Duo Dickinson and the Idea of “Seed Plans”

Patterns from the Past, Paths to the Future

Last week Houseplans.com staffers (yours truly included) had lunch with influential Connecticut architect Duo Dickinson — author of The House You Build and House On A Budget — to hear his views on why more architects should embrace the ready-made plan idea. Yeah baby! (Read his entire guest post on Time To Build.) He sketched in the history of the architect-designed house plan and mentioned the famous popular debate fostered in 1938 when Life magazine asked eight architects to design houses for families at several different income levels (when a dollar was really worth something!).

Life Houses page one

The magazine asked  for a “traditional” and a “modern” plan for each of four families. According to Duo, it “was a forum to show that the art of architecture could have usefulness to the average housing consumer…The voting by readers narrowed the the choice down to a mano-a-mano grudge match between Frank

Wright house in Life

Lloyd Wright who fought the Depression with a whole line of ‘Usonian’ homes (derived from U. S. Homes) and the venerable Royal Barry Wills, whose lightly ‘Colonial’ design won hands down.” As would be expected, the Wright design (for

Royal Barry Wills house in Life

the Blackbourn family) was expressively horizontal and geometric — like a small wing of his Fallingwater, which he had designed the year before — while the Wills design was more overtly “house-like.” (Historic images courtesy Google Books) Duo pointed out that both approaches were valid; his key point was that architects were designing for everyone, not just the “one percent” of that era, and should be doing so again, today. According to architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson’s essay on the Royal Barry Wills website (the firm is still in practice under the management of Royal Barry’s son Richard), Wills “was the most popular architect among the American middle class after World War II…his books sold more than 520,000 copies and he had designed some 1,100 houses.” Wilson says the Blackbourn family originally favored Wright but ultimately built the Wills design.

Wright got another chance when Bernard and Fern Schwartz decided to

Still Bend 1

build the Blackbourn plan at Two Rivers, Wisconsin in 1939. According to a fascinating website devoted to the house, Schwartzhouse.com, Wright adapted the LIFE plan to the Schwartz’s river-facing site and changed the materials from stucco and stone to brick and red tidewater cypress board and batten. He also

Still Bend 3

raised the ceiling in the living area to make room for an interior balcony. Now here’s an example of how to work with a ready-made plan! (photos courtesy Shwartzhouse.com) Meanwhile, Royal Barry Wills continued to build — and

Royal Barry Wills small Cape Cod

publish –a wide array of traditional and even modern designs as shown here, (photos courtesy Royal Barry Wills). Duo sums up: “Custom designs rendered by

Wills modern example

architects have been viewed as too expensive for most families hoping to build a home. Architects are also often perceived as more interested in their agenda than yours. But it doesn’t have to be that way…It’s time to rethink how design can be delivered to homeowners – it’s time to create a design service that is affordable and to create homes that fit their owner and their site even when the home starts with a stock house plan. It’s time for “Seed Plans” – where architects offer existing home designs that embody their skill, and offer up a service to make those designs fit specific homeowners and landscapes – the best of both worlds.”

To us, of course, Duo is talking perfect sense — and we couldn’t agree more! Moreover, we’re happy to continue the friendly rivalry between the traditional,

530-1 elevation

like Plan 530-1 from Classic Colonial Homes, above, and the modern, like Plan 496-7 by Leon Meyer, below. Let’s “plant” these and other plans, then


“architecturally nurture ” them, and watch them grow.

For more about the history of stock house plans click here.


One response to “Duo Dickinson and the Idea of “Seed Plans”

  1. Seed plans are on idea whose time has surely come. More and more consumers are taking charge in their buying decisions, including design. Just look at the level of custom decisions that can be made in any major buying decision. AEC is just catching up with the rest of the American shopping landscape.

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