Sarah Susanka

Author and architect Sarah Susanka turned the residential design world upside-down 10 years ago with The Not So Big House, a blueprint for living responsibly, sustainably and meaningfully. Her latest book, Not So Big Remodeling (co-authored by Marc Vassallo), is filled with ideas Susanka has championed over the years: making small changes that have a big impact.

LN: It’s been more than 10 years since The Not So Big House; are you surprised by its following?

SS: I didn’t realize the size of it, but I had a sense there was a market for the concept if the message was well-articulated. There’s actually a fan club out there, and some of them follow me all over the place. It didn’t surprise me people bought the book; what surprised me was the number of people! And with the present economy, we have a whole new set of people discovering the books, especially the first one.

LN: Did you anticipate being the voice of this movement?

SS: I didn’t see that one coming. The book almost instantly became a bestseller, so I had a choice to make: continue doing what I was doing or take the microphone. I love writing and public speaking, so it was natural for me to assume the role.

LN: What are some basic approaches to Not So Big living?

SS: If you’re building new, it’s to just build the rooms you use every day. Don’t build spaces that are designed for guests who never show up. Focus on beautifying the space you use every day. If your house is smaller, it lives bigger, that’s the core of Not So Big. What I’ve attempted to do is explain what architects do in design all the time: make a house feel like home. And the biggest part is what I refer to as ‘the third dimension.’ When most people think about building, they base it on a floor plan. But things like height make an enormous difference. When you design the ceilings, the variation in height is what makes the space come alive: higher ceilings over the most important spaces, and lower ones over subordinate spaces like hallways and powder rooms. The floor plan does not tell you how that space is going to feel. 

LN: What inspired you to focus on remodeling in your new book?

SS: People have been asking for it for many years. I wanted to do a comprehensive and clearly laid-out book about remodeling homes effectively, and I wanted a lot of projects to illustrate it. It took 2 ½ years. When the book came out, many of those who sent in submissions had forgotten that they did!

LN: What are some of the important questions homeowners should ask before they remodel?

SS: The biggest is, What spaces exist in my house? Is there a room I use less than a half-dozen times a year? Then that room needs re-purposing. The dining room for instance, any architect will tell you there’s a better way to make a dining area for those events when you need it, and also make the space a part of everyday living. Another question is, What rooms are filled with furniture I don’t want to sit in? We have this idea of how a living room is supposed to look, but we have to make the room comfortable to make it usable.

LN: Explain why you believe that houses have an obligation to be ‘neighborly.’

SS: That’s one thing we’re often missing in our existing neighborhoods. When somebody moves in, they might do a huge addition or tear down the house to build a larger one. In that single act, they’re actually ruining the neighborhood for the other neighbors. The reason a neighborhood has charm is because of its scale.

LN: Talk about the ‘arrival experience.’

SS: Whether it’s you coming home each day or a guest coming to the door, evaluations are made even before we enter the house. If it welcomes you, you feel received before anyone has answered the door. All that psychological stuff has enormous impact on our impressions. Think about it, the homes that sell easily have that welcoming sense. On the other hand, a house that has a set of stairs right at the front door, with no landing and no cover above and you’re perched on the front step waiting for someone to answer, that’s unwelcoming.

LN: Explain the ‘lipstick’ approach.

SS: Just like when we draw attention to our features, a house benefits from the same kind of attention to some special details. If your house has wood storm windows, paint the frames a brighter color to make them stand out, or paint the trim line that runs underneath the windows and all around the house.

LN: You often refer to Frank Lloyd Wright. why?

SS: He’s a spatial genius, and he definitely understood the third dimension. Also, Louis Kahn. He wasn’t known for house designs, but his buildings are amazing in how natural light is used. Alvar Aalto, a Finnish architect, was also a magnificent master of space and light.

LN: What are some of the biggest frustrations that homeowners have expressed?

SS: The one I hear about the most is, How do I get rid of the stuff? We really need a massive de-cluttering, as a culture, and to learn to let go of things we don’t use.

LN: You work hard to convince people that their dream home is actually the house where they live.

SS: They’re often surprised because they’ve never had that thought before. But in this economy, more people are willing to grasp it and are ready to hear the message: I don’t need a bigger house, I just need something that makes my family and me more comfortable.

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