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Site Specific

Houses don’t get any more site-specific than Fallingwater.

A while ago I was driving around with a realtor looking for land to build a spec house. The realtor asked “what kind of house do you build?”. I said that it depended on the site, and she said “of course, but do you build a colonial, or a shingle style?”. It struck me how strange that idea was, even though it is quite common- that you start with a specific type of house, and then figure out a way to fit it on the site. I’ve always looked at it the other way around, that you start with the site and figure out what forms work best there.

Everyone knows Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece Fallingwater.  But when I visited it, I found that while the cantilever over the waterfall is obviously dramatic, the most site-specific element is actually on the interior.  Right in front of the fireplace, the stone floor becomes slightly elevated and transitions to a different type of stone.  It turns out, that is the actual ledge from the site- Wright designed the entire house around that 3′ square piece of stone, choosing it to be the hearth, and then siting the building around it.  He didn’t move the stone to the location, he built the house around the stone.  I thought about that as I tried to answer the realtor.

The entire house design was built around the stone in front of the fireplace.

This was my inspiration for a renovation I designed in Wellesley.  The expansion potential was limited by a large ledge outcropping adjacent to the house, on the side we wanted to expand.  I decided to try to incorporate the ledge into my design, which was easier said than done.  First, I had to find out the exact shape, which meant bringing in a backhoe to scrape off the topsoil and expose the ledge, then high pressure hoses to clean it.  Then, I formed a grid made of string over the entire area, and using a transit level surveyed the height at each point, in order to create a model of the site.  The shape of the rock was so sensuous that it was easy to image water flowing over and around it.  Since we didn’t have a natural waterfall, I figured we could create one with some pumps, piping, etc.  I was concerned about having an abrupt transition from the rigidness of the building to the organic curves of the ledge.  I designed a deck, made of rough-sawn thick mahogany boards, that served as both a deck and a bridge over the watercourse below.  It’s exciting to see the water run down the ledge and then sense it running under your feet below the deck.

The rough-hewn deck transitions into a bridge to access circular deck “islands” placed at various points on the ledge.

The ledge and waterfalls were so beautiful I wanted to be able to see them as much as possible from the interior.  I created a corner window by cantilevering the structure above, so no weight was on the glass.  The solid roof is cut away to form a pergola frame, to open up the view and let as much light as possible into the interior.  The roof and wall cut-aways attempt to blur the distinction between interior and exterior space.

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