The Owner Built Homestead – Volume 4, Chapter 3: Free Form Archtecture

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Free-form house in Belgium, 1962.

Ken Kern, author of The Owner-Built Home and The Owner-Built Homestead, is an amazing fellow and everyone interested in decentralist, back-to-the-land, rational living should know of his work. Back in 1948 he began collecting information on low-cost, simple and natural construction materials and techniques. He combed the world for ideas, tried them and started writing about his experiments. We’re excerpting chapters from Owner-Built Home and Owner-Built Homestead. In this chapter from Homestead, he discusses the application of concepts pioneered in free form architecture to houses. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS

During World War I architect Gaudi was busy developing a new curving free-form architecture in Spain; architect Rudolf Steiner was independently establishing metaphysical credence to the curving free-forms of his famed Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland. At the close of the war a group of architecturally disillusioned German designers formed a discussion group for purposes of exploring the problems of establishing an improved house. Gaudi and Steiner were searched out, and a “round-robin” correspondence began which lasted for some 20 years. Mendelsohn, Kiesler and Finsterlin continued in their search for an entirely new free-form building style, but most of the original group were wooed into the more prosperous International Style.

In more recent years a group of younger architects are building upon what was learned from the German pioneers. Foremost among these are the Italian, Leonardo Ricci; the Americans, Paolo Soleri and Bruce Goff; the Brazilian, Oscar Niemeyer; the Mexican, Juan O’Gorman; and the Britishers, Hans Hollein and Walter Pichler.

There is a great deal about the free-form house that is applicable to owner-builder construction. This type of building is not a mere freeflow art form or a return to nature, but, as Kiesler states, “it derives from living a life dedicated to fundamentals rather than to mechanized equipment and interior decoration.” The measurements of the final form and shape of the house are determined by actual requirements in height, width, and depth of the various areas designed for eating, sleeping, living and working. Every defined function can be closed off from other areas or opened up, making one continuous space. Finsterlin talked of the New House as being organic: a person inside such a house would be as inside an organism, wandering from organ to organ, “the giving and receiving symbiont of a giant fossil mother body.”

Designers of free-form homes feel that there should be a greater independence from our constantly increasing automated way of life. By way of architecture they seek to encourage a more natural way of living. Kiesler talks of basing his house on simple, healthful, and direct ways of living, where work can also be recreational.

One basic difference between the free-form building type and traditional houses is that the free-form building is continuous shell, not post and beam construction. The floor of a free-form room curves at the rim into wall, and the wall curves uninterrupted into ceiling. Much thought has gone into the elimination of the flat horizontal plane as the area of movement for people. The traditional solid and opaque floor would cut through a free-form room like a “pathological diaphragm.” Glassy, transparent floors were therefore included in the plan:

The bare foot will caress the floor sculptures with every step, bringing new life to the neglected tactile sense and enriching the reactions which nowadays reach the level of our consciousness only as the grossest fragments, instead of as inconceivable delicate and pure melodies of the material world by which we are surrounded.—Kiesler.

Each sleeping section of a free-form dwelling is designed as an individual living room. Private baths may be included in each individual living quarter.

There is continuity of structure in a curving free-form building which makes it more desirable than straight-line types. Conventional structure is put together from separate, articulated pieces, whereas free-form is composed of simple, continuous materials; angles break the flow of the eye but curves lead smoothly from one surface to another. There is also a significant structural advantage in continuity of structure. Forces applied at any point in a building structure should be distributed in an equal flow throughout. Obviously, these forces are less apt to flow at right angles to one another—which is what we demand of the standard frame or masonry house.

Only the more serious and seasoned owner-builder should attempt to build a free-form structure with floor curving into wall and wall curving into ceiling. To build thus one must develop a knack for spreading concrete on curving forms (concrete plaster being the best suited material for the job). Regular poured concrete is much too limited because of the necessary straight-edge formwork required. Plaster, however is a plastic form material that all but eliminates elaborate formwork. Plaster is applied to a reinforcement which is itself a form—in the manner of the sculptor’s armature, or frame-support.

Lime is the type of plaster used in the earliest civilizations. Nowadays hydrated lime is used as a plasticizing agent, to increase workability of the cement mortar. Diatomaceous earths and fire-clay (mortar creme) are better, as they are less harmful to the workman’s skin.

Gypsum and portland cement are the two most commonly used binders in plaster work. A type of waterproof cement called plastic it preferable to common cement, as it spreads easier.

To achieve first quality work, only clean, well-graded plaster sand should be used. Where available, coarser aggregate should be used in the base coats. Vermiculite and perlite aggregates are used where a lightweight, acoustical treatment is desired.

Where plastering is done against a rigid surface, a stucco netting having large openings should be used so that plaster will be pushed through to the backing, completely embedding the metal. A special furring nail is used to attach reinforcement. It holds the reinforcement out at least one-fourth inch beyond the backing, permitting plaster to be forced behind the reinforcement. Expanded metal lath and gypsum lath are used where there is no backing. Again, the plaster should completely cover the mesh.

The correct proportioning, mixing, and application of plaster is essential for quality results. With some trial-and-error experiences one can soon develop a facility for spreading plaster. It is also important to buy and become familiar with the right plastering tools: a high quality steel trowel for application; a lightweight hawk for carrying mortar; a wood float for gliding over the surface, filling voids, and leveling bumps; a darby for preliminary smoothing and leveling.

There are methods of free-form construction other than plastering over an armature framework. Architect Paolo Soleri demonstrated one method when he built his 25 ft. wide by 35 ft. long desert home. A huge mound of sand was first piled up. The mound was then scored with V-shaped indentations into which reinforcing bars were placed. Wire mesh was then laid over the entire mold, after which a 3-inch-thick layer of concrete was poured. When the concrete was set a small bulldozer was used to excavate the material under the concrete shell, piling it on either side of the building. The floor level is 6 feet below ground level and the concrete roof meets the desert floor on the two long sides. Both ends open into excavated patios.

The final form of Soleri’s “earth house” is not unlike Frank Lloyd Wright’s berm-type building, designed for cooperative homesteads in 1942. Wright pushed dirt up against the outside walls. Good insulation and protection from the elements was offered; it was economical construction in that the outside walls below window sill level did not have to be finished.

Earth forms have also been used in certain types of lift-slab construction—a technique nicely adapted to free-form building procedure.

In 1956 Lawrence Caster invented a simple method for building conical dome adobe houses. Experiences in Mexico demonstrated that anyone with even the most rudimentary skill in masonry construction can erect this all-adobe house. (Total cost: 60 working days and $28.64 for materials.) Carter’s positioning machine is designed to serve as a guide in laying the adobe walls. It consists of a short arm revolving about a center pole in a horizontal plane at floor level. From the outer end of this arm run two parallel longer arms which extend back past the center pole to the wall on the opposite side. These arms raise and lower as well as support a shaped wooden guide against which the adobe blocks are laid.

In Europe a number of circular masonry houses have been built. But except for Carter, no one has been sufficiently dedicated to the circular wall to engineer a system of construction which would make this type of design entirely feasible if not more economical than conventional types.

One such system of circular wall construction involves the use of a central pipe and a radius-wire controlling circumference of the outside walls of the house. I first experimented with this technique using the Magdiel Form to build rammed earth, concrete, and stone walls 6 to 24 inches thick. The principle is entirely sound; so long as the central pipe is set straight and plumb, the walls will likewise be plumb. A spacing radius-wire is attached from the form to the central pipe, and as the wall progresses in height the wire is raised to a new position level with the form. The lever mechanism of the Magdiel Form permits immediate release of the form walls.

The same technique can be employed in building thin-shell circular concrete walls. After establishing the vertical radius pipe, the concrete floor slab is poured, using a screed board that revolves around the radius pipe. To build the walls, a 5-inch high by 3-foot long aluminum form is merely filled with concrete mixture and moved (while the mixture is still wet) forward to a new position. A continuous length of barbed wire for reinforcement is used in each layer, which spirals from foundation to roof. The form and construction procedure is similar to that of the Geiger Horizontal Sliding Form.

The circular walls of our (Ken Kern) present house were built using a 2-inch-thick concrete sliding form. Stone facing was later applied on the outside portion. The plan and construction details of this house appear in the book, Go Ahead and Live!

BIBLIOGRAPHY (books listed in order of importance)

Fantastic Architecture: Ulritch
Ways To A New Style in Architecture: Rudolf Steiner, 1927.
Soleri House: Architectural Forum Magazine, February 1961.
Manual of Lathing and Plastering: National Bureau for Lathing and Plastering, 1960.
Go Ahead and Live!: Mildred Loomis and others, 1965, $4.00, School of Living, Brookvile, Ohio.