What Frank Lloyd Wright Taught Me About Roof Leaks
Being an architect, I have always been a begrudging fan of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. To get my FLW bashing done in the first paragraph, I was never fond of his history of cheating on his wives (especially while have multiples of wives) and his serial abuse of architecture students, using them as slave labor to enrich himself. His political theories were a bit too communalistic for my tastes as well. His urban design theories were also a little half baked in my opinion. But that is where my bashing ends.
As a designer, FLW was a genius in many ways. He could see the world in ways very few people could ever come close, which allowed him to create masterpiece after masterpiece.
This summer, my family and I vacationed in the mountainous Allegheny region of western Pennsylvania. While there, roughly 20 of us drove through pouring rain to a nearly impossibly remote site in the woods to tour what had only been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site days prior to our tour. Yes, we were there to tour the most famous of Frank Lloyd Wright's home designs: Falling Water.
When we planned our trip, we obviously had no idea that we would be arriving in such a torrential downpour. Just the quick run from the car to the visitor center left our clothes completely soaked from the 100 yard dash across the parking lot. I was slightly worried that the tour was going poorly before it even started. Lacking cell signal, we hoped that the other members of our family still on route would arrive safely and we could begin.
Once all together, we finally were able to begin. A short half mile in the rain with umbrellas, we walked the path to the house. As we approached, we entered at the upstream side of the house. It was a little bit exciting how magical walking across the bridge to the front door felt as the rain continued to pour. The stonework and concrete slabs under the onslaught of rain seemingly revealed themselves as a fortress for guests arriving. Once under the canopy of the front porch, we relinquished our umbrellas (provided by the tour guides) so as to not bring excess water into the house. After drip drying the best we could, the tour guide admitted us and told us about the history and background.
As we entered the main living room, the tour guide related the story of how the homeowners, upon moving into the residence and experiencing their first rain storm there, discovered quite a few spots where the roof leaked. They contacted Wright and asked him what they should do about it. He simply responded, "Put a bucket under it."
Of course, as a group, we all instinctively laughed at the story, undoubtedly finding the quirky and cheeky response from FLW to be amusing. After all, anyone purchasing or building a new home typically expects a 1 year builder's warranty and if this were any other architect, you would expect the contractor and architect to convene and discuss solutions to ensure the problem will be solved. Wright's response smacks of a cold-hearted indifference, as though, "I designed you a perfect home, who cares if it leaks."
In the weeks following the tour, my thoughts have revisited that story. The thought of telling a client something like "put a bucket under it," seemed just so wrong. Yet, it also seems right. As anyone who has built a new home has undoubted discovered, there is no such thing as a perfectly constructed building. To achieve such perfection would require the architect, general contractor, and every tradesman working on the project to be 100% perfect in their efforts. It is not humanly possible.
Roofs should be as leak proof as possible. That goes without saying. Even in ancient days, you would expect your builder to build you a home that seals out as much of the foul weather as possible to ensure maximum comfort and safety for you and your family. So, why is the a kernel of truth in FLW's statement? How could putting a bucket under be a good response?
Homeowners in this modern era are getting better quality construction today than has ever occurred in the past. The technology and construction methods and construction education are improving constantly. But the flaws will still happen. While architects, engineers, builders, tradesmen, and all involved will continue to aim at the perfect construction, flaws will still happen. The response of "put a bucket under it" reminds the homeowner, yes, there are flaws. They are to be expected. Some of them are worth living with.
Technological improvements have since made flat roofs much easier to weather proof than technologies allowed for in the 1930's when Wright designed Falling Water. I imagine that if he were alive today and designed this home today, that he would have designed the roof such that the leaks would not occur. It is actually a bit of a marvel that the homeowner's did not bring a lawsuit against Wright. This was, after all a home costing 5-6 times more than what they had intended on spending, and it leaked. But they didn't. They started with the buckets and then on sunnier days, they had Wright and the contractor consult and develop remedies. Eventually, their son, who was a former intern for Wright, developed the architectural talent sufficient to help remedy the problems further.
Too often, Americans have resorted to calling their lawyers first when dealing with construction defects. As a result, they spend countless thousands of dollars in revenge spending and still have a problem with the defect. The smart homeowners call up their contractor and their architect first and see if a solution can be found. Obviously, if the contractor and architect are refusing to respond to a defect, then the lawyers may be necessary. But I have found in my practice as an architect, that most people want to just know that you are there to help when they ask. Working together, homeowners, architects, and contractors are far more effective and productive in solving problems.
By, David Clayton, AIA of DEIV Architecture and Design