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Downsizing and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Smith House

August 11, 2015Architecture
Melvyn_Maxwell_and_Sara_Stein_Smith_House_Bloomfield_TwpMI_B Wikipedia

(photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Downsizing is appealing to some; the motivation to downsize can be fueled by wanting to reduce environmental impact, or striving to save money, or an attempt to live more simply –  perhaps after the kids have left the nest. The Tiny House movement is the poster child for downsizing, featuring houses that typically range from 100-400 square feet – more than 2,000 square feet smaller than the typical American home. Architect Sarah Susanka empathizes the idea of “less is more” and preaches about living in homes that focus on quality over quantity in her “Not So Big” book series. And even before tiny houses, Sarah Susanka, and downsizing – Frank Lloyd Wright was implementing design strategies to create modest homes with his Usonian designs.

The Smith House

One Usonian home Wright designed was for Melvyn Maxwell and Sara Stein Smith. Built in Bloomfield Hills, MI, from 1949-1950, the house is the culmination of what the Usonian phase was about, practical homes for middle-class clients. Dubbed the “Smith House,” the house’s original footprint of 1,200 square feet falls between the size of a Tiny House and many of Susanka’s homes. A later addition brings the house to approximately 1,800 square feet. As teachers, Maxwell and Smith were on a tight budget, but their dream of having a Wright house propelled them to live frugally and take steps to make the home feasible. In addition to purchasing an inexpensive piece of land in a remote location, they worked as the general contractors of the project when bids to local contractors exceeded their budget.


(photo: Marsie)

Built slightly into a hill, the house takes advantage of the site’s wooded view, and nicely frames a view of the pond. From the front, the house has a low profile; the back of the house opens up to a gentle slope towards the pond. The floor plan is L-shaped, separating the bedrooms, bathrooms, and study from the main living areas. The bedrooms are relatively small in an attempt to encourage the family to gather in the main living area. The main living area features an open floor plan, differentiating spaces by changing ceiling heights – areas designated for sitting and pausing have lower ceilings, whereas areas for standing and gathering have higher ceilings.

(photo: Marsie)

Throughout the house are concrete floors, where the demarcation of a 2 foot by 4 foot grid is etched into the concrete. Since the outdoor patios are also concrete, the patios are a visual extension of the interior spaces, making a small interior space feel commodious. Strategically placed windows, including clerestory windows and skylights, bring in light and a connection to the exterior, and aid in making the house feel spacious. The detailing throughout the house (e.g. the wood ceilings and pattern on the clerestories) add texture to the house.
Interior Shot_Michigan Modern website

(photo courtesy of michgianmodern.org)

Typically aligning with wall perimeters, built-in furniture like benches and shelves, prevent the spaces from feeling congested. The house even alludes to the future desire to age in place, with the entire home built on one level. (There is no basement because Wright did not like basements). An unpretentious kitchen is tucked away from the view of the living room, but is open to the dinning room. For house parties, an accordion screen wall can be extended to hide any kitchen mess.

Ways we see the Smith House features today

Many of Wright’s techniques in Usonian projects, like the Smith House, will sound familiar to many because they are now often seen in residential design:

  • An open floor plan
  • Radiant floor
  • Concrete dyed floors
  • Slab-on-grade foundations (today slab-on-grade foundations are great for additions or spaces without basements)
  • Large roof overhangs, allowing sun to come in during the winter but creating a shaded protection from the sun during the summer.
  • Construction techniques utilizing mechanical systems for more energy-efficient homes (today we see geothermal, energy recovery ventilators, and radiant floor heating).

Interested in learning more?

Explore Meadowlark’s Photo Gallery to see how we implement some of the techniques listed above. Want to better understand the construction techniques to make an efficient home? Visit Meadowlark’s Green Building Library for techniques we use to build an efficient home. Interested in exploring the Smith House? The house is available for touring until mid-October through Cranbrook Art Museum.

By Marsie Klug


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