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First disaster (partially) averted

September 5, 2011 1 comment

Our building lot sits on a sloping site with natural limestone rock outcrop terraces. To minimize excavation and foundation costs and to reflect the landscape surrounding it, I had the architect design the house on multiple levels. So rather than try and level the sloping lot, I had it designed so that there would never be a need to level or excavate more than 2 feet. The way that it is supposed to work is that you level the sloping lot up to 2 feet, then when you’ve exceeded 2ft drop, the adjoining room takes a 2ft drop down in level via some steps and then you level that. Thus the levels in the house match the surrounding landscape, and it minimizes excavation costs too. As you move into progressively more private spaces you move down in level.

So imagine my surprise when I went out to the lot on Saturday and saw this:

I immediately called Robert the builder and he said “yes it seemed a bit odd to me but that’s the level the plans call for”. Yes maybe, but if it seems wrong it probably is! So I met him and the foundation guy there today. To cut a long story short, the levels on the plan from the surveyors differ from the levels the foundation guy is reading by 4ft! (Verified by cross-checking the level of a nearby tree). Thus where the maximum depth of digging should be 2ft it’s actually 6ft! I can’t say which elevation reading is wrong but it doesn’t matter anyway. My attitude is that these levels should be treated as relative not absolute. GPS heights are never that accurate anyway compared with positions.

Now we have a problem, what to do? Building back up is going to be a lot of work. So as a compromise the excavator guy is bringing in around 15 lorry-loads of dirt to build the level back up 2ft for the house, but only 1ft for the garage. Building up everything 4ft would be a lot of work! Now the garage will be 2ft lower than the entrance level of the house as opposed to the 1ft lower that was originally planned. It isn’t an ideal solution but it’ll have to do. But it is very, very frustrating that we have to pay to dig a BFO hole in the ground and then pay to fill it back in again, when the plans were especially created to not need much excavation. But at least the house will not be built underground which was never the plan but was narrowly averted if I hadn’t intervened.

And guys, if the plans seem wrong they probably are. Common sense should prevail over dogged following of things that are obviously not quite right.

Updated 3D rendering

April 27, 2011 1 comment
Final 3D rendering

This is it!

Some minor changes were made. I wanted a more organic proportion to the roof eaves. The new approach employs the golden section or golden ratio to give a natural, growing look to the roof overhangs.

Some variation was added in the height of the brickwork to make it more pleasing to the eye and to give the effect of organic natural growth of the planters themselves appearing to sprout up from the land.

And the wood siding was replaced with stucco on the upstairs office room wall as we were still short of the 65% masonry requirement the city demands. Ironically the stucco is between half and a third the price of the wood so it makes the project cheaper. All to keep the neighborhood suitably upmarket……

The architects changed the proportions of the celestory windows on the right which are the master bath windows. They do seem to look better, but I didn’t ask for that.

Pictured in early morning summer light coming from the East.

New 3D rendering

I just received a new 3D rendering from the architects. The outer of the house is eco-friendly Accoya wood, however the architects discovered that the city require a 65% minimum masonry requirement to ‘keep the neighborhood upscale’ (note, windows count as the same material as the wall they’re in). So the back is now stucco (considered masonry, whereas fiber cement board, which is we did consider, isn’t) and the base of the front has more brick. I feel the brick works, it helps to anchor it to the ground. What do you think? I don’t think it makes it any more upscale but that is weird city planning rules for you.

Click on the picture for a larger version.

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First post of my blog on our Lakeway Usonian house

April 8, 2011 3 comments
Lakeway Usonian

Front elevation of our Lakeway Usonian

Our house is based on the architectural style of Frank Lloyd Wright known as Usonian. Frank Lloyd Wright (FLW) wanted to create a style of architecture that was distinctly American, but he preferred the term ‘Usonia’ for United States of North America, and hence Usonian means American. Despite this, Usonian architecture, which started with the Jacobs house in 1936 and continued on into the early 50’s, was heavily influenced by Japanese architecture, although FLW never admitted that, and claimed to have invented it independently, despite having visited Japan many times, the first time in 1905 and working extensively there in the 20’s. (Most of his work there was destroyed in the 1926 Tokyo earthquake).

The Usonian style influenced Eichler in California and other mid-century modern architects and could be said to have pre-dated and started the currently revivalist mid-century modern movement and ultimately the ranch style house so common in Texas.

Usonian houses were intended to be modest abodes for middle-income families, but in reality they cost rather more to build than the average house and usually went over budget, so only fairly wealthy clients with an interest in architecture could afford them. They were generally quite small, mostly around 1000-1500 sqr ft and on one story. Each one was uniquely designed for the client. They were usually ‘L’ shaped with the living areas on one leg of the ‘L’, sleeping on the other, and the kitchen in the middle of the ‘L’ where the two lines meet. This at the time was novel. Previously kitchens had been hidden away as they were staffed by servants (even for middle class people). FLW had the idea to replace the servants with the lady of the house aided by technology¬†and to move the kitchen from being hidden to the center. The servants would be replaced with new-fangled technology like washing machines and dish washers (FLW liked new technology). His dislike of servants may have been motivated by the 1914 death of his mistress Mamah Borthwick (who was possibly the only person FLW ever loved other than himself) along with 6 others by his servant Julian Carlton, who set fire to the house and hacked them to death with an axe as they tried to escape.

Our house design is not an authentic Usonian, but is intended to be a modern interpretation of the style. FLW loved gadgets and new ideas so wouldn’t build the same house in 2011 that he built in the late 1930s. It is mostly one story, but has one room that’s upstairs (not the first Usonian with 2 stories though, the Pew House was 2 story), but it is long and low with a flat roof in the Usonian style. It is not as small at 3050 sqr feet, but follows the Usonian principles of small bedrooms to free up living space, no attic, and flat roof with large overhangs. It has a carport rather than a garage, something that Frank Lloyd Wright invented, for which he coined the term ‘carport’. These were often cantilevered with no supports, looking really cool, but they all eventually sagged. So ours has a support post. That’s if Lakeway City allows us a carport, as their building ordinances call for a minimum of 2-car attached garage. It is now known that attached garages are very unhealthy.

The house will be constructed with a steel frame and using the UltraFrame steel structural insulated panels (SIP) from Transcon Steel in Georgetown Texas, about 15 miles north of Austin. This consists of a steel stud with 6 inches of polystyrene foam. The external cladding (siding to Americans) is eco-friendly Accoya wood. The architects are Bercy Chen Studio. Calvin Chen is the principal architect, aided by Daniel Arellano. Our lot is 2.47 acres of wooded land in the center of Lakeway, with a creek (stream) at the end of garden which flows into Lake Travis.

The plans are mostly complete, we are just waiting on the structural engineer to complete the design of the steel frame. I will try and update this as progress begins. I just bought a time-lapse camera to take a photo every 1 hours during daylight hours.