Usonian Basements?

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Matt2
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Usonian Basements?

Post by Matt2 »

Tiny basements are a common features of Usonian designs. They are like underground closets for furnace and hot water tank. Given Wright's usual disdain for basements, why did he bother with them? Why not put a utility room above ground where it might have been cheaper to build?

SDR
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Post by SDR »

A particularly good question when you consider that the stairs necessary to access the cellar would take up most if not all of the room that could have been occupied by the said functions ?

S

Matt2
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Post by Matt2 »

And those stairs were perilously narrow, making access and any replacement of mechanicals difficult.

yellowcat
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Post by yellowcat »

The basement space would have been essential for a gravity hot water system to work. The heated water would expand and rise then when it became cooler would sink to the lower basement level. It was a pretty simple and effective system, but the early piping and below grade insulation technologies took quite awhile to catch up.

Matt2
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Post by Matt2 »

Would that have been for the radiant heating system, for faucets, or both? Of course, today they can put hot water tanks in the attic crawl space.

yellowcat
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Location: Hagerstown, MD

Post by yellowcat »

I need to take back my comment about the gravity floor heating system being effective. The first hand accounts are that it was very disappointing as a radiant heating system, but it was and still is a simple technology. Today we use gas boilers or electric hot water tanks with small pumps to circulate the heated water much faster through smaller diameter and more numerous pipes. Adding more energy is the easiest way to overcome gravity or geography, perhaps the only way(?). Better insulating materials, that are available today, might have helped around the perimeter of the slabs. I seem to recall reading once about the snow being melted three feet out from the outside walls of "Wingspread"!

Roderick Grant
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Post by Roderick Grant »

I have asked several Usonian owners - original clients and later owners - (Reisley, Friedman, McCartney, Weisblat, Rosenbaum, Pearce) about their heating systems. All of them liked them very much. The only complaint was with the use of iron pipes, some of which developed problems, as opposed to copper pipes, which did not. Which sort was used at Wingspread?

Matt2
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Post by Matt2 »

So is a basement a necessity for radiant heating systems?

yellowcat
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Location: Hagerstown, MD

Post by yellowcat »

It is my understanding of hot water radiant heating that the gravity system became popular because it was more economical to install and much safer than steam systems, and dates back to the 1880's. They worked like a lava lamp, if you are old enough to remember those! Installing large diameter piping into the slab flooring instead of using free standing radiators may have originated with Mr. Wright. Circulating pumps had not been invented yet, but neither had a lot of the fine anticorrosion additives for the water. The older iron pipe systems tended to get corroded and reduced efficiency, but sometimes updating them with a circulating pump could solve that problem. There are many options today for non corroding piping and very small quiet pumps to supply hot water heating to anywhere you might need it.

Now I am going to search for the "Wingspread" reference. Since it was constructed around 1938-39 around the time of "Jacobs 1", I would guess that the same piping was specified. I seem to recall that the disappointment in the system had to do with the cost of fuel and not with the quality of the heat.

Matt2
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Post by Matt2 »

I raised the question because the book "Plagued by Fire" has some details on Jacobs, including mention of the tiny basement.

Roderick Grant
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Post by Roderick Grant »

What is the future of any sort of water or steam heating system, given that central air has become de rigueur? One set of vents can be used for both cooling and heating, whereas two separate systems would be needed if heating is done by steam or water. I read that the vast majority of houses being built these days have forced air.

SDR
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Post by SDR »

It would be interesting to have the figures---differential in cost of construction/installation, and of operating cost, between the various residential HVAC systems in use today.

In 1937, Mr Wright was seventy years old---with twenty more years of designs ahead of him . . .

I believe that from the start Wright called his novel system "gravity heat." I've always wondered what that meant. Here we have the answer ?

I don't believe, however, however, that every Usonian has a sub-grade space. Am I wrong ?

S

yellowcat
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Location: Hagerstown, MD

Post by yellowcat »

Roderick, radiant hot water is a quiet, even, and very comfortable way to heat a space, but, I believe, you are correct that it does not have a promising future for mass marketed housing. But, I can't imagine the concept ever disappearing completely, especially for slab on grade construction in the northern climate zones.

I did find a reference about "Wingspread" although not the one I was looking for. In the Herbert and Katherine Jacobs book, "Building with Frank Lloyd
Wright", ( the same book referenced by SDR in the Usonian workspace thread), Herbert goes into great detail about the heating systems in both Jacobs 1 and 2. Although he calls his heating system a steam system, it surely describes a gravity hot water system that didn't work very well before being converted to a forced or pumped system.

A quote about "Wingspread" reads: "The same type of floor heating system had been installed in the Johnson administration building and in Johnson's home, but there the steam was under seventy pounds of pressure, and the pipes reportedly kept the grass green up to four feet from the walls all winter."

If this was new technology at the time (heating concrete floors), I can easily understand why they would, for liability purposes, want to continue installing them in a basement. If the pump failed the system could just revert back to a gravity system?

SDR
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Location: San Francisco

Post by SDR »

Wright began with steam, later transitioning to hot water I believe.

The location of the pipes may also have migrated; I cannot find photos or section drawings for Jacobs that would show the steam pipes in their relationship to the thickness of
the slab. Later houses had their pipes just below the bottom of the slab, or with the concrete in contact with them. Published sections of Johnson Wax (but not CDs) show pipes
several inches below the slab. I don't find evidence that Honeycomb House has floor heat. I may have seen drawings showing sub-floor pipes at Fallingwater; I can't find any now.

Pew was drawn with pipes below wood floors.



Image Jacobs I


Image Pew---note pipes on both levels.

peterm
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Post by peterm »

Lamberson (1948) still retains its functioning (knock on wood) original boiler and iron pipe. There is no basement, rather a small area, about 2’ by 4’ which is recessed about 2’ deep. The feed from the boiler goes down into this “minibasement�.

The heat is most pleasant, though not nearly as efficient as the newer systems.

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