Home, Small Home

Sarah Susanka is the champion of a big idea — the proposition that Americans should embrace "Not So Big" houses that satisfy their real needs, rather than build starter castles designed to make a statement.

I am in search of a dream house.

I am driving along the outer edges of Raleigh, North Carolina in search of this house and its inhabitant, a now-famous architect who has found her calling as a drafting-table psychologist, probing the most potent symbol of the American dream like a modern-day Freud armed with a mechanical pencil.

I am close to the house, in the cul de sac where it sits even, but no single one stands out as being hers. With their bright paint, swaying flags, porch swings, and modest scale, all of the residences are more appealing than the cookie-cutter mansions that dot the landscape of the urban fringes these days. But certainly, Sarah Susanka, the author of The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live (Taunton Press, 1998), perhaps the best-selling book in the history of the world on building and retooling a home, ought to live someplace truly extraordinary.

I finally walk in, however, and it's just a house, like many other nice houses. The entry is not double-height. The refrigerator is a GE Profile, not a Sub-Zero. The screened-in porch is a bit noisy, thanks to the swim club the next block over. The master bath has no whirlpool tub, no sexy see-through shower.

This, it turns out, is just the way Susanka likes it. In fact, the house is a showcase for her ideas, though it's not exactly showy. Susanka wrote The Not So Big House as a prescription for all of the miserable people she'd counseled over the years, homeowners who were profoundly dissatisfied with what were supposed to be their so-called "dream houses." Her diagnosis? Susanka believes that many successful people are afflicted with starter-castle complex, and they build or buy houses to impress other people instead of satisfying their own particular needs.

Susanka's remedy suggests the following: Build or buy a house that's a third smaller than your original goal, but spend just as much on it as you had originally planned. Think quality over quantity and comfort over size, and personalize it to fit your needs. Her model home connects most of the ground floor with the cooking, eating, and lounging space all running together. She's big on little details too: corner nooks, varied ceiling heights, carved molding and railings, and bountiful built-ins. If you're not going to use each space every day, don't build it, or avoid buying houses that have superfluous rooms.

The Not So Big House was not meant to be a manifesto, but readers and remodelers have embraced it anyway as a call to crowbars. So far, 300,000 people have purchased the book, inspired by the ready-made slogans contained within its pages: "Less square footage, made with more care and detail"; "It isn't just a small house. Rather, it's a smaller house, filled with special details"; "The floor plan of the Not So Big House is a map, not a fossil," with Not So Big House capitalized in accordance with its status as a federally registered trademark.

It's tempting to dismiss this all as a full-employment act for architects fed up with erecting anonymous office parks, but Susanka's own house suggests otherwise. When she moved to Raleigh this summer, she chose to buy rather than build. Once she signed the papers, she spent $70,000 rearranging walls and adding detail to about half the rooms in the 1800-square-foot house that she now shares with her husband. "This is the way most people change the way they live in their home," she says, noting that architect fees wouldn't have amounted to much if she had needed to hire someone to design it for her. "Every architect should have to do a project like this at least once."

So this house in Raleigh is not a dream house exactly, not the one that Susanka would necessarily build if she had the time and the inclination. But it does have nice details, and it came with a great screened-in porch. What follows is an edited transcript of a couple of hours of conversation that took place on that porch last week.

When you sat down to write your book, did you realize that you were about to launch a movement?

I was trying to explain to people that there is an alternative to what is being built in suburbia today and to tell them how to go out and get it for themselves. Manifestos tend to polarize things. I've been careful not to point the finger at anyone and say, "Those are the bad guys, and those are the good guys." I'm trying to build consensus.

But before I wrote the book, I had a feeling that in the new world of the Internet, good books wouldn't just disappear. Instead, they'd tap into a seed of an idea, and the Web would be the infrastructure on which to expand that idea. My Web site today takes every message in the book and expands upon it in every possible way. It gives links to people who need technical information on choosing the right panelization company, and it helps others who are reading on a more spiritual level, trying to build a life that's more in line with their values.

The goal was eventually to create a community through a Web site of like-minded people. We get 24,000 page views each day. I've even registered notsobig.com along with the current site, in the event that the conversation grows to include ideas about sustainability and livability that aren't necessarily related to the house itself.

Were you aiming your message at homeowners, or were you really trying to give your fellow architects a gentle shove in a different direction?

On one hand, I did want people who wanted a good house to have a tool, something they could take to architects and builders, and say, "I want this!" People have so little language for this stuff. Words like "spacious" or "cozy" don't really help much, so people are at a distinct disadvantage when they're trying to describe what they really want in a house.

As for the architects, to this day, most of them don't think they can make any money designing houses full-time. And there aren't enough architects who believe that there are clients out there who want what they can do. Still, I know from working with them that a large percentage of them love doing smaller, more refined, carefully detailed designs and projects. So I wanted to help those architects let clients know that they could help those clients with designing homes.

Where did the "Not So Big" language come from?

I had a teacher in college who told me that as you work on any project, you should keep trying to retitle it as it evolves. When I sat down to test-drive the introduction, I knew that doing a "small house" book wasn't right, because that wasn't what I was about. Not So Big just came right out of my pen, and I knew that was it.

What prompts so many people to aspire to homes that are obviously bigger than they could ever need?

Some people build specifically to suit their egos, and I don't have any hope of ever reaching them. Others, when they start to make more money, they just feel this unexplained need to buy more house. It's an established cultural norm at this point. So many people told me that I gave them the courage of their convictions to say, "I'm happy here. Why should I move?" It's interesting to hear how many people consider staying put or not building so much to be such a radical idea.

Then there's the factor that I like to call "fear of too-smallness." Having worked with a lot of clients over the years, it's quite unusual that someone doesn't, at some point in the process, question the architect about whether the house will be too cramped. We have this inbred, cultural fear that we're going to end up claustrophobic. The only way I can think to explain it is that it goes back to our pioneer spirit and the need to move out on the frontier. There is never this concern with Europeans.

A lot of movements are defined as much by what they reject as they are by what they stand for. What parts of the standard-issue American home are you against?

I don't think that the ground floor has kept up with the times. The formal living room is the least-used room in the house, especially if you have a family room or den too. The formal dining room probably comes in as second most-underused. As more women have entered the workforce, the kitchen, at night, when dinner is being prepared, has become the room where many families spend the most time together during the week.

I'm not trying to talk people out of rooms that they actually use. In Washington, DC, 50% of the people really do use their formal dining rooms. But a lot of people have dining rooms for nostalgic reasons, because they have memories of a ritual that took place there or because they use it a couple of times each year for family holidays. It becomes a stage set for special occasions. I just ask people to think about how they really use the space — or how they really could use it. Then I try to help them figure out whether there is a better design solution.

It's not easy to encourage people to get beyond a cultural norm as strong as the definition of a dream house. ls it real-estate agents who put the fear into the hearts of those who would follow your advice?

Their advice is to build, buy, and remodel with the nuclear family in mind — the one with 2.5 kids and a dog and three cars. I think only 25% of the population falls into that kind of description though. The tail is wagging the dog here. People buy the house because the agent is telling them it's safe for resale, and that's accurate information. But it's only accurate because we keep reinforcing the myths about what people will buy and what they will be willing to pay for.

So when you go out and speak about these things, who stands up in the back at the end and heckles you? Is it the real-estate agents? The builders?

I haven't been heckled. If there were any hecklers, I'd remind them that I'm not trying to tell people that one way of living is worse than another. I'm not an ideologue. I'm just saying that there's another way, another market, that everyone is missing.

Some of the builders have actually gotten excited about these ideas, and they're identifying my book in their sales literature — which is great. It allows people to use it as a signpost to identify the sort of character that they're looking for in a home.

Even though you're preaching a less-is-more worldview, isn't this a philosophy that only rich people can afford?

It's true that in most of the country, you can't acquire land and build a house like the ones I'm describing for less than $400,000. There are an awful lot of people in that price range though, and they do need to know that they have options.

One of my goals is to push these ideas further into the development community, where people are building many homes at once. It could be a huge market for developers. Those that can offer some of the characteristics I describe in the $200,000 range are going to make out like bandits. There are ways to do it, but it's hard to afford doing it when you're building one house at a time.

I want to avoid giving the impression that you can't do anything if you don't have a lot of money. That's not the case. The cheaper way to get a Not So Big House is to buy an existing one and make modifications. You open up the view from the kitchen or take down the walls between the dining room and the living room. In my third book, I'm going to focus on how to render some of these concepts in many different ways, spending more or less amounts of money.

After the book came out, you decided to leave your architecture firm and become a full-time evangelist for these ideas. How's it going so far?

Rarely in life do you get handed a platform, and the possibilities it presents are kind of intimidating in a certain way. I can imagine hundreds of businesses that could spill out of this, all of which could be very lucrative. But publishing architectural home plans or launching other ventures like that isn't where I want to go with this. I'm interesting in getting the ideas out there, and I'm hoping that other people will take the ideas and grow companies around them.

I'm doing one house a year now, for friends whom I made promises to long ago. I figure I have about 10 years of books and speeches in me. But if those don't pan out, I can always go back to being an architect again.

Ron Lieber (rlieber@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer. He leaves in a pretty big apartment, at least for Brooklyn. Contact Sarah Susanka (ssusanka@notsobighouse.com) by email.

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