If you think that living in a sprawling mansion is a dream come true, really think about your decision. You probably already spend more of your time in the kitchen and family rooms than in the formal living and dining rooms. You probably are more c omfortable in an intimate, cozy breakfast room than in an oversized room with the acoustics of a sports stadium.
Between model homes and dictator-like builders it is difficult to translate your vision of what a home should be like into a plan your builder completely understands. Whether you live alone, have a huge family, or are an empty nester, The Not So Big House, written by Sarah Susanka with Kira Obolensky, offers some guidelines to help you design a house that reflects the personalities and lifestyles of the inhabitants of the house.
Susanka, who was asked to design the 1999 Life magazine dream house and whose architecture reflects that of Frank Lloyd Wright Jr., stresses the
importance of spending money on the quality of the space rather than on the quantity. With the help of a good architect, not to mention all of the tips included
in The Not So Big House, it will be easy for you to see that when the focus is on strong details, square footage can easily be reduced.
How, you may wonder? When you maximize every square foot of your house, you consider making spaces take on double-duty roles. For instance, most
people have a room set apart from the kitchen for eating; Susanka suggests creating an eating room t hat can serve double duty for formal eating and
everyday dining. Another idea is to put stools at the kitchen's island countertop for casual eating.The Not So Big House also stresses organization. For families that are not big television watchers, Susanka suggests putting it in a cabinet so that it is not the focal point of a room. She also suggests creating a "control center" for the home, which consolidates the cordless phone, thermostats, lighting, and air-quality controls in one unit. Susanka also suggests planning with the future in mind. This means considering making entryways two-feet, eight-inches wide so that a wheelchair could fit
through, designing creative and flexible rooms for kids to grow in, and building closets in the office space so that it can also be used as a guest room with lots
All of these extras that really make a house special are going to cost you. If you think practically, a fine balance can be achieved between quality, quantity, and cost. The Not So Big House does have some cost-effective suggestions that are wort h checking out, such as a combined dining and living area, using a lower grade of cedar in the exterior, and using standard-size materials. Susanka's clearly written book, with 200 photographs, will inspire you whether you are going to build, are remodeling, or are just imagining your dream home.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: Bigger Isn't Better "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 rowafter 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...