Frank Lloyd Wright Architecture – Sustainable or Not?

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.


Frank Lloyd Wright:  His Philosophy of Architecture

Building Envelope Design Guide – Masonry Wall Systems

Wrights Taliesin Showcases “Organic” Architecture

USA Home and Garden:  Fallingwater

Frank Lloyd Wright overhang above many windows.


Daily Dose: College Football Stadiums

Add to TwitterCollege football stadiums aren’t often lauded as great architectural achievements; still, there are a few whose designs can alter and enhance the experience of the games – for both players and spectators. Michigan’s imposing Big House, Oregon’s deafening Autzen Stadium and Florida’s challenging Swamp all deliver unique game-day conditions.

UMich brick façade renovation

The Big House (University of Michigan Stadium) could aptly be renamed the Big Brick House, thanks to recent expansions and renovations that are slated to finish up this year. Hand laid brick – 1.2 million to be precise – was used to build an extensive arcade wall and rusticated lower level that makes visual reference to the Colosseum in Rome, Italy. A blend was created specifically for Michigan’s stadium and the layout computerized by designer Dave Lacovic to ensure the bricks were placed to create the most aesthetically pleasing effect.

Michigan crowd

The $227 million renovation also included expanding the stadium’s official capacity to 109,901, though it frequently tops 111,000 with band members and stadium staff in attendance. Built in 1927, the original capacity for this “Carnegie Hall of Sports” was a more modest 72,000. Michigan continues to dream big, as they’ve left the north and south ends open for future additions.

Autzen Stadium

Oregon’s Autzen Stadium doesn’t even approach Michigan’s capacity, but it can still pack a punch. Crowd noise; attributed to steep stands, proximity to the field, an overhanging roof and rowdy fans; has been measured at 127.2 decibels. To put that in perspective, a jet take off at a distance of 100 meters merits 130 dB. The human pain threshold is 120 dB. Yep. In 2003, a Michigan columnist wrote,

Autzen’s 59,000 strong make the Big House collectively sound like a pathetic whimper. It’s louder than any place I’ve ever been, and that includes The Swamp at Florida, The Shoe in Columbus, and Death Valley at Louisiana State. Autzen Stadium is where great teams go to die.

Ouch. The noise doesn’t seem to be keeping anyone away, however. Autzen has had a solid streak of 71 ticket sell-outs since 1999.

Gator fans

Last on our list is The Swamp in Gainesville, home to the Florida Gators. It’s known as one of the most difficult places to play, with a distinct and measurable home field advantage. (The past 20 years have shown a 113-13 home record, the best in the nation). Because the stadium was built on a shallow sinkhole, the field lies slightly below ground level. This – coupled with steep stands – only augments the warmth and humidity of Florida in the fall. And though it can’t quite match Autzen’s volume, The Swamp’s noise level is certainly disrupting and can make playcalls easy to miss. Last in this lineup, but not to be underestimated!

What are your favorite stadiums for college football? Let us know!

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Masonry Edge Storypole magazine, Vol 4 No 4. “The Big Brick House.”

Daily Dose: Masonry Facts

Today’s mini-Daily Dose brings you some fun facts about masonry from MCAA’s website:

  • Brick is man’s oldest manufactured product
  • Masonry does not emit toxins during a fire
  • Over 70% of the buildings in the world are built of masonry
  • Masonry’s life cycle is unsurpassed by any other building material
  • The Great Pyramid of Giza is over 5,000 years old and uses 2,300,000 blocks of stone
  • Many of the world’s significant architectural achievements were built with masonry

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Daily Dose: Brunelleschi’s Duomo

Add to TwitterThe “duomo” (dome) of Florence’s Santa Maria del Fiore is more than just a popular tourist attraction. It is also Filippo Brunelleschi’s (its designer’s) most lauded architectural achievement and was, until recent years and technologies, the largest dome in the world. At 143 feet in diameter and using over 4 million bricks, Brunelleschi’s duomo remains the largest masonry dome ever built.

Brunelleschi's Duomo

The above image shows the stunning red tiled duomo from the streets of Florence. As you can see, the rest of the cathedral’s façade is done in green and white marble, characteristic of Italian renaissance church architecture.

In 1418, the city of Florence held a competition for the design of the dome. Lorenzo Ghiberti (famed for his “Gates of Paradise” panels on the cathedral’s baptistry doors) and Filippo Brunelleschi were the primary contenders. Brunelleschi’s design triumphed and construction began. Since flying buttresses were not used in Florentinian architecture and all of the trees in Tuscany couldn’t provide an adequate amount of wood for traditional centring scaffolding, Brunelleschi had to invent a variety of techniques to make this enormous undertaking possible.

Duomo exterior

First, the dome rested on the drum and not the roof of the cathedral. Its double-shell design allowed it to support itself as construction progressed. The workers were able to sit on the inner shell while building the outer one, thus removing the problem of the dome supporting their weight. Brunelleschi had the bricks laid in the innovative herringbone pattern so that weight was redirected to the ribbed supports and not thrust directly downward to the ground. He also invented machines that were able to lift large stones during construction; these devices were valuable contributions to the masonry profession.

Today, visitors can hike up endless spiral staircases (I have never before – or since – experienced such vertigo!) and walk along the inside of the frescoed dome. They can also climb to the lantern at the top of the dome for a breathtaking view of the red roofs of Florence and the nearby campanile (bell tower). I highly recommend taking in this remarkable bit of history!

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Daily Dose: Ishtar Gate

Add to TwitterIt’s one thing to design, produce and build a 47′ high glazed brick tile gate in the 21st century. It’s quite another to do so in the 6th century BC. The images below are of the Ishtar Gate, built during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II (c. 575bc). The Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany is its current home.

ishtar gate

Ishtar Gate

This massive construction was the main entrance to the ancient city of Babylon. Mud brick masonry tiles make up the entire structure; the tiles were glazed to make the bright patterns and figures seen here. Three animal figures are repeated over the surface of the gate – lions, bulls and dragons. The lion was the symbol of the Assyrian goddess, Ishtar, for whom the gate was named. She was the goddess of fertility, love and war (she continued to be worshiped by the Romans as “Venus”) and many kings of Mesopotamia believed that their rise to power was contingent upon her personal involvement.


Lion Symbolizing Goddess Ishtar


Ishtar Gate

If you look at the top of the Ishtar Gate, you can see the decorative crenellations added by the builders. High quality craftmanship, as seen here, was only possible in societies that had significant agricultural success and surplus. This allowed individuals to develop their talents and specialize in a certain field, such as architecture or masonry work.

bull dragon combo

Bull and Dragon Tiles from Ishtar Gate

The bull and dragon tiles also on the Ishtar Gate represented the gods Marduk and Adad, respectively. King Nebuchadnezzar II was also known for restoring the temple of Marduk. His famed Hanging Gardens are one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

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Daily Dose: Lots o’ Brick

Add to TwitterI’m willing to bet you haven’t heard of the Jetavanaramaya Stupa. I’m also betting that it’ll take you more than a few seconds to work through the pronunciation… and that Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka (its location) will be just as much of a tongue-twister. Those marathon-length names, however, are child’s play in comparison to the actual dimensions of this brick giant.

Originally over 400 feet in height, this Buddhist monument was the third largest structure of the ancient world behind the Khufru and Khafra pyramids at Giza. It is made up of 93.3 million baked bricks, has a 6m deep foundation and took 27 years to build. Today, it’s one of the largest – if not the largest – structures made entirely from brick in the world. Its enshrined relic is said to be part of a sash tied by the Buddha. The Jetavanaramaya stupa and surrounding monastery ruins are owned by the Monks of Dhakkina Vihara.

Jetavanaramaya Stupa

Jetavanaramaya Stupa

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