postUsonian Project
There are four projects that offer prototyping opportunities for the postUsonian project: WorkConservatory; EcoSphere; my Bay Area Studio, and, a prototype of the first “postUsonian,” itself, which is now in market analysis and Design Development. The “study plans” for this first restatement of Usonian principles and objectives is scheduled for completion in mid-September 2004 providing a prototyping opportunity in early 2005. This is, of course the main goal; however, prototyping one or all of the other three projects will be informative to the postUsonian effort in several ways. These four options are explored below.
click on drawings/icons for further information
Prototype Options
True prototyping is rare in architecture. R&D and product development is performed by manufactures, of course, but usually on the component level of the system with little sensitivity to architecture nor intent to produce it. Most system level designs, in this field, have to work “one-off.” Some architects with some clients get to push the state-of-the-art. These are, usually, patronage sponsored, very high profile and expensive buildings that have their own peculiar constraints and risks. Developers, particularly with production housing, can learn and improve the breed, incrementally but consider themselves highly constrained by the market. Because the (so-called) industry is fragmented with organizational barriers between design, engineering, building, financing, sales, use and ownership, it tends to be conservative in approach making innovation slow. The process is also fragmented geographically and by size. There are few big players who play in many markets and who have the resources to do systematic R&D. Most of these large enough to do R&D suffer the symptoms of any large corporation, with a supply chain they cannot control, faced with strong local competition and the need to meet quarterly figures. They also suffer a low grade form of the innovator’s dilemma [rbtfBook] if innovation is a word that can be used at all in this field as it is presently constituted. This simply is not a business where innovation happens easily. Since the time of the Case Study Houses [link], there has been an almost total want of prototyping of any significance.
In 1988, I was sitting in the office of the head of strategic planning for GM. He was talking on the phone to a friend of his who was a recently retired and very angry GM engineer. They were talking about the difficulty GM had gotten into when they had rationalized their companies into new product groups. At the time of this discussion, Ford was killing them with an ad campaign that hit directly at this mistake. It showed a bunch of people outside an event waiting for their cars to be brought around from parking. GM cars of different brands came one after another and the owners were arguing with one each other whose car was whose - they all looked the same. Confusion reigned. Finally a totally distinctive car came up (a Lincoln, of course) and a couple, dressed completely differently from the rest, confidently stepped forward to claim it. The message was loud and clear. It was very embarrassing to GM. What made the episode particularly galling was that, under the sheet metal, the various brands in these groups (in the case of the add, Cadillac, Buick and Oldsmobile) were different. When the reorganization took place there remained enough power in the individual car companies to defeat component and manufacturing standardization and, thus, the very purpose of the move. At the end of the dialog, the head of strategy turned to me and, frustrated, said “we standardized the wrong things.” “They all look alike, but under the hood where the customer would no know or care, they are all different.” “We are not getting the economy-of-scale advantage we sought and we are getting killed in the market place for having no distinction between our brands.” In fact, this was so chronic that a couple of years later two brands that shared a platform had a large station wagon in common. One brand’s version sold like hot cakes and their factories could not produce enough. The other’s failed in their market and hardly sold at all. The technical differences between the two brand’s versions, that the customer could not see, were enough so that the successful brand could not backfill from the other’s unused factory capability. The platform never achieved enough production to be economically successful and the platform was not renewed after three years even though it was still selling well for one of the brands. To add insult to injury the reason the Ford product looked so distinctive was that they had not yet redone the Lincoln platform. GM had at least built a much more advanced platform. The difference between the two was striking - it looked like ten years. The detail, fit and sophistication of the GM products were clearly superior. Nevertheless, they looked like fools. Less you think they were fools let me assure you they were not. These were very smart folks who got caught up in their own size and organizational shoe laces. Bringing an eloquent product to market and fitting a time and economic circumstance that meets a buyer’s requirements is not easy. GM reorganized on a set of rational assumptions. They destroyed a network of internal work relationships that had taken generations to create and nearly paralyzed the corporation’s ability to produce. They pushed the use of technology and the technology of the car itself and lost their touch with their customer. They prototyped the cars but not the entire process of how the ValueWeb made up a marketplace.
This story illustrates the condition of housing today only, more or less, in reverse. Superficial differences of design - all competing and shouting - while on the component and build-process level most of it is all the same, all served up by local enclaves of power mixed with left-over cultural icons and myth. The modern house is essentially a creature of manufacturing assembled in the worst conditions possible. It would be like Buick selling you a car, buying components from all over multiple industries (based on the lowest bid) and having the local mechanic assemble it, one-off, in an open field. Neither GM’s approach in the 1980s, nor the way the housing industry functions today, works. Each case is different but what is in common is that the system design does not match the variety equation [link] of the customer and local conditions with the standardization (thus attenuation) requirements of the producers in the right way. This is what Lean Production principles and practices [link] seek to do. I was tempted to say “in the Wright way” because this one of the many problems the Usonians brilliantly solved for their time.
The prototyping process cannot be just the modeling of a thing - a specific piece of architecture as architecture is narrowly defined today. No, the prototyping process has to model the entire production and use cycles, in a location, solving both general and site specific problems in a way that feeds knowledge into a solution that can be adapted to many conditions across a broad, cultural, economic and ecological landscape. This is why several prototypes are required. Each has particular contributions to make to the postUsonian program. Each can be successful in their own terms and serve a specific time, place and circumstance with economy. It may take several, however, until all of the elements of the solution we seek are found.
The fact that each of these four candidates for prototype can serve a specific local need [link] takes a great deal of the risk and sunk costs out of the prototyping process. Each is sufficiently different from the other so, together, a broad range of architectural problems and solutions can be explored. Each has some grammatical element to add to the postUsonian pallet. Two of them are designed to be manufactured/built by lean methods in a variety places and circumstances. The features of each that pertains most to the postUsonian Project are outlined below.
click on the drawings/icons to go to the projects themselves
The WorkConservatory, I expect, will share many grammatical elements with the postUsonian, as well as, fabrication and construction methods. In size it will be smaller, however, a large WorkConservatory and a small postUsonian may come fairly close in actual square footage.
Home-work aspects will be common to both WorkConservatory and postUsonians. Many Usonians had areas for work. Wright always worked and lived in the same environment. Today’s solution, however, will require a far greater emphasis on this aspect of life-work integration than in the 30s to 50s period. EcoSphere is a living environment with a work-studio element. The Bay Area Studio is a work environment with a living and guest room element. In this regard, all four projects can inform one another.
The WorkConservatory will have many shop- fabricated components - both interior and structural - and an equal to or slightly greater portion of its work done locally and in the field. The postUsonian will be designed to be built this way or entirely owner-built in the field.
EcoSphere is a radical design. Radical in the way that Mr. Wright used the term meaning “to the root.” The form-factor of EcoSphere allows the study of a number of issues that a building employing more traditional forms cannot. It also creates an intimacy between occupant and the site that is not easy to reach by other means. As is always the case, however, what is leaned in one experience can be brought back to and applied to another. The point of view of EcoSphere and it’s radical relationship to the site (including the ability to be moved) will fund the postUsonian concept with many idiomatic, iconic and technological means.
One of the most controversial aspects of the Usonians was Wright’s insistence that storage be kept to a minimum. He often said that most people didn’t want a 5,000 dollar house (remember this was 1936) that wanted a 10,000 dollar house for five [link]. The Usonians were small. This was part of their economy not only in capital costs but in maintenance, heating and cooling. This was not, however, the only reason they were small. The size forced a level of family and nature intimacy very much gone from the modern housing experience. It also focused their owners on what possessions meant and made them choose what they surrounded themselves with. When Mrs. Leighey first moved in to the Pope Usonian, she called Wright and complained about the closet space an asked him to provide more storage. He told her instead to “throw the stuff away.” This has often been quoted as an example of Wright’s arrogance and how he “dominated” his clients but this is simply not a valid conclusion. He was saying if you wanted to live in this house, at this economy, with this lifestyle, then the baggage (physical and metaphysical), that would prevent you from doing so, has to go. Mrs Leighey followed his advice and later regarded this feature of the house one of its greatest assets [link]. Neither Wright, nor would I, claimed that everyone should live this way. It was, however, in part, what the Usonians were about and it will be, in a restated form, what the postUsonians will be about. Some people do have other requirements that demand a larger space configured in a different way. Mr. Wright (and so would I) would have been happy to design a house that served those needs - and he did. They were not realized at the cost of a typical Usonian, however. It should be noted that in all the classes and types of houses that Wright built they can be seen, in retrospect, to be small for each of their kind. Most of this need for storage is a consequence of un-thoughtful habit and over-consumption and if we were, in our times, to error a bit I suggest it would be worthy to error toward the Usonians. Living in a Usonian is much like living in a very well appointed luxury sailing vessel. EcoSphere takes this to the extreme. It is literally a “land Yacht.” Out at sea, if you run out of something you do without. If you run out of electricity you can use the engine to generate more but you have to weigh this against a possible future need like navigating near land in a storm. For all these “constraints,” living on a boat is a strangely luxurious experience [link]. Camelot taught me this [link]. With EcoSphere a great deal of the energy and food production is integral to the building. It is a self contained “homestead.” This requires a different attitude about consumables and a different relationship to the building, its technology and the site it is on - you work the environment much like sailing a boat or running a small farm. This touches issues of stewardship, morality, economy and the degree that someone wishes to be engaged in life-making itself. These have to be brought into harmony with the legitimate demands and opportunities of modern urban life. Finding the synthesis between comfort and homesteading, in its most primary form, is what EcoSphere is about as a prototype. This will be EcoSphere’s contribution to the postUsonian. As a deployable second rural or wilderness house/cabin, these issues are central to its designed function. Technology integration is not done well in most buildings. It is, typically, stuck in - or on. The presence and use of our technologies has done little to alter the form-factor of buildings nor to seamlessly augment what goes on inside. Because buildings are big (compared to boats, automobiles and airplanes), there has been little driving need to fit technology into the structure in an economical and maintainable way. Imagine if you had to tear the side of you car off because the wire to the taillight needed fixing. Think about this a bit. Neither EcoSphere nor the postUsonian has the space nor maintenance budget for this kind of careless engineering. Nor would we want to do it that way even if we did.
There are four primary aspects of the Bay Area Studio that will inform the postUsonian Project: The verticality of the structure [link], the interior/exterior space relationships [link], the integration of edible and ornamental landscaping [link], and the structural system which employs minimal footings and prefabricated, attachable “arms” [link].
Another inportant aspect of the Studio concept is how it is design based on a life-cycle economy/ecology [link]. This also will be important to the the postUsonian. Affordable housing will never be accomplished by cheep housing. What is economical about putting people in ugly enclaves that isolate them from successful society and tell them in all the language possible to architecture that they are failures? Affordable housing has to be economically affordable to the individual, the family, the state and to the ecology of the planet [link]. Otherwise it cannot sustain.
As has been stated, our goal is to have the first postUsonian study-plan ready for sale by September of the 2004 [link]. This event can come before, during or after a prototype. To move to our second product offering, a fully engineered and priced manufacturing and building Manual [link], we will have to either build a prototype or spend as much money on paper design, engineering and costing exercises. Clearly, the best way to get this information is by building. The money is better spent, it provides enhanced utility and preserves capital - it also produces far more accurate and viable results.
This can prototype be accomplished with a carefully selected client, as a custom home would be produced, or by some other financial means. The issue will be acquiring the construction money because, once built, the intrinsic value of the building, even if undervalued, can be borrowed on - for this all we need is an occupant who can afford the mortgage [link].
General Prototyping Criteria
The purpose of any prototype is inform the building process, as well as, the actual utility and beauty of the to-be-manufactured product. In the case of the postUsonian, all aspects of the project have to be prototyped. A prototype is usually distinguished from the final end manufactured product by the fact that it is usually not economical nor even possible to build the prototype with the same manufacturing process that will be employed at scale. In the case of the postUsonian this is not so great a factor because the end process will always involve a distributed system of many players and because a considerable level of adequate manufacturing capability already exists at AI [link].
There are several criteria that must drive this process: we have a user who will occupy the prototype when complete and that an economy for this use exists [link]. The user will live in the prototype and document the experience as well as the performance of the building [link]. The prototype will be constructed so that different solutions to generic problems can be tested from time to time. The feedback from this - as-built drawings to record keeping of engineering criteria - will be employed in a direct and timely way in the creation of papers, drawings and engineering manuals, services, components and turn-key projects that make up the Enterprise’s product/service offerings [link]. The information will be posted, in real time, and shared with ValueWeb members according to the terms of the various networks and clam shells of which they are a part [link].
Each prototype and the set of prototypes will explore the edges of the system so that the production buildings can be executed based on designs, engineering and methods that are solid and economical. The prototypes will always embrace more risk than the production buildings even through they also have to function well for a user in an affordable way.
postUsonian Public BLOG Goals
First a comment on what the blog is not about. It is not a vehicle to get a bunch of folks opinions about what a house aught to be. This may be useful and amusing but not an affordable [link] dialog for our organization to engage in at this time.
The purpose of the blog is to FORM a ValueWeb [link] and to get the members of this ValueWeb productively employed in those aspects of this Enterprise that interest them, that they can contribute to, and that they are willing to invest time and resources into. The ideas of those who are willing to do this are directly relevant to the project - they are enterprise forming not idle opinions.
The goals, then, are to harvest this large interest and energy that seems to exist about the Usonian ideal, and discover what people with this interest want to do and then to create a means that focuses this latent capacity into projects that will really get built, enhance people’s lives and advance the art of sustainable habitat.
link: postUsonian BLOG
A Final Prototyping Challenge
Many of the original Usonians were built in a community of Usonians [link]. These communities were planned, in part, based on Wright’s Broad Acre City concepts [link]. To what extent this is critical to the full expression of the Usonian concept is not entirely known. Personally, I believe it is very critical. No question it is better to have these homes in a community of like minded people. Several of these communities did not get off other ground because of financing problems [link]. Others made it because they pooled community wealth to defeat the clear bias of the times against this kind of architecture [link]. Today, there are many financing and community model [link] options that did not exist in the time of the Usonian. The time will come when we will have to advance the prototyping process to this community level and, thus, work with a broader set of social, economic issues [link].
And... there is Camelot
For several years now, since 2001,there has not existed an Enterprise role for Camelot. This has been a tragedy. She has languished tied too much to a dock, waiting for the attention and use that once was her norm. The are many personal, economic and time-demand reasons for this unfortunate circumstance. The postUsonian project can change these circumstances and Camelot can become its flagship. There are experiences to be had, and lesions to be learned on her decks, that have direct relevance to the success of the postUsonian effort. Camelot is not a prototype of design or construction - although there are things to be learned from her in these regards - she is a prototype of attitude and use [link]. She has been waiting, impatiently, to be put back into service.
With a half a month to go...
August 31, 2004 note:
This sketch, of a postUsonian (to be built someday at Elsewhere [link]) from page 489 (post 9/11 series) [link] of my Notebook, will be my candidate project for the prototype. It remains my goal to have a schematic level design, by mid September, based on this concept proposed for a lot now available [link] on the Tillers’ property [link]. This deadline has become a stretch goal given the fact that there are 10 client projects [link] in the various stages of development and all clamoring for attention.
Now, at the Deadline...
September 17, 2004 note:
The two sections below adapt the Elsewhere sketch to the Tiller’s site. Page 527 of my Notebook works on the relationship of Core to suspended Hull Link: for large scale drawing. The second sketch version, further develops the mast, that holds the Hull suspension cables; the mast is articulated to fit the loads and reach (keeping the appropriate angle for each cable) required by the configuration of the hull Link: for large scale drawing. These two drawings, together, approach the solution I am seeking.
section study September 12, 2004
sketch of usonianOne - september 15, 2004
September 20, 2004 note
The computer model, below, illustrates the basic structural module of usonianOne (minus the laminated ribs). The Core is built, the mast put in place, then each hull section is raised and attached. The laminated ribs are structural, act as collars and take the shear produced by the suspension cables.
Computer model of usonianOne - september 20, 2004
by Matt Fulvio
This concept incorporates many elements from the Conservatory, EcoSphere, the Bay Area Studio and Camelot: pre-assembled, structural and finished components; minimal foundations and site disturbance; green materials and natural finishes; use of cantilever and suspension systems; the structure counter balancing itself; use of greenhouses; site and solar orientation; curved, spherical and articulated floors; ship-like detailing. It stays true to the Usonian tradition: small scale; extreme sense of shelter and horizontality; the basic floor plan configuration; relationship to site; use of wood and simple materials; non pretentious posture; owner build-able.
The concept, in principle, meets the goals of the usonianOne project. In principle. There remains some serious design development and engineering ahead. The next step is scale plans, sections and a computer model. These will demonstrate that the functional requirements can be met within the square footage that the budget allows.
To get a sense of the grammar of Usonian one, a look at the Master’s Academy Collaboration Studio [link] - which was “commissioned” September 24 through October first - is worth while. Although they are different in mission and scope (the Studio being a commercial space and a remodel of an existing building) many elements of the Studio indicate the character of the usonianOne interior: the use of prospect and refuge, light treatments, the general character of the finish.
The NavCenters and AI WorkFurniture systems are examples of Usonian principles applied to the workplace: use of wood, plywood/laminated “platform;” natural materials designed to sustain high activity use over many years; distinct grammar that can be successfully adapted to different situations and contexts; strong integration between all functional elements of shelter, arrangement and beauty; adaptability; not stylistic - intrinsic design that remains fresh and relevant.
December 31, 2004 note
The RDS created for the World Economic Forum 05 Annual Meeting approaches the scale and complexity of the postUsonian design. This is a good test of structure and technical systems integration, as well as, shipping and erection capabilities [link].
Master’s Academy Collaboration Studio
Radiant Room - September 24, 2004
May 2006 Update
click on drawing to go to description of the project
In May, a “postUsonian” Studio and Guest House Addition for Stan Leopard was designed and approved to advance to the Design Development stage. This project will explore and prototype many aspects key to the postUsonian Project notably the totally shop built interior. It will be the process of producing the environment which will be the most informative because this will address the outrageous costs, waste and poor workmanship now dominate in the booming California housing market. Can a disciplined process be put in place that produces fine workmanship, unique design and the use of quality materials at reasonable costs? This is the exercise. Both the Studio and the Guest House - shown above - will be small, basic environments build of simple beautiful, natural, materials. The beauty is built in a consequence of their materiality, setting and geometry; it is not something “added on” to a dull and mundane box. These are Usonian qualities. This project offers the opportunity to test them in today’s circumstances. The two buildings, together, total 1,200 square feet. Their cost will indicate what a basic living environment can be built for today.
Return To Index
Return To postUsonian Index
Return To Master’s Collaboration Studio

Matt Taylor
April 21, 2004


SolutionBox voice of this document:


posted April 21, 2004

revised October 2, 2004
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(note: this document is about 97% finished)

Matt Taylor 615 525 7053

Copyright© Matt Taylor 2004



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