A 21st Century building project will probably not get off the ground if it isn’t tied to sustainable design, and most of us would agree, “That’s a good thing!” But building and architecture during the late 19th and most of the 20th Century were not driven by any national push to be sustainable and environmentally friendly. So did Frank Lloyd Wright, one of that time period’s most influential architects, build sustainability into his buildings? It really depends on how you interpret his designs.
Wright was a major proponent of organic architecture. This school of thought believes that architecture should reflect nature, and that organic design should put humans, and the buildings they inhabit, into a harmonious coexistence with nature. Wright’s love for nature came, at least in part, from growing up in rural Wisconsin. His designs sought to incorporate nearby, natural materials when possible, and to use them in a way that allowed their natural beauty to show through. Wood wasn’t covered with paint; stone shouldn’t be plastered over; let buildings appear to be emerging from the land where they are situated. Many of his projects, including his own home, Taliesin, used local material. Taliesin, located on a hill overlooking the Wisconsin River, features locally quarried limestone and plaster made with sand from the banks of that river. By using natural material obtained nearby, transportation costs and fuel use were greatly reduced. By limiting what was painted, fewer chemicals entered the living space. both of these are sustainable practices.
Another sustainable idea Wright incorporated into many of his buildings was thermal mass walls. This practice aims at reducing heating and cooling costs because a large volume of masonry material has the capacity to store thermal energy for extended periods of time. Wright also used a lot of glass for natural lighting. He combined this use of glass with a large overhang on the roof. This large overhang did two things that align with sustainability. First, they shaded the windows so that the building would stay cooler in the summer, and they moved moisture (in the form of rain) out and away from the windows and walls so that there was less external moisture penetration of the building envelope.
Not everything Wright designed turned out to be a study in sustainable perfection. Often the windows designed to let in and utilize natural light, also let in the wind, cold and rain. This happened because the union between the wall and the window was not taken into account by Wright’s design nor by his instruction and supervision; it just wasn’t that important to him. Projects like his Freeman House, where concrete block was manufactured on site, often turned into disasters of cost overruns and product failures; good sustainable design, but poor sustainability from a supervision and implementation standpoint. Even his architectural gem, Fallingwater, literally fell apart because of poor material and bad engineering of the cantilevered decks.
So what can we conclude about sustainability from a study of Frank Lloyd Wright? In my opinion, he was a true architectural genius, and many of his ideas were and are good, environmentally sound, sustainable practices. Where he failed in the realm of sustainability was in his lack of supervision and follow-through. I get the impression that at a certain point his mind became bored with the mundane world of follow-through and follow-up. His genius was racing on toward the next great design. We can all take away something from this that too often rears its ugly head, even today. All parties involved in a building project need to be involved at all stages of a project. Everyone’s input is necessary and important, and we can’t walk away from the building process just because we are done with the design. Does the design translate from the conceptual to the practical? Are we on the project looking to see that our design works and is it being followed correctly? Is the supervision on the jobsite ever-present and effective? Are the materials we’ve specified working together properly and doing what they were marketed to do; and if not, are we making the necessary changes? These nuts-and-bolt, mundane issues are as important to sustainability as the design itself.
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