount of money and stay out of jail. It’s what the uneducated public will buy because it’s hard wired into our brain to live in a larger home than we can afford, by a stream with grass surrounding it so we’ll have food to live by and can see any predators trying to get our cheese. With education and science we can make much better decisions, live less expensively and most importantly help other species survive along with us. Without a carbon tax, a water pollution tax and a placement of value on the existence of other species, there will be no change until the resources are depleted. But there is hope, Canada implemented the first carbon tax and their economy is doing just fine per an article titled “Does a Carbon Tax Work? Ask British Columbia” by Eduardo Porter in the New York Times March 1, 2016 , “The new Canadian government, headed by Justin Trudeau, seems ready to come on board, imposing some pan-Canadian minimum price. If the United States embraced a carbon tax as part of a comprehensive overhaul of its tax system, the path would be much easier.”
In conclusion I’d like to illustrate how I plan to make the Boulter House meet a mixture of Living Building Challenge, LEED Platinum and Passive House standards.
Site: Limit Growth, Urban Agriculture, Habitat Preservation, Car Free Living
There’s not much I can do about being .6 mile from a grocery store.
• Food: I plan to make the yard a Permaculture one in which I grow most of my vegetables and fruits.
Water: Net Zero Water, Ecological Water Flow
• Potable water: I plan on capturing the rain water on site and aquiring a fitration system so I can drink and bathe in it as well. The roof will be covered in some green roof patches, replacing the pavers I using now to hold the insulation down. Seven 60 gallon rain barrels will be installed on the gutters.
• The kitchen sink drain could be replaced with a bucket, the Eco-House here in Cincinnati does that. As well as the shower.
• Waste: Treating the human waste on site will be difficult. I’ll install a composting toilet.
Energy: Net Zero Energy
• HVAC: Solar panels that generate electricity will be installed. Solar hot water panels will be installed for heating the concrete floor and baseboard heat during the winter days. A pellet stove will be installed in the great room. Natural ventilation will be re-established the home. The upstairs glass partitions were added from the original plans. I’ll remove them to encourage natural ventilation. Geo-thermal wells will be dug to provide air conditioning. The only power requirement will be for pumps and fans. Batteries will be purchased to store excess energy.
• Hot Water: Solar hot water panels will be installed for the domestic hot water.
• Transportation: I’ll convert my 2000 Honda Insight to 100% electric.
• Cooking: Methane from compost could provide cooking fuel.
Materials: Red List, Construction Carbon Footprint, Responsible Industry (FSC), Appropriate Sourcing, Conservation and Reuse
• The new accordian windows will be of Forest Stewartship Council wood. They will replace the floor to ceiling height windows in the enclosed carport and the carports south facing windows.
• Waste will be reduced to approximately 8 oz per year per person. This will require 100% reuse of clothes and household items.
Indoor Air Quality, Health: Civilized Environment, Healthy Air, Biophilia
• The home will be sealed to Passive House standards and require an air-to-air heat exchanger to limit carbon dioxide and low/high humidity.
• Vestibules will be installed on the North and West entrances. Only non-toxic cleaning materials will be used.
Beauty: Beauty and Spirit, inspiration and Education
• A career architect from Taliesin West told me that, “All Wright homes are sustainable because they are so beautiful! They last a long time because we don’t tear them down.”
• It will have regular tours to promote sustainability.
• I’ll take a higher interest in understanding the eco-system and the fungus, insects and animals living in it.
Equity: Human Scale and Human Places
These upgrades will make the Boulter House Net-Zero Water, Energy and Waste. City water, sewer and power grid systems will be maintained but not used.
Now that I read over what I published in 2016, I’m impressed. But everything must come to an end and we are in the process of preparing the home for sale. I’m refinishing the south side of the home with translucent polyurethane. We’ll have saved up enough in a few years to get the major part of the refinishing done and so we can afford to by a new home, empty the Wright home and properly put it on the market. We’ll rent it out to cover expenses while it’s for sale. Whom ever purchases the home, I hope they love it as much as I do. The Boulter House has been friend, a mentor and a lover to me for almost 15 years. I’ll miss her but I can always visit!