Frank Lloyd Wright Goes Camping!

Back Story

 

While visiting the Phoenix area, my wife and I decided to see Taliesin West. As a lover of most things related to architecture, it was a “no brainer.” It’s also a “must see” if you are interested in Frank Lloyd Wright, and if you have followed this blog in the past, you know that I am afflicted with “Frank Fever.”

 

Having lived most of my life in the Midwest, I have seen many of Wright’s architectural projects. Mason City, Iowa, is close to where I grew up, and my parents made me aware of the Stockman House and the Park Inn Hotel as Wright designs. I’ve been to Taliesin in Spring Green, and visited and photographed many other Wright buildings and viewed examples of his furniture and other assorted designs in museums so I really wanted to see Taliesin West!

 

Finding the place made me very thankful for Google Maps. While one might think that simply getting on Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard in Scottsdale is a simple solution to getting there, it’s only part of the story. You actually have to turn off onto a small road called Taliesin Drive, and the Taliesin signage is not very visible. However, it wasn’t a problem for us because Google Maps had it right, and I just followed the little blue dot!

 

Most of the structures are not easily seen from Taliesin Drive. It’s a combination of Wright’s organic architecture (things are designed to coexist with the land they are on) and the growth of desert vegetation since the buildings were originally constructed. We were directed to a parking spot and then walked a short ways to the bookstore where we purchased tickets for one of the 90-minute tours that begin every half hour. (Tour information at http://www.franklloydwright.org/taliesin-west/plan-a-visit.html).

 

Wright first visited Arizona to consult on the design and construction of the Arizona Biltmore in 1927. The architect of record, Albert Chase McArthur, hired him as a consultant because of his work with the “textile block” construction method. Chase ultimately employed a variation of this technique, the Biltmore Block, and there is an air of Frank Lloyd Wright about the building because of it. I believe that Wright’s four month stint in the Sonoran Desert opened up a new world of possibilities to him at a time when he was greatly in need of a fresh start.

 

Wright was always a controversial figure. Intelligent and head strong, he tended to do things his way, and his battles with clients and peers are well know as was his penchant for romantic affairs. Beginning in 1911 with the construction of the original Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, an especially tumultuous series of events rocked his life. His paramour, Mahma Cheney, her children and several others were murdered at Taliesin East and a fire tied to the event destroyed part of the structure. The early 1920s were marked by two divorces and the death of his beloved mother, a new affair with a married woman that resulted in an arrest for violation of the Mann Act, another fire at Taliesin East and an assortment of business problems. It seemed as if Wright’s life was due for a remodel – enter Arizona!

 

While I have no factual evidence that a light bulb went off in Wright’s head once he saw the Sonoran Desert during the Biltmore consultancy, I think there is a real probability that he saw the area as an attractive venue for a fresh start. Wright had gone to new territories before to regenerate, and the desert certainly presented a very diverse set of challenges and opportunities compared to the Midwest. It was a blank canvas of sand and rock where he could try out his organic theory of architecture and see how it fit with a desert environment, and he could do it in a place that was relatively free from the press and public scrutiny.

 

Wright married Olgivanna Lazovich in 1928, and they honeymooned in Phoenix. Olgivanna was a key player in the formation of the Fellowship and the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. 1932 was the first year of the Fellowship and shortly thereafter they began wintering in the Phoenix area in makeshift accommodations. By 1937 Wright purchased the land where Taliesin West now sits on the west edge of Scottsdale.

 

For the first few years, Wright, Olgivanna and the members of the Fellowship were basically camping out in the desert. They would travel by caravan from Wisconsin, erect canvas structures in the desert and camp. They would spend the days studying and once the land was purchased, erecting more permanent structures that would eventually become Taliesin West. Even though members of the Fellowship were paying a substantial sum to learn from the master, they were expected to work hard as laborers as well as participate in everyday chores like food preparation, site maintenance, etc. It couldn’t have been an easy existence! In the spring they would pack everything up and return to Wisconsin for the summer.

 

Taliesin West Today

 

The buildings of Taliesin West do have a flavor of “camping out” about them. For many years the buildings had canvas for a roofing material. Wright made this material choice because the white canvas would let in light. Eventually, the canvas was covered with translucent white acrylic panels. Today there is an ongoing debate as to what to do with the roofs.

 

The buildings have definite similarities to the majority of Wright’s creations: they are low-slung, they are meant to blend in with the land on which they reside, and they are composed of native materials. In some sense they would not be unfamiliar to native populations that inhabited the Southwest hundreds of years ago.   One of the buildings in even referred to as the “Kiva”. Another factor that visitors to other Wright sites would find familiar is the compressed entryways of some of the buildings. They seem almost “claustrophobic” as you pass through, but they lead into large, open areas that feel like a breath of fresh air. I think this is exactly what Wright wanted visitors and occupants to experience!

 

The docents giving the tours are extremely knowledgeable, and there is much to see and a great deal to learn about Wright, Olgivanna, the Fellowship and Taliesin West. From the ancient petroglyph carved into a rock that Wright adapted into the “Clasped Hands” logo for the Fellowship to the amazing acoustics of the Cabaret Theater, there is a great deal to learn and much to enjoy at Wright’s desert oasis called Taliesin West.

A1-Taliesin-West

 

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.

Resources:

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.

The Green “Blowback” Effect

A recent study initiated by the EPA and conducted by the Institute of Medicine indicated that unintended and potentially serious health risks could be the result of too much “weatherization.”  The report stated, “Even with the best intentions, indoor environmental quality issues may emerge with interventions that have not been sufficiently well screened for their effects on occupant safety and health.”

MTI has made this point many times in presentations that we have done, and our AIA/CES courses, “Breaking the Mold…” (MTI409) and “Don’t Waster Your Energy…” (MTI509), detail the sustainability and health risks that careless weatherization can cause.  Don’t get me wrong, we are not against saving energy through tightening buildings, but like the report from the IOM, we feel that planning and coordination of efforts need to take place first.

For too long, building has been done in a compartmentalized fashion.  All the parties involved tended to “do their own thing” rather than working as a team.  With a plethora of new materials and methods in the construction world, holistic building is a must!  Architects, specifiers, engineers, contractors, and manufacturers of building materials need to be on the same page.

For example, entrapped moisture in the building envelope has skyrocketed over the last 25-30 years (a time period following the first energy crisis of the 1970s).  Why, because better windows, more and better insulation materials, more sealants, more unintended vapor barriers, etc. were being used without much thought to unplanned consequences.  When you seal the building envelope too tight, you get moisture issues.  You also get a building that has less fresh air injected into the living environment.  The IOM report states, “By making buildings more airtight, building owners could increase indoor-air contaminant concentrations and indoor-air humidity.”  This could lead to mold and rot issues and poor indoor air quality.

When you tighten the building envelope, you must know how all the materials and techniques are going to work or not work together, and then include materials and methods to counteract any negative outcomes such as entrapped moisture.  In most cases you need to include effective building envelope moisture management systems.  You also need to work with the manufacturer of these systems to make sure you have the right products and design for your specific details.  That’s why the architects, specifiers, contractors, and building owners need to be on the same page.

Those our my thoughts, I welcome yours!

*I have added some pictures from a house built in the 1960s that show how buildings used to be able to breathe.  Notice how clean and dry the wood looks after the old siding was torn off.  There is no rot or water-staining, not even next to the window, and the window is a bathroom window.  Air was able to get behind the siding and into the building envelope to keep it dried out.

Of Parapets and Peril

MTI has put together a series of articles on “special moisture management problem areas.”  The first of these articles was the Window Rough Opening piece we blogged about last time.  This month we are making available “Moisture Management of Parapet Walls.”  The following text is an excerpt from that article.  The entire piece can be downloaded at http://www.mtidry.com/news/ParapetWallArticle.pdf.  You can also find links to this article and the previous “Moisture Management in Window Rough Openings” on our News an Views page at http://www.mtidry.com/news/index.php.

Parapet walls – what are they good for?  Parapet walls perform a number of important functions:

  • They can be designed in various shapes to create a desired façade
  • They can be designed to hide roof top equipment (AC units, etc.)
  • They help prevent roof edge blow off by diverting air flow up, over and away from the roof edge.
  • They can be a stable termination point, for roof edges and flashings.

However, even though parapet walls perform a number of important functions, they are moisture management headaches!

The phrase ‘Out of sight out of mind” is, unfortunately, the rule of the day with construction details that are not easily accessible.  Parapet walls fall into this category.   The required timely maintenance is neglected because of this and regrettably, the need for maintenance becomes apparent only as a result of a failure such as a leak.  On top of this, parapet walls have a rather rough life since they are subjected to wind, dramatic temperature changes, moisture from three sides and roof system stresses.  The result is a construction detail that is both neglected and abused.

The answer to the question “Why do parapet walls fail?” seems obvious.  The solution is just as obvious – design them to be better and maintain them properly.

The most fundamental rules of moisture management “Keep moisture away from, off of and out of a construction detail” and “Move moisture away as quickly as possible” always apply.  However, two additional practices should be employed.  First, use good moisture management design and identify and isolate the moisture risk zones in such a way as to separate high risk from lesser risk.

Like all structures a parapet wall suffers the fate of its roof – the coping.  Failure of the coping is closely followed by wall and interior failure.  Use the link above to access the entire article with proposed solutions to the parapet moisture management dilemma.Adobe House with Parapet

Leaky Windows — Are We Blaming the Wrong Thing?

One area of the building envelope that catches a lot of grief for being a “leak” problem is the window.  However, most quality windows of the 21st Century are extremely well built and probably aren’t the cause of window area water and air leaks.  If windows are properly installed, the majority of the leaks blamed on windows will probably disappear.  We need to focus on the window rough opening to solve the problem.

MTI recently wrote an article on this issue.  Here are some of the highlights:

  • Exterior building envelope construction systems (roofs and walls) often fail in the detailing of openings, projections and transitions.
  • The need for holistic building is imperative.  Each party involved needs to know how their task, and materials used to complete that task, impact the final result.
  • When a potential problem isn’t addressed in one area, it often leads to failure in another.  A poorly prepared rough opening develops leaks that then get blamed on the window.
  • The bottom of the Window RO needs to be covered with waterproofing material that runs a minimum of 8″ up the sides; there needs to be a back dam; and the sill needs slope-to-drain to the outside.
  • There needs to be a drainage plane at the bottom of the window RO.
  • There needs to be a moisture diverter above the window RO that moves moisture away from the RO into the building envelope drainage plane.

MTI is not the only entity to have made these points recently.  Brett Newkirk, P.E. has authored an article in the Winter 2010 issue of Applicator magazine entitled “Forestall Sill-Flashing Failure.  His premise is that many of the techniques we are currently using to protect against moisture failure in and around the Window RO are actually causing the problems we are trying to avoid.

Below are some MTI drawings of the procedure for properly protecting the Window RO.  If you would like a copy of the MTI article by our CEO, John Koester, you can download it at http://www.mtidry.com/news/windowRO.pdf.

Victorian Windows – Beautiful and Functional

There are so many things in life that we take for granted, and windows in older buildings are probably high on that list.  Most towns and cities in the U.S. have areas where homes from the Victorian era still exist, and we probably all have driven by them and been struck by the ornate features employed in their construction.  But how many of us have actually stopped and wondered why?  Most of us probably just assume it was a decorative touch and left it at that.

I believe there was a designed purpose that went beyond simple ornamentation.  The decoration above and around these windows was very functional.  It was there to move the water away from the top and sides.  Door and window penetrations in buildings are some of the most difficult details in buildings to moisture-proof.  By creating architectural details that moved water away from the top and sides of windows and doors, architects and builders of 19th Century buildings created structures that were more sustainable.  Why haven’t we continued with this practice on a much greater scale?

Many modern buildings have made it too easy for moisture to enter the building envelope.  There are too many windows and doors that have little above them to keep water from running into the opening where it can more easily penetrate the seams at the top and sides of the opening.  Also, overhangs have disappeared or been diminished allowing water to run directly down the building facade until it finds a crack or seam to penetrate and enter the building envelope.  If we aren’t going to protect the exterior of a building from moisture penetration, we had better equip the building envelope with tools to get the penetrating moisture out quickly!  Drainage planes and weeps, if correctly selected and correctly installed, will do this.

Take a look at the accompanying photos and notice the details used in an earlier time that have allowed these structures to have a long life.  In the near future I will be presenting more information on a product that goes inside the building envelope but functions like the details above the windows in these photos.  Those are my thoughts, I welcome yours!

 

Drainage Planes, Weeps and Motorcycles

I love to ride my Harley!  It’s a great stress reliever to role through the countryside; on a bike you can truly feel the world.  You can actually smell, feel and hear nature, not just see it through the car window.

That leads me to a revelation that I had while riding in the rain last August.  Riding a motorcycle in the rain is a lot like moisture management in the building envelope.  Consider the following scenario:

It’s a nice sunny day, so I decide to go for a motorcycle ride.  Being an experienced motorcyclist, I always have raingear in my saddlebags because it’s summer and anything is possible!  As I move through the countryside, I notice that the sky is darkening, and a storm is imminent so I pull over and put on my rain suit.

In a matter of minutes, the rain starts.  It’s light at first but soon becomes heavy, and it’s coupled with a driving wind.  Rain is forced around my windshield and into my eyes greatly limiting my ability to see the road.  Water cascades off my helmet and runs down the back of my neck soaking my shirt.  The water on the highway flies upward leaking into my boots through the seams and around the tongue.  To make matters even worse, it’s a hot, humid day so beads of condensation start to form on the inside of my rain suit making for an increasingly miserable ride!  Obviously, even though I thought I was prepared for rain, I hadn’t looked at all possibilities.  So what did I learn?

In analyzing the situation I realized I had only looked at a part of the rain vs. rider problem, and in doing so, had left several other points of water penetration unprotected.   I realized there were several single solutions that had to be used in concert to solve the “hole/whole” problem.

  • Wearing a rain jacket with a hood under my helmet would keep the water from running down my back.
  • Wearing goggles would keep driving rain from limiting my visibility.
  • Using waterproof over boots would keep my feet dry.
  • Finally, the condensation problem could be solved by purchasing a rain suit with vents that allow for air movement under the suit.

Handling moisture problems in the building envelope is much the same.  It takes a holistic/systemic approach to solve the problem.  There isn’t a single fix in most cases, especially if the moisture issues are multiplied or take place over an extended period of time.  The more protective elements you incorporate into the moisture management system, the more likely you are to prevent permanent building envelope failure.

We need to get all parties on the same team.  Architects, specifiers, contractors and owners need to work together, and they need to work with moisture management experts to create the right solution for their specific building.  Don’t just trust a sales force to give you the right fix.  Work with companies that are willing to give you individual attention and actually take your project’s unique details into account.

Those are my thoughts, I welcome yours!