The Laurent House was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright to be aesthetically accessible for one man — the famed architect was not thinking about universal design principles. However, contemporary architects can use this house as a case-study for how to design living spaces that are wheelchair friendly.
Based on the abundance of cookie-cutter houses lacking accessibility decades later, that “aha” moment has yet to arrive in mainstream architecture. But more than ever, many socioeconomic indicators suggest the time is ripe for a Wright renaissance. For instance:
• One in five Americans — 56.7 million people — has a disability. The boomers are quickly aging. Their tennis grip isn’t what it used to be, and reaching tall places or maneuvering at right angles in a wheelchair is a feat best left to a Himalayan Sherpa.
• More than one in eight Americans is 65 or older. The ratio increases to one in five as the last boomers turn 65 in 2029.
• People reaching age 65 have an average life expectancy of an additional 18.8 years, census records show. And close to 90 percent of Americans would like to stay in their homes as they age, according to the AARP.
If Not Now, When?
So why, over 60 years since the Laurent House was built, does universal design show up mainly in magazines of expensive homes but rarely in subdivisions and architects’ portfolios?
Inertia is one reason. Rigid city building codes are another. Some architects also argue that the strictures of the ADA have stifled creative design with the need for “reasonable accommodations.” They use the word “reasonable” as a pejorative. Slavish adherence to rigidity may undermine inclusive design. Turning a blind eye to prevailing demographics, status-quo architects still argue Wright is wrong for our time and place. Additionally, the vast majority of today’s new single-family homes are not designed by architects. Single-family homes and small, multi-family structures are not required to have an architect’s seal like commercial buildings. And home developers rarely want to pay an architect’s fee to design homes.
In today’s real estate market, there is another anti-Wright barrier — size matters. The “McMansion” is alive and well. “There is a false sense in the United States that whoever has the biggest, most ostentatious house somehow wins,” says Kansas City architect Neal Angrisano. “McMansions are rarely single-level structures. In fact, the more floors the better — not the best premise for barrier-free design.”
Yet another strike against Wright: Profit trumps popularity, says Paul Lillig of Picaso Design Build in Kansas City. Just because you have a better home design doesn’t mean investors will rush to mass-produce it.
Today’s typical developer buys a plan created by an architect and then goes about tweaking it to fit a spreadsheet of price points that lead to the greatest profit, Lillig says. And if the developer can mass-produce house after house, the cost per unit goes down, the material cost goes down and a predictable profit is made on every home. Why would a developer build a one-of-a-kind universal design home when he can knock out so many at a sweet profit margin?
In order to dream the Wright way, Lillig says, the consumer must be a part of a serious conversation with the builder to create a better housing outcome. And prospective home owners, he says, must get real, plan for their future accessibility needs and understand they are not immortal. “The mental image of our body holds us hostage to the thought of aging and injury and prevents us from demanding new housing standards like universal design,” says Lillig.
The fact is, Wright was simply light years ahead of his time. The majority of architects still are trying to catch up to him more than a half century after his death, his supporters say. “Frank Lloyd Wright was such a genius at the time he designed,” Laurent House neighbor Tina Ryan said. “I mean, the accessibility for Mr. Laurent to live in this home quite comfortably all those years ago is amazing.”
Despite persistent inertia, Pierce is optimistic that universal design’s time is near. She said she sees signs that Wright’s vision is steadily catching favor. A perfect storm of a rapidly aging population, a growing disability community and a still shaky economy is renewing interest in Wright.
Those factors, says Pierce, are forcing Americans to “rethink the American Dream and what it looks like in our imagination.”
Some Details About the Laurent House
• 2,600 square feet on a 1.3-acre lot
• Wright’s first elliptical-style blueprint
• Built with red cypress and Chicago brick
• A poured concrete foundation
• A flat tar and gravel roof
• Recessed square light boxes
• A two-car carport
• A 50-foot curved wall of glass
• Radiant heat from water pipes in concrete
• Larger bathrooms
• Central chimney (one in the master bedroom)