Jacobs House by Frank Lloyd Wright (1936)

Model Overview: 

The Jacobs House is the most idiosyncratic yet successful example of a series of more than fifty small homes that Wright designed in the latter part of his career, collectively known as the Usonian houses. More a concept than a category, the houses represent a major epoch of Wright's career where, riding high on the critical success of Fallingwater and the Johnson Wax Building, the architect made a deliberate decision to shift his focus back to one of his earliest preoccupations: affordable housing. For Wright, the affordable house in America had been constantly disappointing, rarely embodying the imagination and inspiration that good architecture, regardless of cost, could afford. Wright had proven, time and again, his expertise on large-budget homes, but the modest budget market had proven more impenetrable. From a set of drawings for affordable homes published for Ladies' Home Journal in 1901 to the dozens of designs employing his "American System-Built Houses," Wright's modest houses had received less fanfare.

Wright designed the Jacobs House in Madison, Wisconsin, for journalist Herbert Jacobs, his wife, and their young daughter in 1936. It is considered both the catalyst for and pinnacle of the Usonian period of Wright's career, bringing to the fore both design and construction parameters that would characterize all future Usonian houses. After citing the project's cost of $5,500 (about $80,000 in 2008), Wright told Architectural Forum in 1938: "Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs must see themselves in somewhat simplified terms. What are the essential in their case, a typical case? It is not necessary only to get rid of unnecessary complications in construction, necessary to use work in the mill to good advantage (off-site prefabrication)...At least this must be our economy if we are to achieve the sense of spaciousness and vista we desire in order to liberate the people living in the house...it would be ideal to complete the building in one operation as it goes along, inside and out." Consisting of a single story laid out in an L-shaped plan embracing a private yard, the house achieved these goals through three primary innovations, which would be employed in all subsequent Usonian homes: "board and batten" walls, a planning grid, and a new underfloor heating technology. With the exception of a select few points of masonry, load bearing columns, and walls, the entire building envelope consisted of modular sandwich panes and glazing that was prefabricated off-site and applied to both the exterior and interior, improving upon the "System-Built" by eliminating the need for stucco and applied decoration. The planning scheme consisted of a 2-by-4-foot rectangular grid that served as the basis for all modular elements both in plan and elevation. Wright's ingenious "floormat" system circulated steam between the flooring and the ground plane or the basement, eliminating the need for radiators and greatly reducing utility costs, setting a significant precedent for centralized HVAC systems.

The name "Usonian" refers to a term coined by American writer James Duff Law and attempts to describe a particular "New World" character of the American landscape, devoid of influence from any previous architectural idiom. While Wright would go on to build numerous other notable Usonians, the Jacobs House remains the most significant, not only for being the first, but also for being one of the most durable and least expensive.

(Source: Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling by Barry Bergdoll and Peter Christensen)


Design Style: 
Project Type: 
Commission - Direct commission by private client.
Construction Methods, Materials and Features: 

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