In building the case study house #20, the architects choose to use traditional and innovative material for its construction. Wood was used for framing the house while they choose stressed skin fir plywood panels for continuous light weigh beams. The roof was all plywood except for the hollow core plywood vaults. The panels, vaults and box beams were trucked to the site and handled by forklift hoist, which made rapid erection possible. The vaults covering the central area of the house were positioned and initially secured in less than an hour and a half. No special difficulties were encountered other than assembling the components together. The beams were made of plywood forming a 12-inch hollow box. They span 16 feet and formed a series of 8-foot bays. The bays are roofed with sandwich panels and factory-formed vaults.
The vaults were custom-built for the job to the same 2-inch thickness as the panels, and were pressure-glued and bent into the required forms.
“We wonder for a while about the validity of detaching the roof and denying the system already established in the rectangle,” Straub said: “But for this particular client we wanted to break down the uniformity and arrive at a new expression.”
Posts, beams and connecting plywood panels were constructed in Berkeley, California, of Douglas fir plywood and bought to Altadena where workers awaited them. Straub recalled there was always the anxiety that they wouldn’t mesh, but when they came they were a perfect fit. The house was one of the first to be prefabricated; not for mass production, but for ease of construction.
Conrad Buff III, Calvin Straub and Donald Hensman, still young faculty member at the University of South California, had become interested in the factory-formed plywood vault while designing a vacation house project for “Look” magazine. Saul Bass found the vault concept stimulating; the architects were invited to experiment.
Although the architects were the first to use the vaults, they consider the space relationships more radical in nature than the factory products. Nevertheless, they had their difficulties in obtaining a permit from the city building department.
“We presented them all sorts of calculations-so did the plywood engineers-but the city wasn’t satisfied until one vault was erected and jumped on,” the architects recalled.
The house differed from others designed by the firm in two respects, according to Straub: “The character of space was very precise, and there were no overhangs. Overhangs were omitted because of the numerous trees on the property and adjoining lots, while the preciseness is a consequence of the engineered house.” The 1/8-inch tolerance was the closest ever used in a wood house.
The house plan was planned and design inward and organized into social living. It is devised as kitchen, formal in informal dining, children’s wing and adult wing, the latter including but separated from Saul Bass’s studio. All major rooms open directly onto courts and decks.
Obviously, Saul Bass was impressed with the architects work: “It is my business to visualized,” he said, “but the house was full of surprises. The architects must take full credit.”
Of the vault he said: “ They are an important visual aspect, but the beauty of the spaces does not depend upon them. They add the richness of curved space, and the sensuous satisfaction of curved volumes, but what was most pleasing were the vistas from every point. As in the piazza system of European cityscapes, you move around a bend and space are revealed. You wander through space.” Although he collaborated very little on the actual design, he did install the tiles in the pool in the rear yard, and created the white tile mural at the front of the house that softens the starkness of the carport. Unfortunately Saul Bass didn’t live in the house very long. His divorce forced its sale.
One important visual aspect of the house was the giant Italian pine tree. The architects used it as an umbrella. Unfortunately the tree had to be cut down which sadden Calvin Straub very much. On a visit in the late 80’s for a documentary, Straub discovered that only an enormous stump remained (cut clean as of today). It had been a victim of itself, beginning to displace the house and threaten the windows during windstorm. “You could hear its branches hit the glass, and during parties people would literally jump over the sofas when they heard the tree sway,” said a former owner.
Elizabeth Smith and her crew from MOCA museum (The Museum of Contemporary art, Los Angeles) studied, photographed and filmed the house in the late 80’s. It resulted in an exhibit presented at the MOCA museum from 17, 1989 - Feb. 18, 1990: “Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses.” Calvin Straub and Saul Bass were reunited for the first time in 30 years.
Like many experimental project, saving cost is almost impossible when testing new technologies and method of construction. Many hours was spent on studying the sandwich panels, vault and box beams to make them compatible with architecture. Meeting with city building department was also time consuming. Although foundation and frame was built using traditional techniques and skill construction worker, real craftsmen were used to take over the frame. All this raises the cost of construction considerably. The only way plywood elements could have been proven an economy was for the architects to carry their knowledge into tract housing.
However this was not done.
Sources: Case Study Houses 1945-1962, by Esther McCoy, Hennesey & Ingalls editiors, Altadena Weekly July 27- August 2 1989(Photos from the internet)