Working With Alward Construction? [PART 5 of 13]

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


The Buehler House is essentially composed of two wings at right angles with a two-car carport at their intersection.  The shop wing and the carport form what might be thought of as the front of the house and are constructed of grey concrete block (Concrete Masonry Units) with the horizontal courses between blocks “raked” to form horizontal groves.  The vertical joints are “buttered” to cancel the vertical joints.  The effect is to accentuate the strong horizontal lines of Wright’s architecture.

The second wing is the residential wing, which at 90 degrees from the shop, recedes from the front of the house.  The entry to the residence, typically of Usonians, is secluded at the end of a long narrow entry that follows the residential wing from the carport to what might be considered the rear of the house.  The entrance pathway is covered by a wide overhang from the house that also extends the roof of the carport.  The walls of the residential wing are redwood as is the ceiling of the wide overhanging roof and the ceiling of the carport.  Wright’s perforated boards have a distinct pattern cut into them and serve as windows.  They line the entire entry walkway and sit symmetrically within the horizontal module defined by the board and bat redwood siding.

At the end of the residential wing, the orthogonally shaped living room with its soaring ceiling is covered by a square roof set at a 45-degree angle to the residential axis.  The dining room sits on the opposite side of the residential axis at a 45-degree angle.  The residence consists of a master bedroom which abuts the carport and a master dressing room-bath, a study, a second full bathroom, the kitchen (which Wright called “the work space”) the dining and living rooms.  There is a full basement under the living room.  The fire and subsequent rebuild involved the entire residential wing with the exception of the living room, which was charred and smoke damaged, but not destroyed.

We were not yet out of the dirt when Cregg was busy trying to determine the layout of the building.  All Usonian houses are laid out on a geometric pattern or module.  In the Buehler House, the module is a 4 x 4 foot square.  Virtually all vertical elements of the house are determined by this floor plan module.  Walls themselves are on the module lines as are their ends, their openings.  If there are French doors or pairs of cabinet doors, their center will be on the module lines.  The walls are located in space once the first 4 x 4 square is established.  In the case of rebuilding the Buehler House, the location of the module was already set by the parts of the house that were to remain.  Fortunately, the two remaining ends of the house lined up so that the module could be preserved.

The horizontal module was another matter.  As suggested earlier, the horizontal module was established by the redwood board and bats as well as the concrete block.  All the horizontal elements of a Usonian are set by the horizontal module.  Window and door heads and sills, desk and counter tops, bookcases, shelves, even tops of switch plates, are all set in space by the horizontal module.  In the case of the Buehler House, there had been an earth subsidence, probably due to the deep creek-bed just yards away from the east side of the house.  As a result, the two ends of the remaining house did not line up on the same module.  They were 3 inches off.  In most homes this might not have been a problem, but in a Usonian, this was a different matter.

Cregg came to me with the problem.  “Keith, the south end of the house has dropped and doesn’t line up with the house module.”  I tried to play it down, thinking that as in most construction, there was enough wiggle room to make the problem disappear.  Cregg was insistent that the problem was real and not going away.  We discussed rebuilding the carport and walls.  This would probably have entailed dealing with the large complex cantilevered carport roof and may have even involved rebuilding the shop wing.  I knew Maynard was not willing to spend the money needed for such alterations.  Walter was sickened to hear the news.  There was no simple architectural trick to get us out of the woods.

Some six years earlier, I had brought a soils engineer named Joe Provinsano in to address a very vexing problem.  Clients of mine owned a house in Orinda that was being ripped apart by soil subsidence.  Nobody knew what to do until I suggested consulting with Joe.  He recommended pressure grouting.  This is a process of pumping a grout mixture into the soil under pressure some 10 feet or so below the surface of the earth.  Pressure Grout Company was developed by Al Alusi, a PhD student at UC Berkeley.  It entails changing the physical characteristics of soil and also a way of lifting structures sitting on top of the soil.  Joe used Pressure Grout Company on my client’s house.  It happened that Joe was the soils engineer for the Buehler project.  I shared my experience with Walter and he agreed it was worth asking Joe about our problem.  Joe thought Pressure Grouting would work.  It did!  We were able to raise the existing south end of the house a precise 3 inches, putting the entire house back in accord with the horizontal module.  The cost was a fraction of just about any other solution.

Keith R. Alward
August, 2011