Would Wright’s Fireproof House Have Helped in NSW Bushfires? 2

Monday, October 28th, 2013
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With the bushfire crisis in New South Wales wreaking havoc, a century-old plan by noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright could serve as an example on how to prevent similar devastation in the future.

Though the bushfire crisis in New South Wales has decreased, authorities still warn that the situation remains dangerous.

To date, 193 properties have been destroyed and 109 damaged in the lower Blue Mountains at Springwood, Winmalee and Yellow Rock, where 86,000 hectares of bushland burned.

The fires underscore the need for architects to design fireproof houses.

Over a century ago, architect Frank Lloyd Wright is believed to have been inspired by the 1906 earthquake and by the great fire in San Francisco to write the Ladies’ Home Journal article titled A Fireproof House for $5000 and the simple plan could serve as a blueprint for how to better fire-resistant homes.

destroyed house

A house completely destroyed after a devastating bushfire at Winmalee in the Blue Mountains.

The design for the Fireproof House was simple, modern and economical. The floor plan was similar to that of the typical American Foursquare, an American house style that was popular from the mid-1890s to the late 1930s­ and featured four sides of equal dimensions and concrete forms that could be built once and repeated.

At the front of the house, a terrace with a trellis was added to give the appearance of greater width and depth and to emphasize the main entrance. Inside the building, a central staircase located near the entrance provided easy access to the four bedrooms in the first level. In addition, there was a well-lit basement storeroom.

Floorplans of the Fireproof House

Floor plans of the Fireproof House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

A reinforced concrete framing system was adopted, with Wright a great promoter of the material, especially as it became more affordable for homeowners.

“Changing industrial conditions have brought reenforced concrete construction within the reach of the average home-maker,” he wrote.

Reinforced concrete is not only fireproof, but it also provides thermal comfort. Concrete walls have greater thermal mass when compared with wooden walls, protecting the interior space from dampness and extreme temperatures.

“A structure of this type is more enduring than if carved intact from solid stone, for it is not only a masonry monolith but interlaced with steel fibres as well,” Wright wrote. “In the composition of the concrete for the outside walls only finely-screened bird’s-eye gravel is used with cement enough added to fill the voids. This mixture is put into the boxes quite dry and tamped. When the forms are removed the outside is washed with a solution of hydrochloric acid, which cuts the cement from the outer face of the pebbles, and the whole surface glistens like a piece of grey granite.”

The Stockman House

The Stockman House, also known as the Mrs. Evangeline Skarlis House, was built in 1908.

The roof is flat and made of concrete, while the floors also consist of reinforced concrete slabs approximately five inches thick. The roof slab overhangs to protect the exterior walls from the sun, and the top is waterproofed with tar and gravel roofing.

“To afford further protection to the second-story rooms from the heat of the sun a false ceiling is provided of plastered metal lath hanging eight inches below the bottom of the roof slab, leaving a circulating air space above, exhausted to the large open space in the centre of the chimney,” Wright wrote. “In summer this air space is fed by the openings noted beneath the eaves outside. These opening may be closed in winter by a simple device reached from the second-story windows.”

Raymond W Evans’ House -1908.

Raymond W Evans’ House, 1908.

Metal casement windows are utilised and, inside the house, interior walls are made of metal lath, plastered on both sides and coated with a non-conducting paint.

Minimal landscaping surrounded the house as Wright believed his design could stand on its own.

“As an added grace in summer foliage and flowers are arranged for as a decorative feature of the design, the only ornamentation. In winter the building is well proportioned and complete without them,” he wrote.

Wright was never commissioned to build the Fireproof House, but similar houses were built in the years after his article was published. Most of them were constructed with wooden framed walls covered in stucco, meaning that they were not fireproof in any meaningful way.

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  1. Karen Jolly

    Seems like a logical design that should be reconsidered all these years later as we deal with global warming. The design’s ability to stand on its own without landscaping is a great notion for fire-prone areas as surrounding bush and trees are just fuel for the fire approaching dwellings.

  2. Engr Abid

    The same construction concept is already in practice here in Pakistan