Big Ideas Behind Not So Big Houses

We recently heard speak in Atlanta. We are converts for sure. This is an old article but worth recycling. Originally appeared in Architecture Week.

by Sarah Susanka

When someone buys a Mercedes Benz or Jaguar, they look for quality, comfort, and detail. Size has nothing to do with the appeal of these cars. If you wanted nothing but space, you could buy a truck. Why is it, then, that some people feel compelled to buy huge houses with empty, cathedral-like spaces that offer few comforts of home?

In my experience as an architect, a house in which every space is designed for everyday living is far more satisfying than one with unused formal spaces for formal guests who never show up. Most of us tend to entertain our friends in the family room; a formal dining room becomes a mail sorting place, and a formal living room is a museum for curios and uncomfortable furniture.

Rethinking the House

My book The Not So Big House asks what happens if we eliminate the formal rooms, design our everyday living spaces for both formal and informal purposes, and use the dollars we save to really personalize the spaces we live in every day? It puts forth a message that it’s time for a different kind of house—one that values quality over quantity of space, is built for the long term, and is filled with the crafted details that make a house a home. Simply stated, the book proposes that we move away from our obsession with square footage and refocus on livability.

What defines the character of a house are the details, such as a beautiful stair railing, well-crafted moldings around windows and doors, and useful, finely tailored built-ins. These details are what attract us to older houses. Materials such as wood and fieldstone bespeak comfort, and coziness is created by a room’s small scale, lowered soffits at the edges, soft lighting, and even overstuffed furniture.

Bigger Isn’t Better

When the book first came out in October of 1998, I was frankly a bit nervous about what architects, builders, and homeowners around the country might think.

Since I’d had some success promoting this idea to potential homebuyers in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, I knew there was a market for smaller, better-designed houses. But I hadn’t appreciated its magnitude or realized the number of professionals in our business who’d be so supportive. Architects, builders, developers, realtors, and designers from all over the country have expressed their concern about the ever-expanding scale of the American house.

Architects report that clients who come into their offices looking for a bigger “move-up” house change their vision after reading The Not So Big House. Builders tell me that their customers are realizing that the lowest dollar-per-square-foot only guarantees the absence of the very thing they’re seeking—a house with character.

This confirms my belief that we are all searching for a sense of home, but we haven’t developed a language to help define the qualities that we seek, and so we keep building bigger in the vague hope that somehow more will be better. We seek with square footage and ever-taller ceilings our notion of home, when in fact the feel we’re looking for has almost nothing to do with size. Instead, it resides in a sense of comfort, which comes from tailoring our houses to the way we really live and filling them with personal details that add meaning for us.

Making Not So Big Work

Our profession has an enormous ability to affect what the future will look like. As an architect who questions the advisability of building bigger rather than better, I decided it was time to suggest an alternative. Since my book was published, “Not So Big” has been dubbed a movement by several sources. This response makes it clear there are many people who are longing for some alternatives to the “starter castle” and “trophy home” mentality.

To help make these dreams a reality, I’ve written a second book. Using 25 houses from around the United States, it illustrates the spatial characteristics that tailor each house to the lives of its inhabitants. In the process it develops a three-dimensional language that gives names and explanations to spatial concepts that architects use everyday—such as layering, visual weight, and ceiling height variety—that are not commonly known to the public.

It’s time to get out of the lowest dollar-per-square-foot rat race, and design houses with personality, spatial variety, and durability with every space in use every day. There is a substantial segment of the American public that’s hungry for a new type of house, and architects have the tools to help them find it.

Sarah Susanka is an architect and author of The Not So Big House, from which the photographs were reproduced, published by Taunton Press. She writes a regular column, “Drawing Board,” for Fine Homebuilding. Her next book, Creating the Not So Big House, also from Taunton Press, will be in bookstores in October 2000.

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This entry was published on July 26, 2010 at 4:06 am. It’s filed under Interior Design, Remodeling, Restoration, Sustainable Building and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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