June 7, 2024

Sitting lightly on the earth. (photo by Anthony Poon)

Considered one of the most iconic houses of Modernism, a masterpiece of the International Style, the Farnsworth House is near perfect. And the imperfections make it more thought-provoking. Finished in 1951, the design from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe has been revered for all its ambition: minimalism and glass walls, connection to nature, groundbreaking engineering, painstaking attention to detail and craft, and of course, “less is more.”

Thousands of books, articles, and university classes have studied this 1,500-square-foot, one-bedroom, weekend retreat. As a freshman at UC Berkeley, my very first assignment was to study this house, then design a hypothetical guest house in the style of. Four decades later, my study continues here.

Entry sequence to the front door. (photo by Anthony Poon)

Client: Dr. Edith Farnsworth (1903-1977)—graduate of literature and zoology, fluent in English, French, German, and Italian, and a concert violinist—attended nearby Northwestern University, only one of four women in her class at medical school. Afterwards, Farnsworth became a successful and wealthy Chicago physician, seeking an architect of greatness for her weekend cottage.

Entry porch: View shows the house sitting above the land on steel posts. (photo by Anthony Poon)

Budget: Back in the 50s, the average construction cost of a home was merely $5,000.00. Though Farnsworth allowed Mies an outrageous budget of $40,000.00, the house costed $74,000.00! Why and how? Many factors contributed to a cost 15 times the average: perfectionist details, costly steel structure (compared to conventional wood framing), expansive glass panels, Roman Travertine, remote location, and so on—not to mention the architect’s requirement for Primavera wood for the cabinetry. At the time, this Central American species was the most expensive wood in the world.

Lawsuit: No surprise. Farnsworth sued Mies for going over budget and malpractice. In turn, Mies sued Farnsworth for unpaid invoices. In the end of a bitter public battle, Mies sort of won and was paid, not a victory worth celebrating.

“Less is more” with structural symmetry. (photo by Anthony Poon)

Flooding: The region is notorious for flooding with water levels reaching over 10 feet. Famous for sitting lightly on the earth, the house floats on its signature steel posts. Raising the structure is a smart countermeasure, but why only 5’-3”—clearly a dimension that is useless during a big flood? Not long ago, catastrophic waters filled up the house like a literal aquarium. The water’s weight and pressure shattered out one of the large panes of glass.

Living room: No, the left side are not cabinets. The house has barely any storage space. (photo by Anthony Poon)

Lighting: I wonder if less is truly more. Within the living areas, there is only one light fixture in the house: the undercabinet strip light over the kitchen counter. Mies designed this first-of-its-kind fixture, now a standard in nearly all kitchens. But the living room has no recessed ceiling lights, dining room has no chandelier, bedroom has no wall sconces, no cove lighting, no floor uplights, no nothing. The architect’s solution to the homeowner: Purchase a floor lamp, and carry that around from room to room, plugging and unplugging into the few floor outlets.

Dining room with its blurred line between the interiors and exteriors. (photo by Anthony Poon)

Heat: Though one might think a glass house would not fare well in a cold climate, Mies created an innovative system. Rather than standard floor registers, the ceiling has a barely visible, continuous slot near the top of the glass walls. Running the interior perimeter of the entire house, warm air washes down the windows, countering any outside cold transfer.

A linear kitchen with the longest stainless steel counter ever made and the rare Primavera wood cabinets. (photo by Anthony Poon)

Counter: Impressively, Mies designed the longest stainless steel counter at the time. At 17 feet in length, the counter isn’t just a single continuous span; it has a built-in backsplash and integral sink, and has been customized for the cooktop.

left: Master bathroom with no storage: The left side contains no cabinets, just two slab of stone.; right: Guest bathroom: Behind the secret door in the shower sits all the guts of the house. (photos by Anthony Poon)

Storage: Again, is less more? Is less storage actually better? Though designed as a weekend retreat, the lack of storage could be challenging, even for a patron client of Minimalism. Take the master bathroom for example: no medicine cabinet and below the stone counter, no drawers or cabinets. Where does one put their toothpaste and extra toilet paper?

Infrastructure: Within this most elegant of interiors, where are all the guts of the building: roof drain, electrical panel, water heater, mechanical system, etc.? Within the guest bathroom, the back wall of the shower contains a secret door, and behind it sits the infrastructure. From there, pipes and conduits are gathered into a cylinder, called the “umbilical cord,” that punctures the floor in a single spot, then drops into the earth for connection to county-provided services

Entry minimalism within nature. (photo by Anthony Poon)

Setting: The residence once sat peacefully on 60 acres of lush green nature with a nearby picturesque river. The county made an unfortunate decision to transform a nearby side path into a major road that not only passes uncomfortably close to the house, but is elevated on a slope so that cars view intrusively down upon the structure. Due to this disastrous compromise to the once-idyllic environment, Farnsworth sold the house in 1971 to Lord Peter Palumbo, a British developer and collector of art and architecture.

Today: In 1996, the house opened to the public as a museum, included on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004, listed as a National Historic Landmark in 2006, and currently owned and operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. If ever in Chicago, drive to Plano (110 miles round trip) and visit an imperfect stroke of genius.


February 4, 2016

Prefab home, Madrid, Spain (photo by Abaton)

I am convinced that prefab homes are a myth. The success stories have been shown to be mostly fictional and braggadocio. More relevant than ever, we need well-designed, good value housing. But relevance doesn’t mean reality. According to all those glossy marketing campaigns, prefab houses were supposed to not only change the housing market, but change the world.

Different than a custom designed residence built at the construction site, a “prefab” (short for prefabricated) house is designed speculatively, built in a factory, and assembled on the property owner’s lot like an enormous toy kit-o-parts.

“Modern Home No. 115,” Sears “Kit” home, circa 1930
“Modern Home No. 115,” Sears “Kit” home, circa 1930

Though apparently popular in past years, the prefab approach is not new. Early 1900’s, retailers like Sears sold prefab homes from a catalog. After World War II, the prefab solution offered an affordable option for returning soldiers.

First problem. Prefab homes are not meant to be customized. To reflect personalities, people love to change things. Even with the prefab companies offering some architectural variations, such as a larger bedroom or different kitchen layouts, such few choices rarely suit homebuyers. And their requested customizations muck up the whole process. With homes already fabricated and pre-approved by building codes, customer changes, even the smallest ones, come at great cost, loss of efficiency, and waste of energy.

Prefab home en route (photo by Joe Sohm)
Prefab home en route (photo by Joe Sohm)

Second problem. When considering the deceptively low price for a prefab home, make sure you pad the wallet for: purchase of your land; delivery costs of bringing said house to your property; and the infrastructure required, i.e. building foundation, sewer line, driveway, landscape and site lighting.

Third problem. How great are these homes architecturally? With the limits of a factory process and dimensions of the truck delivering across interstates, the design result is not much more than a box. And a box, even a nice bunch of boxes, might not make an enjoyable home for you.

Prefab beach house, Hekerua Bay, New Zealand, (Photo by Russell Kleyn)
Prefab beach house, Hekerua Bay, New Zealand, (photo by Russell Kleyn)

Years ago at the national trade shows, I witnessed an impressive number of sales booths promoting prefab companies. I queried the salesperson, “How many prefab houses have been sold?” With all the different salespeople from various booths, the answers were consistently ambiguous. “Well . . . we have designed several, some in production, few are pre-ordered . . .”

When asked again, this time with tenacity, their responses were embarrassing, as no marketing person likes to backpedal. They admit, “Only one, maybe two have been delivered to a home buyer.” Not the 50 or 100 as their pretty pictures represent.

Each passing year, I witnessed fewer booths. The fancy magazines wrote editorials retracting their previous features on the “silver bullet success of prefab homes.”

Prefab home in Desert Hot Springs, California. Originally listed for approximately $2 million. Four years later, sold for only one-third of asking price. (photo by CAD Services and Marmol Radziner)
Prefab home in Desert Hot Springs, California. Originally listed for approximately $2 million. Four years later, sold for only one-third of asking price. (photo by CAD Services and Marmol Radziner)

The once seductive $200,000 price tag for a house has been replaced by the actual total cost of $2 to $3 million. Perhaps the prefab home would sell better to the wealthy. Such structures can have exciting possibilities as second homes, weekend beach structures, or getaway vacation retreats.

42 portable classrooms, Palm Harbor University High, Florida, 2014 (photo by Andy Jones)
42 portable classrooms, Palm Harbor University High, Florida, 2014 (photo by Andy Jones)

Homes aside, prefab buildings have purpose as temporary structures. How about those prefab classrooms in your school’s parking lot? Ironically, though these “temporary” classrooms suggested a permanent solution was on its way, these structures remain in use, 30 years and counting.

The prefab industry is a tiny niche. As a hyped marketing position, it impressively blazed through mainstream media. But as the answer to good housing: sorry.

© Poon Design Inc.