Working With Alward Construction? [PART 10 of 13]

A story of a Frank Lloyd Wright Residence in the 21st Century


A great deal of the interior of the original house was cabinetwork.  Surprisingly, a good deal of the cabinet doors survived with minimal charring and/or smoke damage.  Maynard intended to reuse as much of this material as possible.  We built a storage shed on the grass of the grounds near the house.  Jorge and I built a simple structure of plywood walls and floor and a gable roof with plastic covering.  Into the shed went all the cabinet doors that could be salvaged.  They were all made of redwood plywood.  In some cases, the charring was so deep that they could not be used except by cutting them down.  Maynard wanted everything saved that could possibly be reused.

As Walter proceeded with a design of the new interior, now having exact dimensions of the rooms as the interior siding went up, Maynard instructed him to design the new cabinets to accommodate the old doors.  A catalogue was made listing their size, the location of holes for cabinet pulls and what kind of effort was needed to restore them.

It was a daunting task to design cabinets for the new house, decidedly different in layout and size from the old one, using the remains from the old house.  Walter labored under Maynard’s instructions and the toll on him was telling.

There was a good chance that new redwood plywood would be needed even if we were reusing the old material.  I started looking.  It was hard however to give a precise count of how many sheets were needed, since Walter was having an almost impossible time accommodating Maynard’s effort to save money.

For some time Walter struggled between wanting to have an ideal design for the house and trying to save money by reusing the old doors. The tension between design and spending money had never been clearer.  More precisely, the tension was between design and finding a large supply of ¾ inch sheets of redwood plywood.

As with the redwood boards, we looked high and low for the plywood.  A few years earlier it might have been a relatively easy task but redwood trees were becoming more rare and redwood plywood seemed to no longer exist.  To build all of the new cabinets with new redwood would require about 60 sheets.  We could find no such supply anywhere on the west coast.  We even went so far as to contact a mill in Germany, which had been known to buy a large supply of redwood skins.  We were hoping to have them manufacture the required sheets.  In the end this fell through and we were back to looking for other sources.  We eventually found someone at MacBeath Hardwood, a local lumberyard that remembered a couple of lifts of redwood plywood tucked away in their mill.  They had exactly 60 sheets.  I told Maynard I would not mark up the cost if we could buy the material immediately.  He said “yes” and we ordered the material.

Walter was greatly relieved and was now able to design for the house rather than to accommodate a list of damaged doors.  As detailed drawings continued to emerge from his drawing board, I was trying to decide where and how the cabinets would be produced.  Again, because Wright did not use moldings to cover gaps, the cabinets needed to be built to the exact sizes.  We felt the requirements were such that it might be best to set up a cabinet shop on site and build the cabinets ourselves.  Eventually however, we decided to work with Coreris Cabinets and Construction.  Over the years, John Coreris had become a friend of the company.  He was a consummate builder who designed and built custom houses.  He enjoyed keeping a cabinet shop and hired very talented people who could do the most demanding cabinetwork.  Most of his cabinets were for his new houses or occasional remodeling jobs.  He would, however, for those who he respected, make cabinets for other contractors.  I approached him about this job and emphasized the demands of the work and the risks of having to redo work at his expense if there was any failure to meet the exacting dimensions.

A deal was made and the redwood was delivered to his shop.  Eventually we started getting shipments of cabinets that Cregg and his men could install.  The style of cabinets is the most difficult to build and install.  These, like older style cabinets, have a face frame, which is of finished wood that is attached to the rough frame of the cabinet and is seen as a part of the cabinet front.  The doors are set into the frame such that the face of the cabinet door is flush with the frame of the cabinet.  There is a gap between the door and the frame that is always visible.  It is important that this gap is uniform around the door and frame and that the gaps between adjacent doors in the same system of cabinets are uniform to each other.  This requires a lot of care on the part of both the cabinetmaker and the installer.  The cabinetmaker has to build the cabinets to precise tolerances and the cabinet installer has to install the cabinets in a way that both fits into the space but also preserves the tolerances.

We didn’t want the edge of the plywood doors exposed so each door edge was covered with a thin veneer of redwood tape.  This is called edge banding.  This solved the appearance of the edges but introduced another problem, which was that edge banding is too thin to be planed.  Accordingly, the doors could not be modified to fit after the boxes were installed.

There was also the issue of the cabinet hinges.  In the original house, Wright used a brass piano hinge for each door.  Piano hinges get their name from the fact that they are used in the lids of pianos.  They typically come in lengths that can be cut to size.  They are difficult and expensive to install because they have slot screws each couple of inches or so on both side.  So, for example, a three-foot piece could take maybe 40 screws.  If there are a pairs of doors, as was the case, the quantities are double.

Maynard decided that we were not going to use piano hinges on the new cabinets.  He decided that the amount of money involved was not worth it.  We had saved a lot of the original hinges but there were still literally over a hundred feet of hinge to order and then there was the added expense of their installation.

By searching around the country, we were able to find a fairly inexpensive source of hinges.  Additionally, I offered to eliminate our markup on the hinges if Maynard would allow their use.  This had worked before and it worked here.  We also got a price concession from Coreris by stipulating that they only needed to install enough screws to stabilize the doors.  We could install the missing screws if we felt it was necessary.  Thus, piano hinges were used on all the cabinet doors including all the ceiling height cabinets in the main gallery.  As one can see in the finish product, the effect is stunning.  The knuckles of the piano hinges introduce another rhythm in the house that resonates with the horizontal module of the walls.  We again discovered that Wright, as almost always, was right.


Reducing or eliminating my markup on products served us well in terms of persuading Maynard to make a choice that was good for the house.  People have questioned my policy but I think it’s the right course on two counts.  For one, there is an explicit conflict of interest in trying to get a client to use a more expensive solution when I am making a percentage on the additional expense.  For another, I don’t think losing the markup on an additional building cost is particularly different than not getting markup on some other client expenditure –say a new car.  The only difference between not getting markup on, say piano hinges for example, versus a new car is that I’m a contractor and there’s a plausible case that I ought to get the markup building materials.  I’m happier to have a happy client who will still work with me and recommend me, particularly when the outcome is better for the project.

Such was the case with the house roof fascia.  The Usonian houses all have a strong thin roofline usually expressed as a wide eve and sometimes as cantilevered roof sections, as in his carports.  The edge of the roof is accentuated with an eve board.  In the Buehler House, the eve board is a clear piece of 2 x 10 inch redwood that extends slightly above the roof membrane and slightly below the eve boards and is canted back such that the bottom of the board is further out from the house than is the top.  In the nearly 50 years since the house was built, the fascia boards had weathered more than most elements of the house.

As we were contemplating materials for the fascia, we were also considering the roofing choices.  Most of the roof was originally a tar and gravel flat roof.  There seemed no reason not to return to this system although Walter was hoping to put a slight slope on the roof to drain water to the scuppers and internal rainwater leaders.  Caldwell Roofing was eventually chosen to install the roof with very subtle changes in elevation to create drainage.  Changes in roof elevations were as little as 1/64 th of an inch over a foot.

The tilted square roof above the octagonal living room offered a chance to do something dramatic.  Wright had originally wanted a copper roof, but for economy, it ended up with a composition shingle roof.  Now that it was being rebuilt, copper was back in play.

In looking for a suitable system, Walter came across a copper shingle produced by Revere Copper.  The Revere representative eagerly came out to the site.  He was an architectural buff and even belonged to the Peninsula AIA group.  He was wildly enthusiastic about getting his copper product on the roof of this Frank Lloyd Wright house.  Walter was also excited about its possible use on his own house that was in a very fire vulnerable area of the Berkeley hills.  Revere made Walter and Maynard a deal they couldn’t refuse and so it was decided that the roof of the living room would be copper.  Cregg would do the installation on both the Buehler House and Walter and Betty’s home.

It was inevitable that Walter would want a copper fascia, not only for the area of the copper roof, but also for the rest of the house, including the shop wing.  It was a compelling architectural suggestion but Maynard balked.  It was too much money.  He didn’t want to do it.  I don’t think he was angling for a deal on my part.  He was not a scheming man.  However, when I offered not to mark up the product, he consented.  Walter went to work detailing exactly how he wanted the metal bent, shaped, and fastened to the house.  Sheet metal has to float in order not to oil can, which is to develop dents and imperfections due to the expansion and contraction of the metal.  A complex system was designed and Crown Heating and Sheet Metal was chosen to do the fabrication and installation.  Two of their employees were superb metal craftsmen and they spent weeks at the Buehler House giving its eves a fabulous new look.

Keith R. Alward
August, 2011