Wright had long been interested in designing affordable homes on a massive scale for the American middle class. In 1901 he published designs for elegant, inexpensive suburban homes in several issues of the Ladies’ Home Journal. Wright was also interested in urban planning. He began thinking seriously about that issue in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Like many contemporary social reformers, Wright believed in the moral and political values exemplified by home ownership and believed that well designed, tasteful dwellings would produce a happier, more harmonious and enlightened society.
Wright discussed his views in publications, lectures and notably the Disappearing City. He gave visual form to his ideas for a model environment in Broad acre City. The notion of the Usonian houses was hatched about the same time.
Frank Lloyd Wright began developing prototype housing in the 1930’s. The first “Usonian” house to be built was the Herbert Jacobs house, in 1936 in Madison, Wisconsin. In that house, Wright used two ideas that promote prefabrication in house production:
- Board and batten walls, produced off site and set in place.
- A floor-planning grid of 2 by 4 feet, based on the size of available materials (especially plywood) to reduce cutting and waste.
The design for the Usonian house was a kit of parts, which included a concrete slab, an insulated roof slab, and sandwich panels for the walls.
To shelter Usonia’s citizens, Wright designed a series of appropriate housing schemes—the Usonian houses. Among the earliest to be built was the Rosenbaum House in 1939. Constructed for a college professor in Florence, Alabama, the Rosenbaum House is typically Usonian. Its single-story plan is divided into two wings—the more public living room on one side and the more private bedrooms on the other—, which meet at a “service core” comprising kitchen, bath and hearth. As in the Prairie Houses, the hearth is the metaphorical center of family life. The two wings of the house extend to embrace the generous garden
Wright experimented widely with the proper materials for his Usonian houses. The Rosenbaum House is built of brick and cypress and in later houses he experimented with various combinations of masonry and wood construction. The Rosenbaum House is heated through its floors, which are pigmented concrete slabs embedded with pipes carrying heated water.
He always felt that maybe Usonian was a system, construction system, which the ordinary person could use. They could go to the lumberyard, or the building material yards pick up the concrete blocks, and they would have a concrete man lay the foundation and a mason set the first course of block. And then after that, they would stack them like building blocks, like a child would.
And then you put steel rods in-between the blocks and pour the grout. You didn’t have to strike a mortar joint as you do with regular concrete block. You just stack the blocks and then pour the grout in-between. He had started that system way back in 1922 in California, and till 1956 still working with that system.
The American System-Built House, a collaborative effort between the Arthur Richards Company and Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1910s. Wright designed a series of standardized housing units for the Richards Company, from bungalows to two-story houses, including duplex apartments. Potential homeowners could choose from a catalogue of Wright designs that, in addition to offering houses of varying sizes and cost, included a selection of add-on features for each house model should the individual’s budget allow. Sales and construction of American System-Built Houses were handled through a network of local representatives franchised by the Richards Company while authorized contractors built the houses.
The American System-Built Houses were American System Ready-Cut structures, a form of prefabricated houses. Prefabricated houses today are constructed of whole wall units manufactured in a factory and assembled on-site. The Ready-Cut system referred to “ready cut” parts that were manufactured in Richards’s factory and shipped to the site where they would be assembled. According to the manufacturer, all of the elements of the building, including wood studs, millwork, and trim were pre-cut to size using mass production factory methods, thereby eliminating the need for an architect as well as expensive, labor-intensive carpentry work at the building site. These wood framed structures were developed on the basis of a two-foot module creating an economical use of standard lumber sizes with minimal waste as well as allowing for variations in a design’s plan if required by the client or building site. This series of houses offered the public an opportunity to build a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house at an affordable cost.
Frank Lloyd Wright was a champion of affordable houses for the middle class and worked throughout his career on developing quality economically priced housing for the American family. His development of the Usonian House was a later reflection on this desire.
Due to America’s involvement in World War I and the succeeding shortages in labor and materials, the American System-Built enterprise was short-lived. Records from the Richards Company have been lost; there is no complete listing of executed American Systems-Built structures. Less than twenty structures have been identified; fifteen buildings are still in existence and are located in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Iowa.