Small Miracles: The Not So Big House

Sarah Susanka hit upon a huge idea, one that touched a major nerve, when she wrote The Not So Big House.


Susanka incorporated a large picture window in her living room, which allows her to feel more connected with the woods surrounding her home and the wildlife that lives in them. Minnesota winters have never been a favorite of Susanka’s, but being able to participate with the external world while she’s in her home has made them easier. Relaxing in the home she designed for herself in St. Paul, Minnesota, has helped Susanka cope with the many demands of success. “It was incredible to move into that house—there was a sense of calm, of being pretty constantly delighted by the light, the composition,” she says.

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In 1977, while she was an architecture student at the University of Oregon, Sarah Susanka became fascinated by traditional Japanese architecture. She admired the spare design, the inherent restraint. In a term paper titled “Simplicity and Elegance,” she struggled to explain the quiet brilliance of this architectural style.

Just a few weeks after she’d graduated, Susanka’s first client gave her a poorly photocopied magazine article that defined the concept she admired as Shibui, an integral aspect of Japanese design. “Although a thing that is Shibui looks effortlessly simple—as though it could be no other way—to arrive at such a solution through the process of design is in fact a complex process,” Susanka explains. “It’s analogous to making a fine sauce for a meal. The final sauce tastes wonderful, but gives no indication of the variety of ingredients, time, or effort that have gone into its making. Having a name for the quality that so intrigued me helped to focus my thinking about architecture and design, and I kept the article for another twenty years, referring to it every once in a while as I explored and developed my own approach.”

In 1997, Susanka—by then a St. Paul, Minnesota-based architect much sought after for her simple, elegant designs—had taken on the task of writing her first book,  The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live  (The Taunton Press, 1998). She mentioned the concept of Shibui to one of her editors and was stunned when he handed her two old House Beautiful magazines containing the originals of those hard-to-read copies. He’d picked them up at a garage sale many years earlier.

“It seems almost miraculous the way this issue reappeared in my life after two decades,” Susanka says. “But the more I come to understand how the universe works, the more I realize that it could really be no other way. The appearance of synchronicities can be our lens into the profoundly rich learning ground in which we’re planted, and, if we’re observant, can light the way toward transformation.”

Firmness, Commodity and Delight

When Vitruvius, the first-century Roman statesman, proclaimed that our dwellings should offer “firmness, commodity and delight,” he was, in a way, advocating the Not So Big philosophy. It’s almost as though, after World War II, we decided that we had to concentrate on structural stability and function in our houses but didn’t have enough resources to allow for comfort and charm. Since then, size has been added to the equation, but precious little delight or commodity.

The Not So Big House puts commodity and delight back where they belong. And it does so by its very nature. With its functions streamlined to everyday activities and its architecture designed and tailored to the lives of those who live there, the Not So Big House celebrates the beauty of daily life. With minimum means, it makes the act of living an art. It restores the soul to the structure. Firmness, commodity and delight—all at play together—turn a house into a home.

From The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live, by Sarah Susanka (The Taunton Press, 1998)

Spawning a Movement

Appreciation for everyday miracles—small and large—is the cornerstone of Susanka’s considerable force. Based on an idea as deceptively simple as Shibui, The Not So Big House urges readers to shift their focus from quantity of space (square footage) to quality of space (craftsmanship, thoughtful design, and attention to detail). The book has spawned a movement that has grown to mammoth proportions. A runaway bestseller—with more than 300,000 copies in print, it has outsold just about every other book on home building and remodeling—it has led to a host of knockoffs, a website that registers 24,000 hits a day, and a dizzying fame for its author, who has since switched her focus from designing to public speaking and promotion of ideals that have hit a major American nerve. She expanded on many of the themes she introduced in The Not So Big House in Creating the Not So Big House (The Taunton Press, 2000) and will offer further enlightenment in Back to the Drawing Board, which is due out in October 2002, and From House to Home, due out in October 2003.

“For that first book, I decided to do literally no personally initiated promotion—one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life,” says Susanka, who had actively promoted her work to the press in the past. “And what happened was so much more than I could have orchestrated. It’s like this huge burden gets lifted off your shoulders when you absolutely understand that the universe will put in front of you way more potential than you thought you could handle. You just have to realize you’re not the conductor.”

If not the conductor, Susanka has most definitely composed this movement. At its core is a call for smaller, better houses, an understanding of what makes a house a home, a plea for stewardship of the earth, and a spiritual awakening. “We should 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,” Susanka writes in the afterword of The Not So Big House.

A Personal Journey

For Susanka, putting these concepts into print, and into the world’s consciousness, has been a personal spiritual journey—at times a harrowing one. “As I started to write, I realized that there was something much more than just my experience with clients coming through,” she says. “It felt like, somehow, I was giving people permission to express themselves in a spiritual way through their house. And I think that’s exactly what’s happened.”

Susanka, who grew up as “a very spiritual kid in a family that wasn’t at all religious,” has always felt an “internal knowing that there’s something much greater than we understand” guiding the universe. “A lot of my spiritual leanings as a child were through engaging in the experience of place,” she remembers.

Susanka spent nine long months at her laptop in 1997, pouring these insights into her first draft of The Not So Big House. She was more than a bit distressed, then, when her publisher asked for a rewrite. He wanted her to tone it down, cater to a more mainstream audience. Consumed by a feeling of powerlessness and afraid her message would be corrupted, Susanka sat in deep meditation for days. And at a workshop on the subject of Sacred Service, she reached her epiphany.

“Suddenly I was filled to overflowing with an aching sadness,” Susanka writes. “All the souls of the oppressed feminine energies of millennia came pouring forth through me into the world. I knew inexplicably that my role in this life is to help reawaken this knowing of the feminine principle, and to rebalance the division between masculine and feminine energies in the planet and her peoples. Until this moment, such a thought had never even crossed my mind. I would have thought it arrogant beyond words.”

Bringing the Feminine Home

As she subsequently worked it out with her editor, Susanka discovered that her true mission in writing The Not So Big House was “to bring our homes into harmony by giving credence to intuition, to the need for comfort, and to the home’s ability to nurture the lives within—all aspects of the neglected feminine. Our houses can be places of beauty and inspiration; they can be the still point and the place of the heart.”

Susanka’s references to the feminine are about a quality of energy, not an issue of gender, she’s quick to point out. Her purpose—to bring about a rebalancing of the system of rules by which society operates—is much more holistic. “We’ve had a definite preoccupation with quantity, a more masculine characteristic—which doesn’t mean male,” she says. “Rebalancing just means bringing a little more feminine energy into being so we can act from the center. Home really is the place of nurturing—of security, rest, letting down, being more calm. In many ways, it’s the place you go in your life to have a jolt of femininity.”

Without preaching or proselytizing, Susanka has given people quiet permission to think about their homes as spiritual havens. A semi-taboo subject three years ago, that idea is now taking root in often surprising places—including the mainstream media. “It’s been interesting to be this sort of spokesperson and to discover over the last three years how much more willing people are to talk about spirituality in everyday life,” she says. “Three years ago people worried that spirituality might be about religion—a very dangerous subject for the media. But I think the awareness that you can talk about the spirit without discriminating—that you don’t have to polarize the situation—is just thrilling to many people. They understand right away that this is less about nuts and bolts and more about expressing in matter what we know intuitively within us.”

For Susanka, centering that concept around place—be it the home or a community retreat center—is key. With the profits from The Not So Big House, she and some friends formed Maitrhea, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to helping to create nondenominational sacred spaces for the individual, the group, and the culture. Through its website, the group helps people find retreat centers around the country; it is also bringing together those who share the vision of building places for gatherings and sacred learning.

“I’m just speaking this idea into the marketplace,” Susanka says. “It’s much bigger than one person can evolve—like saying, We have a need for motels. I sort of feel like I am just a voicepiece, and the idea will continue to grow and evolve. When I first got this sense of a mission, I thought I had to do something. And then I realized I don’t actually have to do anything; it’s happening all by itself. I just let things evolve—and when the time is right, whatever’s going to happen will happen.”

Susanka compares herself to the Fool of the Tarot card, stepping off the precipice and trusting the outcome. “None of us is alone as we step,” she states. “We fall into a myriad rocking arms, singing the one true song, dancing the only dance there is, to awaken us from our sleep.”

Sitting in the Attic

Sarah Susanka began meditating as a child—before she even knew what meditation was.

“Whether you think of it as prayer or quiet time, meditation is an immensely important practice,” she says. “The point is to bring you completely into the present, quiet the mind, simply be, without paying attention to thought noise. I describe it as inner listening. When you can do that, it allows what needs to happen in life to happen.”

Susanka spends many hours in her attic meditation space, a respite from the demands of writing, speaking, and travel that have come with the success of The Not So Big House.

“When I started to design this house, I knew I wanted an attic, but I hadn’t felt completely okay about creating a sacred space for myself,” she says. “I thought that space should be in combination with something else. But as I worked on the design, I realized this was my sacred space—a place to be this spiritual person.”

The first time she climbed the ladder into the attic and sat on her meditation cushion, Susanka felt as though she’d fused with the intuitive spiritual being she’d felt within all her life. “If you make a place like this, with the intention to make time to use it, wonderful things can happen,” she promises.