The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live

The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live

by Sarah Susanka

ISBN: 9781561581306

Publisher Taunton Press

Published in Calendars/Architecture, Calendars/Arts

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Sample Chapter


    The idea of a Not So Big House, a house that favors the quality of its space over the quantity, has evolved during the 15 years I've practiced architecture in the Twin Cities. Maybe it was the 1980s that created what I call the "starter castle" complex--the notion that houses should be designed to impress rather than nurture. More rooms, bigger spaces, and vaulted ceilings do not necessarily give us what we need in a home. And when the impulse for big spaces is combined with outdated patterns of home design and building, the result is more often than not a house that doesn't work.

    When my husband and I, both of us architects, were planning our new house, we knew that we wanted a home that would inspire us and make the best use of the money we had to spend. Whatever we ended up with, we wanted our house to express the way we actually live. We started the planning process by considering an addition to our two-story 1904 four-square. We're not formal people, and the separation between kitchen and living space meant that we spent all our time in the kitchen--the tiniest room in the house. To change that, however, we would have had to add more space, which would have made our house bigger while leaving half of it still unused. That option didn't seem sensible. In fact, it seemed downright wasteful.

    I quickly realized that our old house was designed for a pattern of life that was fundamentally different from the way we live today. So we decided to design our own house--which would be Not So Big--with each space in use every day. And it would be beautiful. I've designed big houses that are beautiful and small houses that had tight budgets; I wanted our house to combine the beauty of the big house with the efficiency of the small one. Rather than spend our budget on square footage we wouldn't use, we decided to put the money toward making the house an expression of our personalities.

    We knew that by building such a house we would be going out on a limb, because the institutions that dictate the value and resale of houses demand all the extra spaces that we knew we would never use. When we met with the banker and explained that our new house would have no formal dining room, he was dubious. But as I described to him my frustration with designing large houses with rarely used formal spaces, and my vision to put forward a different home model into the marketplace, his demeanor completely changed. Suddenly, he was telling us about his own house, a suburban Colonial, and admitting that in 25 years his family had never sat in the living room. They lived in their family room. The banker, who at first appeared to be our biggest obstacle, became our strongest advocate.

    So we built our house, and along the way many of the ideas that had been percolating in my subconscious came into being. I began to speak locally and nationally about the concept of the Not So Big House and found an extraordinary amount of confirmation from audiences. Even realtors, who perpetuate the conventional wisdom of resale requirements, were excited by the concept of building Not So Big. In fact, two realtors--a husband and wife team--approached me after one lecture and asked that I design a Not So Big House for them.

    This book contains the work of more than 35 architects and related professionals who I have had the privilege of working with in our architectural firm in Minnesota. These colleagues have worked with more than 3,000 residential clients over the past 15 years. As a result of all this work, we get to see the aspirations, the struggles, the needs, and the realities of people who want new or remodeled homes. Architects build dreams, but we also have to help clients reconcile those dreams with real budgets. A house that favors quality of design over quantity of space satisfies people with big dreams and not so big budgets far more so than a house with those characteristics in reverse.

    It's time for a different kind of house. A house that is more than square footage; a house that is Not So Big, where each room is used every day. A house with a floorplan inspired by our informal lifestyle instead of the way our grandparents lived. A house for the future that embraces a few well-worn concepts from the past. A house that expresses our values and our personalities. It's time for the Not So Big House.

    The Not So Big House isn't just a small house. Rather, it's a smaller house, filled with special details and designed to accommodate the lifestyles of its occupants. I've discovered living in my own Not So Big House that the quality of my life has improved. I'm surrounded in my home by beautiful forms, lots of daylight, natural materials, and the things that I love. Our house fits us perfectly and is unabashedly comfortable. My house feeds my spirit, and it is with this insight that I share with you how to make your house do the same.

Chapter One


"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."--Albert Einstein

    So many houses, so big with so little soul. Our suburbs are filled with houses that are bigger than ever. But are bigger houses really better? Are the dreams that build them bigger, or is it simply that there seems to be no alternative? Americans are searching for home in unprecedented numbers. Yet when we look, the only tools we seem to have are those we find in the real estate listings. But a house is more than square footage and the number of beds and baths. In one of the wealthiest societies ever, many people are deeply dissatisfied with their most expensive purchase. Which is where Paul and Laura come in.

    I had just completed a lecture at our local Home and Garden Show. As I stepped from the podium, I was greeted by several members of the audience who wanted to thank me for saying something they hadn't heard before--that we need to value quality over quantity in house design. There was a couple in the crowd with a story about their own experience, a story that gave me the impetus to write this book. As they approached me, I saw tears in the woman's eyes.

    "We want you to come to our new house and tell us what you think," she said. "We just built it. We spent over $500,000 on it and we hate it. It's just not us at all. After listening to you, we think ..." She paused and looked at her husband, who nodded. "We know that we have to start over. All we've got is square footage with no soul. We want the type of house that you describe. Can you help us?"

    The next week, I drove out to the suburbs to see the house, past row after row of enormous structures covering the newly developed hillsides. These houses loomed in their treeless sites, staring blankly out toward vistas of more of the same. I felt as though I was driving through a collection of massive storage containers for people.

    Paul and Laura's house was fairly typical of new, large subdivision homes. It had the required arched window topping off a soaring front entrance scaled more for an office building than a home. Inside the house, I was greeted by an enormous space, all white, with a cold marble floor. There was no separation between this vaulting foyer and the next room, which I assumed must be the family room, although there was no furniture in it (see the photo on p. 10). Laura ushered me into the kitchen, which was also oversized and made up of all hard surfaces that gave it the acoustics of a parking garage.

    She and Paul explained to me that until a year before, they had lived in the city, in a small, older home. Although they liked the house, their three boys were growing up quickly, and they were starting to feel cramped for space. The house had no family room, so the kids didn't have a place to be rambunctious. The couple found a piece of property they loved. The lot was owned by a builder, who made it clear as part of the terms of sale that he would be the one to build the home. They thought this would be fine--they didn't know any other builders and this one had a good reputation.

    The builder showed them his portfolio of plans and explained that they could choose any one of them. Although they weren't particularly enamored with any of the plans, they picked the one that seemed to have the rooms they needed in the right relationships to one another: kitchen opening into family room, formal living room separated from family room to allow kids some space to play away from mom and dad.

    It wasn't until the house was actually under construction that the feeling of uneasiness began to set in. As the framing proceeded, the heights of the spaces became clear, as did the proportions of each room. "All the rooms just seemed huge," said Laura.

    They asked to make some changes, such as lowering some ceiling heights and dividing a room in two to make each a more manageable scale. But such changes would be very expensive at this stage in the process, the builder explained, promising that, "When the house is done, you'll love it." However, the house didn't get better, and when it was finished, it was clear to both of them that they felt no affinity for it. It seemed ostentatious to them. The scale of each room was overwhelming.

    Laura took me upstairs to show me the master bathroom. "Look at this," she exclaimed, "our previous bedroom wasn't even this size!" Although the couple now faulted themselves for being naive, they were simply following the process that is standard to working with a builder and selecting from a stock set of plans. They were not offered an opportunity for input into the design. And they didn't know how to ask for or give the feedback necessary to make it an expression of their lifestyle and their values. Like many people building a new house, Paul and Laura didn't have the words to describe what they wanted, nor did they realize how important it was to have input into the "feel" of the house. If a builder hears that a home buyer wants a spacious family room, he reasonably assumes that they are asking for a BIG family room. To Paul and Laura, almost anything would have seemed spacious compared to their previous home.

    The outcome was that Paul and Laura had built a $500,000 house that was nowhere close to their dream of home. After spending almost three times the value of their previous house, they were deeply unhappy. They told me they felt no desire to make the house their own by furnishing it or personalizing it in any way. Their story was horrifying to me. And even more alarming is the fact that Paul and Laura are not alone. Over the last couple of years, more and more people who have lived in these impersonal, oversized houses have come to our office and asked, "Is there an alternative? Can you design us a house that is more beautiful and more reflective of our personalities--a house we will enjoy living in?"

    The answer is, of course, yes. And the key lies in building Not So Big, in spending more money on the quality of the space and less on the sheer quantity of it. So this book is for Paul and Laura and for everyone like them, whether building from scratch or remodeling, who wants a special home that expresses something significant about their lives and values but who doesn't know how to get it.


Excerpted from "The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live" by Sarah Susanka. Copyright © 1998 by Sarah Susanka. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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