For years, overnight visitors attending Fallingwater’s educational programs have bunked down in a cramped, four-bedroom house near Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterwork in Mill Run, Pennsylvania. “We were literally sardining up to 16 students in that house at one time,” said Lynda Waggoner, director of Fallingwater and vice president of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which operates the property. “We realized that demands on our programming were increasing, and we wanted to be able to offer people a more intimate experience of Fallingwater.”
On May 21, the conservancy unveiled an ideal solution in Patkau Architects’ competition-winning design for six low-impact, energy-efficient cottages. Based in Vancouver, British Columbia, the firm prevailed over runner-up Wendell Burnette Architects and third-place winner Olson Kundig Architects with a subtle but provocative scheme burrowed into a high meadow a 20-minute walk from Fallingwater. Surrounded by a hardwood forest and rolling swells of earth, the ensemble melds into the landscape rather than rivaling Wright’s landmark below.
The basic concept was borrowed from Fallingwater itself, whose cantilevered form can be read as an intensification of the Bear Run ravine. “We took a similar strategy to the meadow above, and tried to intensify the ground form,” explained principal John Patkau. With a preliminary budget of $150,000 per unit, the design is based on a corrugated- steel culvert with openings carved into the roughly 650-square-foot structures.
The plan includes four one-bedroom and two two-bedroom units, all with modest kitchens and bath facilities. Besides being inherently cost-efficient, the approach allows cottages to be expanded from a few units to a dozen or more as funds become available. “The more undulations we construct, the more powerful the experience will be,” Patkau said. (The conservancy aims to build two cottages this fall, for occupancy next summer.)
The design is also in keeping with the conservancy’s stewardship of Bear Run Nature Reserve, the surrounding 5,000-acre area. Soil-covered construction reduces heating and cooling requirements, while a solar thermal collector will provide heat. Meanwhile, the water system ties into Fallingwater’s existing treatment facility that recycles wastewater, allowing designers to approach net zero energy and water usage.
The discreetly evocative approach impressed the jury, which included Ed Feiner, Reed Kroloff, and Lord Peter Palumbo. Noting that it reflected Wright’s adage that a house be “of the hill,” not “on the hill,” they also saw echoes of indigenous landforms such as those created by Ohio’s Native American mound-builders. “We felt this was not about a new building having a conversation with Fallingwater,” Waggoner said. “It was about a new building having a conversation with the landscape.”