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.

| January/February 2002

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)

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