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.

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Window Rough Opening Moisture Management – The Movie

We recently wrote a piece on Moisture Management in the Window Rough Opening that I blogged about in December.  That article in its entirety can be downloaded at http://www.mtidry.com/news/windowRO.pdf.  The article gives specific instructions on how to protect the window rough opening against moisture and air intrusion, and it is filled with illustrations on how to accomplish the task.  However, many people like to learn from video so we have produced a movie on the entire process.  You can view Window Rough Opening Moisture Management — The Movie,  in our YouTube library.

Most quality modern windows do a fairly effective job of keeping moisture and air out of the building.  The problem usually lies at the installation stage.  Proper procedures are not used to correctly prepare the window rough opening to keep moisture and air out, and to quickly (that’s the key word) drain moisture that does enter the window rough opening.  Now you can get our take how to correctly prepare the window rough opening by reading the article and watching the video.  Those are my thoughts, as always, I welcome yours!

Window RO Moisture Management Components

This is a top-down view of a window rough opening with moisture management.

We will be featuring a series of articles on moisture management headaches in the building envelope over the next couple of months.  Watch for a piece on parapet walls coming soon.

 

 

 

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.