Friday, April 08, 2011

My Own Private Fallingwater

This is the front entry to my house in Grand Junction, Colorado. The cantilevered overhang has been deteriorating due to what appears to be moisture penetration. My friend Jeff is a handyman of some repute, so I asked him to take a look to see what happened and what needs to be done to fix it.

Jeff found that water had penetrated the exterior soffit of the overhang, but most of the supporting structure was intact. This did not prevent the overhang from deflecting downward about 2 inches - hence the hydraulic jacks and temporary support beams.

Over the last few weeks Jeff has been gradually raising the jacks to level the overhang, and will use long lag bolts to secure it back to its intended position. He's already replaced the rotted soffit. He's done some great work so far.

I was immediately reminded of the difficulties that plagued Fallingwater a little over 10 years ago. This is not entirely without coincidence, as the houses and their respective cantilevers were both constructed in 1936. As with many flat-roofed Wright buildings, leaks were always a problem - a consequence of Wright's designs outstripping the capabilities of the sealant technologies of the day.

Fallingwater had the additional issue of it's builders not compensating for the effect of time on the large, cantilevered terraces. Instead of constructing the wooden framework for the reinforced concrete with a slight upward angle to account for deflection in future years, the forms were built level. When they were struck, the new terraces were doomed to sag at an increasing rate, until the amount of deflection threatened their structural integrity. An expensive tensioning technique was used to gradually pull the terraces back up into the large rock that serves as an anchor for the entire house.

Other restoration work and upgrades were performed on the house from 2001 to 2003, including the re-pointing of some of the exterior walls and replacement of original windows with ultraviolet-resistant glass, in order to help preserve the woodwork and original, Wright-designed furnishings inside.

The problems with my overhang don't appear to be rooted in the original construction, but ironically to an improvement effort. Roughly 10 years ago I had the gutters replaced around the entire house. According to Jeff, there appears to have been metal flashing across the top of the overhang that would deflect water into the gutters on either side. This flashing was inexplicably removed, subjecting the bare wood underneath to the elements. Over time, water seepage from this removal appears to be the cause for the damage that we're mitigating now.

So while I'm getting settled back in the Pittsburgh area, some unwelcome settling back in Colorado is being handled in a manner not that different from that which helped to save one of America's most famous and revered houses and architectural landmarks.

As it happens, both my house and Fallingwater will turn 75 this year. The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which maintains and operates Fallingwater as part of a large nature preserve entrusted to them by the Kaufmann family, is planning several different events to commemorate this anniversary. I hope to be able to make it out to the house sometime this spring or summer. One goal I have when I get my life and schedule better regulated is to volunteer there. I've always wanted to be a guide or docent, and now I may have my chance.

Have a great day.

Photo Credit: (Fallingwater)

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