Mother Earth Living

The Big Debate: Architect Sarah Susanka Discusses the Issue of House Size

Architect Sarah Susanka explains how to rethink the issue of size when designing a home.
By Sarah Susanka
July/August 2003
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Sarah Susanka lives in a snug house in St. Paul.
Photo by Elisabeth Groh
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As I’ve traveled the country during the past few years speaking about The Not So Big House, I’ve heard a lot of opinions about what is and isn’t okay when it comes to house size and design. So many people have an axe to grind. There are those who believe houses should not be more than a particular number of square feet, those who believe they shouldn’t cost more than so many dollars per square foot, those who believe every home should be entirely accessible for the mobility-impaired, and those who believe every home should be built entirely sustainably. All these folks are well-meaning, but their judgments are often based on a limited view of what a house can be—and one that’s not appropriate for everyone.

Fortunately, we are not all the same. We live in an incredibly rich and diverse world, and though each of us might think we know best what everyone else should have, there are always others who hold exactly the opposite view. So rather than pass judgment on whether another’s desires are “good” or “bad” when it comes to house design, perhaps there’s another way of relating to what they choose to live in. I believe we can hold our own values and learn from each other, without criticizing those who build houses we wouldn’t choose for ourselves.

Working as a residential architect, I’ve come to realize that no matter how much money they have, most of my clients are simply seeking a comfortable home that fits their lifestyle. For some, this house will be significantly larger than what I might consider adequate, and for others it will be smaller than I might choose, but that is not for me to determine. Clients who are attracted to my doorstep have come either because they recognize their own values in my work or because they appreciate a similar aesthetic character. My job is to provide service by understanding their priorities in terms of quality, quantity, and cost, and by helping them make wise decisions so their money covers the design aspects they find most important.

The only time I elect not to take a client is when it’s clear our values or aesthetic inclinations are at odds and the client would be better served by someone more in sync with their vision. I don’t try to change them or make them want something different. Instead, I simply recognize that they are expressing something different through the actions of their lives than I am, and I try to help them find someone who can make their new home the best it can be for them.

Living, past and future

Looking from the outside, we neither know the circumstances of another’s approach to building, nor can we anticipate how the resulting house will be received in the future. I had clients several years ago who built quite a large home—certainly more space than they needed for everyday living. I’m sure some of their neighbors judged them as ostentatious. However, the reason for the extra square footage was that they planned to hold regular charity fundraisers, and the house had to be large enough to accommodate at least a hundred people on such occasions. The size of this couple’s house might have angered some, but only because they weren’t aware of the home’s use for charitable work.

Sometimes a house serves as a single-family residence only for a short period and then takes on a more public function. Imagine if people in the 1930s had passed judgment on Frank Lloyd Wright’s design for Edgar Kaufmann—the Bear Run, Pennsylvania, house now known as Fallingwater—and had vandalized it during construction, as happens today to some large homes. Wright’s beautiful design has delighted visitors since it was opened to the public as a museum. When Kaufmann’s weekend retreat was originally built, few imagined it would become a national treasure. At first it functioned only as a second house for a wealthy man and his family. The same is true for hundreds of large, beautifully designed and crafted historic homes that now offer us a glimpse of our cultural past.

The impetus for writing my first book, The Not So Big House (Taunton Press, 1998), came from working with clients who could afford not to worry about resale value. They tended to want informally designed homes—without a formal living room and sometimes even without a formal dining room. Noticing the different choices that this freedom gave my wealthier clients, I could see that we design nearly all our houses today based on a blueprint more appropriate for lifestyles a century ago.

In our current system, all building professionals, from mortgage lenders to appraisers to real estate agents to developers to builders, tell Joe Q. Public what he needs for resale. Unfortunately, there’s no feedback mechanism in this system for Joe Q. to let the professionals know he actually doesn’t use the home’s spaces that way any more. The Not So Big House has motivated a huge number of people all over this country to reevaluate what they need in a home—large or small—based on how we live today, rather than yesteryear.

Only through our differences will we learn to see beyond the boundaries of our habits. Insights that grow from these observations allow us to see what needs to be upgraded or modified so that evolution and change can occur. Our personal judgments may seem legitimate and logical when perceived from our own egocentric point of view, but in the larger picture they can limit and slow the natural rate of change that helps things stay in balance.

Change happens not by attacking what we do not find pleasing, but by living the example of what we ourselves believe. This doesn’t mean the whole world will automatically come around to our way of seeing things, but it does mean that we each contribute the insights of our natural expression into the manifest world, which is the marvelous composite of all our differences and similarities.

Sarah Susanka, AIA, is a residential architect whose book The Not So Big House has spawned a major movement toward smaller, better quality home design. Susanka’s sequels, Creating the Not So Big House and Not So Big Solutions for Your Home (Taunton, 2002), have also been blockbusters, selling more than 500,000 copies.


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