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VOL. 3, NO. 4 -- JUNE/JULY 2001

Sarah Susanka: A Richer Life in "Not-So-Big" Homes

By Karen O'Keefe

Architect and best-selling author Sarah Susanka published her first book, "The Not So Big House," in 1998, shining a light on the uncomfortable mismatch between Americans and their houses. Recently Susanka talked about that mismatch in an interview with The Town Paper and shared her ideas for a better fit that are spreading like wildfire through the American housing market.

In the fable, "The Emperor's New Clothes," the open mind and clear vision of a little boy enabled him to say something none of the other royal subjects had been able to articulate. The pompous emperor and his new clothes were not the "match" everyone was saying they were.

"The emperor is naked," said the boy.

In the same way as the emperor and his "new" clothing were not suited to each other, many Americans are living in homes that are unsuited to the lives of their inhabitants. As clearly as the boy in the fable, in a way that people who do not practice architecture can embrace, Sarah Susanka has pointed this out.

We have been round pegs living in square holes.

"Bigger is better" has been the mantra of the real estate world and housing market for many decades. There never seemed to be a reason to question that philosophy. When homes didn't seem quite right -- comfortable enough, nurturing enough, suited well enough to our individual lifestyles -- the assumption has usually been that more space was the answer.

Quite simply, that assumption was wrong. Living in a well-designed, well-crafted home, says Susanka, enriches life in ways that a "starter castle" could never do.

Her insights have changed the way many of us look at homes today. That bigger is NOT better is a fact already well-understood by the growing new urbanist movement and manifested in hundreds of traditional neighborhood developments. Now, thanks to Susanka -- and devotees of Not So Big principles -- that message is gaining purchase throughout the United States.

Susanka says the seeds of Not So Big ideas were planted when she was a child and architect-in-the-making growing up in England. "All through childhood, I was interested in houses," she says. "I was always looking at the environment -- at what worked and what didn't work. I have a good spatial memory. I paid attention to where I felt comfortable."

Moving from England to California as a teen with her family was major culture shock for Susanka. "My village in England was one-third the size of my high school in L.A."

However, she says, the benefit of that cultural jolt has been the insight implicit in Not So Big ideas. She saw the way Americans ignored their dining and living rooms -- rooms used every day by families in England. She identified the automatic incorporation of wasted, superfluous space in many American homes.

"Something implicit in the pattern didn't fit," says Susanka. "While we've been busy evolving over the past century, most of our houses have not. Their evolution has been constricted by outdated notions of what we think we need and what the real estate industry says we need for resale."

Susanka practiced residential architecture in Minneapolis before publishing her book. Last October, she published a second book, "Creating the Not So Big House," which focuses on visual weight, layering, framed openings and other design strategies in a close-up look at 25 diverse, North American houses designed according to Not So Big principles.

Her message has hit a vein in the American psyche -- and the American soul.

"This message isn't talked about," she says. "The whole culture believes people want bigger houses. A whole segment of people are disenfranchised because they don't have a voice."

Susanka spoke at sold-out lecture sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington in early April. "If you don't use your formal living room, you are one of about 85 percent of the population," she told the standing-room-only crowd. "There is a need for a much broader range of houses than we allow."

In planning a home, she says "there needs to be a metamorphosis ... a thought process [wherein you] eliminate the things you don't use anymore, and the things you do for 'resale,' and use the money elsewhere. "We've each got a limited amount of money. Let's use it. Let's look at how you really use space."

Susanka says her ideas work for existing houses, too. The point is to transform the house into "a place of one's own" a place that's yours.

Susanka feels a strong bond between the philosophy of her work and the new urbanist movement. "As with the Not So Big House, new urbanists have looked back to the precedents of the past to understand what features of these old towns and villages are missing today. Similarly, too, much of what they're learning has to do with scale, proportion and interrelationship."

The same thinking should apply in the planning of residential areas, she argues. As it is today, the typical process in developing a piece of land is "first to remove the trees, then lay out the roads."

"With the publication of "The Not So Big House," people ... recognized a resonance with the objectives of the New Urbanism. The two are natural companions, and both offer hope to those longing for the timeless, more soulful quality that an older home and an older neighborhood can have."

The depth, wisdom and humanity of Susanka's ideas belie their "Not So Big" tag. Not So Big does not mean "small," as Susanka points out. Bigger is not better. At the core of Not So Big is a spirituality, and a sense that a home needs to be a conduit to the heart and the humanity of the people who live there.

Susanka says it best in "The Not So Big House:"

"Underlying all of the chapters of this book is a request that we look more closely at ourselves, at how we want to live, at what inspires us, and at what our planet needs to return to balance. If we can start reflecting these values in what we build to house ourselves, we will be making a small but significant incremental step in helping humanity to truly live the extraordinary spirit that we are born with."