In an era of “big, bigger, and biggest,” Sarah Susanka quite possibly is the leader of a quiet revolution in the building industry. Susanka’s flowing architectural style and respect for the planet has touched a gentle flame to a candle of change.
Thoughtful and soft-spoken, Susanka expresses her idea of minimal footprints on the earth through her architecture. A registered architect and member of the American Institute of Architects, Susanka grew up in England, living in smaller, more economical spaces. “I moved from England when I was 14, to the suburbs of Los Angeles. I went from a village to a high school that was 3 times the size of that village. The thing that really struck me was that although the rooms in California homes had the same names as the rooms in my English house, nobody used the formal living and dining rooms that I could tell. In fact many friends had the plastic covers on the furniture in the living and dining room. My family used every room every day.
“I think because I grew up with something so different, in how it was used, I was able to see that doesn’t make a lot of sense. People were spending a lot of money decorating and building spaces that they very rarely used. The more I got steeped in the culture the more I realized that was definitely the norm.”
Susanka spent 16 years as a founding partner of Minneapolis-based Mulfinger, Susanka, Mahady & Partners, Inc. While working with the firm, Susanka began to notice a trend among her clients.
“Most people have limited financial resources when they come to build or remodel. They would arrive with an expectation of vastly more square footage than they could afford. They assumed that bigger was better. We see it in so many parts of our society, whether you are talking about food, clothing or cars, there is this same dilemma. But what we are really looking for doesn’t get satisfied with supersizing.
“They would bring in images from magazines and that sort of thing, and they wanted the details and character that their pictures showed. But they were really looking for a feeling. So I tried to get people to think about what really matters. Is it size, or is it the character of the space you surround yourself with? And the character of the space, if it is well designed, is going to feel bigger anyway. So let’s make the space smaller so that you can actually have it be something that’s got real character to it.”
As a result of her work with her clients, Susanka began to realize the need for information on the “build better, not bigger” idea. Her 1998 book, “The Not So Big House,” landed on the Amazon Home and Garden bestseller list. Her second book, “Creating the Not So Big House,” ranked among the top 15 New York Times “Advice and How To” book bestseller list. In 2001, Susanka was among Fast Company’s top 50 innovators whose ideas helped change society, and Builder magazine ranked her number 14 in its “most influential people in the building industry.”
On the surface, statistics show that consumers are continuing to build larger homes with more square footage. In fact, a recent survey by the National Home Builders of America shows that the average new home built in 2004 was 2200 square feet, with only 4% of homes under 1200 square feet. “I think there is a much bigger market for [smaller homes], but everything in our society encourages people to go bigger than that,” says Susanka. “I can’t tell you how many people I have talked to who initially wanted to build that small but were actually talked out of it or were not allowed to do it by their bank. I had one client where the couple bought a site with a walk-out basement. They decided to build their bedrooms in that lower level so they could save money and would be building less space – and it was beautiful at that walk-out level. The bank would not lend them money because they didn’t perceive the lower level as livable. They saw it as building a house without bedrooms, because they were not counting the basement. It is a wonderful example of our cultural myopia of what we understand space to be, and it stops people from doing this very thing.”
But the message is being heard – and is growing – at a grassroots level. “The average homeowner wants beauty and quality but can’t afford one of these enormous houses. The same thing happened during the Victorian era. Houses got bigger, and Gustaf Stickley and William Morris and a lot of the arts and crafts movement originators said, there is something wrong with this picture. Let’s create a set of designs for people of average means that is really going to inspire them in their everyday life. I think when things get way out on a limb in terms of size, there is also this counterbalancing movement. That is what new urbanism is.”
On Susanka’s website, http://www.notsobighouse.com, a link tells about the “cultural creatives,” – a group of 50 million who subscribe to the thought of a more balanced and sustainable lifestyle. “A lot of what I am writing is trying to peel away the surface so you can see what underlies that – what animates the space and really makes it a wonderful place to live. There are many new urban communities and more people looking to move to that kind of environment. So there are a lot of people who subscribe to this kind of rethinking about how we are living, but we don’t see them because they are not respected in the mass media.”
Susanka stresses that a not so big house is not necessarily less expensive, and is certainly not limited by size. It is an idea of quality before expanse, taking the cost out of square footage and putting it into the details. “The first step in sustainability is size. By making it smaller, it doesn’t cost nearly as much in utility bills, especially if you have done a good job of energy efficiency. It is a very simple but key understanding to sustainability.”
In the book, “Inside the Not So Big House,” (coauthored by Marc Vassalo, 2005 Taunton Press), Susanka profiles a home owned by a couple in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. The home measures a mere 18 ft by 18 ft, but its unique pinwheel design and open layering within the interior maximizes space and offers visual expanse. Rooms are connected without hallways, and that idea of differentiation without isolation lends a feeling of composure within the home.
“In little homes, the hallway takes up a lot of area and it is pretty much wasted. If you look at this home, it has an incredible depth of detail and integrity. It looks and feels much bigger than it really is, because of the detail. In every space you can look into another space. The differentiation between the pieces and the layers of stuff that you look through makes it feel bigger. People often assume if I put something in the way then the space will feel smaller, but actually the exact opposite happens.”
The 2006 book, “Outside the Not So Big House,” (coauthored by Julie Moir Messervy, Taunton Press) brings to the forefront Susanka’s unique brand of “Tai Chi Chuan architecture,” working to incorporate body, mind and energy into every project. In the book, both Messervy and Susanka impress the thought of making home and garden work together as one unit.
“In your home and garden, it is important to embody what you feel as your inner nature. Just being able to look out of the window and be able to see to the edge of the property and beyond, and to have that be an extended part of the sense of home, the whole landscape tends to embrace your life within that house. The ideas in this book are really about the weaving of inside and outside – and the landscape is literally the arms around the building.”
Susanka explains how a landscape can be viewed as a journey to and from other places, or as an event of its own, impacting not only the homeowner, but also the visitor. “A landscape actually does something – it is not just there to look at, but it provides the path that takes you around the property and then places along the way. There is an engagement with the property and the land that really enhances the experience of it. In terms of the inside space, you can think of the places or events as activity places. Outside the house you can do just the same thing. You can create a sense of activity places connected by vistas and by paths. The idea of journey and event places along the way is a really different concept.”
In the book, Susanka talks about transitions from the inside to the outside, or “psychological breathing space.” She explains that these transitional areas used as both entrances and exits, are places to ready yourself for the changing of space – an emotional portal of sorts. “Whenever you come or go from building to garden or garden to building, you are moving from openness to more enclosure or vice versa. You are setting the stage with whatever you go through for the new experience. That in-between spot allows you time to recollect yourself.”
In one home highlighted in the book, coauthor Julie Moir Messervy introduced large chunks of stone at the doorways of the home, creating threshold steps that the homeowner or visitor can stand upon before entering or exiting the home. “You are still in the house because you’ve got the overhang over your head, but you are standing on this big piece of stone, a very natural material, and looking out into what you are about to step into,” says Susanka. “It gives you the sense of being out in nature, on something very natural, but still at the level of the house. It creates that graceful in-between.”
This concept doesn’t have to compromise efficiency when one needs to go from one place to another – for instance, unloading groceries from a car to a kitchen counter. “A straight path is not a bad thing,” says Susanka. “You can have a straight path that is beautiful in its straightness. I think oftentimes when people do a path the straight line is only practical and not anything else. That’s where we get into this block. Oftentimes, the events consist of looking, of seeing views from the places along the way. There is a garden I went to in Japan, where there were paths through this beautiful property, and every step you took, the vistas changed. It was an incredibly active experience, even though you are only taking one step then another step then another step. What your eye was given as a view was stunning and appealing and shifted in ways that you wouldn’t have believed is possible. That is an example of a straight path, but what your eye is presented with is dramatically different.”
In both books, Susanka touches on the idea of using recycled and local materials in the home and garden, keeping with her belief in the importance of living lightly on the land. “I would say sustainability is really important to me. My own experience with reuse of materials was that it takes a particular kind of client to really make it happen. It is usually fairly labor intensive, so although people think it is a good idea initially, if it requires a lot of money to pay somebody to make it happen, it ends up falling by the wayside. That’s really unfortunate. I wish there were more companies that really helped people to salvage and reuse materials.”
Susanka explains that a landscape does not end at a property line. The horizon, the neighbor’s house, the world outside the homeowner’s borders, can be used as another dimension to the home and garden. By using local materials, Susanka says, the home owner creates a more natural look, blending with the outer edges of a property. “I think it is important for people to look at what is around them, and not do something that is dramatically out of place. As far as local materials are concerned, I think it is just a good thing to do. I think there are people who really subscribe to that attitude and there are others who don’t see the importance of it. From a sustainability standpoint, you are not shipping materials hither and yon, so it makes all the sense in the world.”
This idea plays into the “Tai Chi Chuan” idea, using the path of least resistance. Susanka suggests finding recycling resources in the area. Quite often a homeowner could start with salvaged materials, and design around them. “It is actually a really cool way to design. For example, I worked for a client who got a lot of the pieces in the house, the focal points, from an architectural antique salvage yard. We went to the yard, and we picked out about six or seven things – pieces of woodwork, fireplace surrounds – and then built them into the house and designed around those pieces. It is a little like designing around somebody’s art collection.”
If a homeowner was able to make or create only one or two changes to their existing landscape, Susanka suggests establishing small vignettes that can be viewed from windows or doors. “I’m a huge believer that the inside of your house needs to be fed by the outside. Ask yourself, what is the window that I look out of the most? Then design what you see off that window as a composition. It is such a simple technique and it has a profound effect on your interior experience. Put something in the foreground or background that can become that kind of focal point.”
Susanka’s book, “The Not So Big Life,” (May 2007, Taunton Press) knocks down the walls and hedges and explores the mind, using the same principles that she uses in her architecture. “As in remodeling a house, we need to remodel the way we are living a life. Many people don’t feel at home in their own life,” says Susanka. “Part of why people feel so frustrated today is they feel all of their gizmos -their time saving devices – are running them. The emails, and the Blackberries –everything is just raining down information so you hardly feel there is time to breathe. We’ve almost become human doings instead of human beings. The busier we get the less time we have to do that stepping away. So there are some very simple techniques for how to step outside the fray for just a few minutes. Change happens through learning more about who you are as a human being. Then as you do that, everything shifts.”
(For more small home living, visit Kerri Fivecoat Campbell’s blog )