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

Overview

The Not So Big House proposes clear, workable guidelines for creating homes that serve both our spiritual needs and our material requirements, whether for a couple with no children, a family, empty nesters, or one person alone. In 1938, LIFE magazine commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design a dream home for America. The result was the Usonian house, an enduring model of modest-sized residential architecture. Now, Sarah Susanka, brings Wright's same commonsense, human-scale design principles to our generation. ...
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Overview

The Not So Big House proposes clear, workable guidelines for creating homes that serve both our spiritual needs and our material requirements, whether for a couple with no children, a family, empty nesters, or one person alone. In 1938, LIFE magazine commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design a dream home for America. The result was the Usonian house, an enduring model of modest-sized residential architecture. Now, Sarah Susanka, brings Wright's same commonsense, human-scale design principles to our generation. Consider which rooms in your house you use and enjoy most, and you have a sense of the essential principles of The Not So Big House. Whether you seek comfort and calm or activity and energy at home, The Not So Big House offers a place for every mood.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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 of privacy.

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.
— Soozan Baxter

Library Journal
Architect Susanka believes that the large homes being built today place too much emphasis on square footage rather than on current lifestyles. Here she shows how homes can be designed to feature "adaptable spaces open to one another, designed for everyday use." She describes how to examine occupants' lifestyles, how to incorporate the kitchen as the focal point of the home, how to give the illusion of space, and how, with storage, lighting, and furniture arrangement, a smaller home can be comfortably livable. Photographs of contemporary homes as well as those by Frank Lloyd Wright and other modern architects illustrate Susanka's ideas and show the timelessness of the style she advocates. This thought-provoking book will be a good addition to architectural and interior design collections.
Booknews
Susanka designs houses for living: comfortable, compact, uncrowded space for, often, multiple functions. Contrast her inviting, manageable houses with the vulgar, wasteful, show-off monuments to consumption containing specialized rooms that are rarely used (often because they are icy, sterile, forbidding). Taunton's usual splendid photography is evident in some 200 color plates. Floor plans show how traffic and life will flow.
From The Critics
The principle theme throughout The Not So Big House: A Blueprint For The Way We Really Live is that when it comes to the places in which we live our private lives, quality should come before quantity. Highly recommended reading for the non-specialist general reader with an interest in interior design, Sarah Susanka" The Not So Big House provides homeowners the "language" they need to convey to architects, contractors, and interior designers the comfort, beauty, and level of detail that best suits their own personal lifestyles and needs. Also very highly recommended is Susanka's companion volume, Creating The Not So Big House (377-4, $34.95), in which she provides an informative and inspiring survey of twenty-five houses designed according to her "not so big" design principles.
Washington Post
[Susanka shows] how to downsize the dream house without diminishing the dream.
Jay Walljasper
...[W]hy not skip the cost of building or buying a gigantic house with rooms you rarely use....The book is full of practical plans...[to use] space more efficiently and elegantly.
Utne Reader
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781600851506
  • Publisher: Taunton Press, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 9/15/2009
  • Edition description: Expanded ed.
  • Edition number: 10
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 498,991
  • Product dimensions: 9.90 (w) x 9.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Sarah Susanka is one of the leading residential architects in the United States. Her first book, "The Not So Big House," topped best-seller charts in Home & Garden categories in its first year of publication. Susanka has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the Charlie Rose Show, and NPR's Diane Rehm Show. She is a former principal and founding partner of Mulfinger, Susanka, Mahady & Partners, Inc., the firm chosen by LIFE magazine to design its 1999 Dream House.

Kira Obolensky has written for print, film, and stage. She co-authored Sarah Susanka's national bestseller, "The Not So Big House. Kira's book, "Garage, was published in 2001. She has received a number of writing awards and fellowships, including the Kesselring Prize and a Guggenheim fellowship. She lives in Minneapolis.

Sarah Susanka is known far and wide as the leader of a movement that has redefined the American home. She has shared her insights in many best-selling books, including The Not So Big House, the revolutionary title that started it all. Susanka has been invited to share her insights on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Charlie Rose, and HGTV; she is regularly profiled in leading shelter magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

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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...

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Table of Contents

Introduction 2
Bigger Isn't Better 6
Rethinking the House 28
Making Not So Big Work 60
Lifestyles of the Not So Rich and Famous 100
Dreams, Details and Dollars 132
The House of the Future 174
Afterword 194
Bibliography 195
Credits 196
Index 198
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First Chapter

Introduction

    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

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 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.

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Sort by: Showing all of 14 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 11, 2002

    Not-so-big is relative

    As someone who is planning to build in the next couple of years, this book is phenomenal! I read every word and studied every diagram and have already ordered her sequel. She makes you understand why you feel so uncomfortable in the new cookie cutter homes and that your true needs rather than convention and tradition should guide your home design and use. Yes, she does address 3,000 sq-ft homes, but she also explores a 900 sq-ft model and addresses the tight budgets facing most of us and how to get the most bang for your buck.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 7, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Not really my style but great information on design.

    This book has lots of photos that run to the Craftsman and Scandinavian styles of interior design. So, if that's your style, you'll be immediately attracted to this book. I like a more casual interior style myself. But even if the photos don't particularly jive with your taste, the text is full of great advice on home design for smaller homes and why certain spaces are more comfortable than others. It's a great read for someone home shopping or looking to make improvements to their home in addition to those looking to design a new home.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 28, 2006

    Big ideas come in small packages

    I read this book in a weekend. After I finished the book I used many of her suggestions to redesign my bedroom to include an office space, reading nook and even entertaining area. A great read and great ideas for creating comfortable and functional areas in our home.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 21, 2001

    Good Photos But Title Does Not Represent Book!

    3000 square feet is hardly considered a 'small house'! The author is not very realistic. Even though the contents of book does contribute some lovely design ideas, the title of the book is deceiving. I almost purchased the book, until I realized it was not written for folks who are 'small home owners'.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2001

    This book is not about small houses

    This is a very good book and I enjoyed the many ideas. Throughout the book, however, I found the author to be out of touch with the average American in that she keeps talking about living in a smaller home - appoximately 3000 square feet. 3000 square feet is not small to the average home buyer. I felt in reading the book that she was living in a different world than most folks and wasn't even aware of it.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 7, 2001

    A Wonderful Book!

    This is one of those rare, wonderful books where you don't just want to look at the pictures--you read every word, and wish for more. It is a jewel of a book that can help you create a jewel of a home.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 23, 2001

    lost on which book has the info i need

    i watched a show with susan on discovery and was excited about the concrete counters in the kitchen. i just loved them. my husband has worked with concete for 25 yrs. he would like a installation plan. if possible

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 24, 2000

    a reviewer

    I saw the Book in a store, I couldn't buy it, but, when I was looking at it, they had very good pictures and interesting house insides.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 3, 2000

    A book you must read before you build.

    Not only is Sarah Susanka an understanding architect, she is also a master teacher. She was able to retrain us the way we should look at the place we call 'home'. The concepts that she taught in this book are essential in transforming a house into a comfortable living space - a space that we'll enjoy, a space that will grow with us as time passes. We have five children, including a handicapped child, and we spend a lot of time at home. Like most people, space is always an issue. Sarah was able to convince us merely bigger space doesn't necessarily equate to happiness. She taught the concept of 'alcove' which is an intimate space that enables us to feel warm and secured in any room we are in. An alcove becomes the building block to the efficency and comfortability of any room's space. You must read this book and you'll enjoy reading it. I love Sarah's ideas, enthusiasm, and vision. If building your house is your choice, why not build it they way you can really live in and enjoy. The great thing is that it doesn't cost you much more than not doing it. All it takes is thinking and planning. Read the book and let Sarah put you in the driver's seat.

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