Tucked away in the bland suburbs of North Raleigh, at the foot of a quiet cul-de-sac, lives a woman who is cheerfully plotting the overthrow of a paradigm. She aims to reinvent what we value in home design, and make no mistake: Her ultimate goal is to help topple the bloated, impersonal, environmentally irresponsible lifestyle that passes for the mainstream.
Sarah Susanka, a member of the American Institute of Architects and a certified interior designer, wants to stop valuing homes based on square footage. She insists that building a bigger house does not necessarily create a better home and that, in fact, size can be the antithesis of comfort and contentment.
She has clearly struck a chord. Her first book, The Not So Big House, spent two years on Amazon.com's top five Home and Garden Bestsellers list; her newest book, Creating the Not So Big House, made The New York Times Advice and How-to Bestseller list. She's also been named one of 100 Global Leaders of Tomorrow by Newsweek and the World Economic Forum. U.S. News and World Report has called her one of the top innovators in American culture. Her message is simple, but so powerful that she has delivered it in appearances on Oprah Winfrey, Charlie Rose and National Public Radio.
After falling in love with North Carolina while lecturing here a few years ago, she decided to move to one of the places that needs her message most--the Triangle.
Among metro areas in the United States with a population of 500,000 or more, the Triangle recorded the sixth-highest growth rate in the last decade. According to Jim Wahlbrink, executive officer of the Home Builders Association of Raleigh and Wake County, last year there were more than $2 billion in new housing sales in Wake County alone. With median house values clocking in at around $244,000 in Cary, $187,500 in Wake Forest and $175,000 in Raleigh, people are spending a lot of money to make their dreams come true.
Sitting in her comfortable, recently remodeled sunroom, Susanka agrees that our area is a microcosm of what is happening all over the country in terms of growth. Yet in her prior practice as a residential architect in Minneapolis, she began to notice the enormous number of people who were discouraged by the "starter castles" and the soulless suburban sprawl that are typical of towns all over the United States.
Susanka's first book was inspired by a couple who had attended one of her lectures and afterward, had tearfully asked for her help. They had just finished building a half-million dollar dream home that they hated. They did not understand why, until they heard her speak, but when she went to visit their home with them, their discomfort was completely understandable, and dismayingly familiar.
"Inside the house, I was greeted by an enormous space, all white, with a cold marble floor," Susanka says. "There was no separation between this vaulting foyer and the next room, which I assumed must be the family room, although there was no furniture in it." When ushered into the kitchen, she saw that it was also "oversized and made up of all hard surfaces that gave it the acoustics of a parking garage."
Their home was typical of the "McMansions" that are springing up everywhere, Susanka says. And their unhappy reaction was all too common. "You simply cannot tell from a blueprint or floor plan how a space is going to feel," she explains. "Something may look good on paper or in a glossy magazine picture, but the way people feel nurtured and sheltered is not by living in a place scaled like an imposing bank."
The principles of the Not So Big House strive to present an alternative to these "trophy houses." Instead of rooms that are only used occasionally for one activity, Susanka suggests creating spaces that do double duty, or can easily be changed from informal to formal. Creating long, diagonal views across several rooms often gives a much more spacious feeling than vaulted ceilings, which may leave people slightly uncomfortable. How many times have you been to a party where the imposing, formal living room was vacant and, instead, everyone was crowded into the kitchen?
Rooms based on a more human scale are much more inviting. As Susanka notes in her book, "Instead of quantity, think quality. Comfort is born of smaller scale and beautiful details."
The Cultural CreativesT
he emphasis on square footage as a measure of the value of our homes makes it almost certain that our homes get bigger and less personal. Because of this, there is a huge section of the public that is completely turned off by the entire new housing market.
If, like many of Susanka's readers, you are so dismayed by the new treeless, cookie-cutter subdivisions that you feel like your only option is to spend all your spare time and money refurbishing an older home, you're not alone.
Susanka explains, "There is a surprisingly large portion of the population that does not even consider building a new home because it is so alienated from the choices commonly available. They feel that one's home should reflect one's deepest values, including a respect for ecological balance and sustainability, for the use of quality, earth-friendly materials and as the place where we are nurtured and renewed. This group of potential homeowners sees no way to build affordably and also maintain their sense of personal integrity."
Yet, as Susanka describes in her books and on her lively, informative Web site, www.notsobighouse.com, this disenchanted section of the population is potentially able to make huge changes in the way homes are built and valued, if only they knew their own numbers and power. "They are usually aware of only seven or eight like-minded friends, and feel that they are a tiny minority," she notes.
But they are not. As proof, Susanka cites a group described as "Cultural Creatives" in an American Demographics magazine article and subsequent book, The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World, by sociologist Paul H. Ray and psychologist Sherry Ruth Anderson. They point out that such folks are not some obscure fringe element. They are about a quarter of the American population. "More than the number of people that elected Bill Clinton!" laughs Susanka. [See the quiz below to discover if you are a Cultural Creative.]
"But," she adds, "the Cultural Creatives are completely unaware of themselves. Certainly, the mass media has missed them almost entirely." That's not surprising, as they watch far less television than the majority of the population. "They are totally turned off by rampant consumerism," she continues. "They are not 'New Age-ers,' they are not the baby boomers, although some of those groups may be included. The Cultural Creatives cross all age and socioeconomic lines. It's not a fad; it is a lifelong worldview that comes as a result of people being disenchanted with rigid, traditional, religious conservatism as well as cynical, materialistic accumulation and competition."Why the Square Footage Standard?
usanka admits there is a huge disconnect between what people want for mindful living and what is being designed and built. "The mortgage market requires non-subjective criteria to value property. That method is currently based on the number of square feet, number of bedrooms and the building cost, she says. "By doing this, they send a message to builders that it doesn't matter how long a house might last, or what they do behind the walls, as long as it looks good enough to sell. It has to be as big as possible for the least possible dollars. That message is going to ensure a drop in quality."
She sighs and shakes her head. "I've met so many people that believe they should build the biggest house they can possibly afford. After all, that is the message from the real estate business and from builders. But when it comes down to it, sheer size and volume have nothing to do with the comfort of a home."
Architects, not builders, are the professionals trained to think about how space can best be used and lived in. Yet people rarely consider talking to an architect when they build. In fact, Susanka says, "Most people assume that architects have designed these new, often depressing suburban developments. This is seldom true."
They are mostly designed by building designers and builders, who are usually busy minding the bottom line, rather than considering lifestyle. "At best," Susanka explains, "they may be seventh or eighth generation modifications of some original plan designed by an architect."
So in addition to a system that rewards creating the biggest space for the cheapest dollar investment, you have another problem. The professionals who actually understand the aesthetics of what makes people feel content, who have studied historic and popular building materials and styles, are being left out of the equation.
Susanka's goal is to help people rethink these misplaced priorities and spend their money on quality details and a more human scale. "There are choices. I'm not insisting on small--just not so big," she smiles.
n her most recent book, Susanka shows the work of other architects around the country, with a number of different home styles, including Southwestern adobe, country farmhouse, suburban split-level and traditional Southern that emphasize quality, rather than quantity.
She also develops a language that describes space and form so that people can articulate what they want in their homes. She hopes to teach homeowners how to use terminology that propels them beyond the usual two-dimensional drawings and the square-footage standard, in order to build homes that focus on beauty, comfort and happiness.
Susanka suggests enlisting the help of an architect before you build or remodel. "If you can find an architect who will charge by the hour, just taking one or two hours to evaluate your existing home or your plans and suggest changes to make your space more livable will be an investment that pays off more than almost any other single thing you can do."Using the Not So Big Philosophy
usanka notes that people are afraid of feeling cramped, and they think they need a separate room for each and every activity, so they build overwhelming two-story foyers; living rooms with soaring cathedral ceilings; huge, boxy spaces with layers of gables; making things bigger and bigger. "Then they end up huddling together in whatever tiny alcoves and cozy nooks they can find."
The tendency for people to congregate in the smaller, more cozy spaces is the guiding principle for Susanka's philosophy and her own home design. Practicing what she preaches, she has turned a typical 1970s two-story suburban home into a beautiful, warm place that shelters body and spirit. "I have been using these principles to design and build new houses, but I wanted to see if I could apply them to remodeling an older home," she says. "This is the result."
It is an evident success. For instance, the den is gracious and inviting, yet not at all large. She explains that it once had dark, heavy decorative beams running across a "dreadful" popcorn ceiling. There was dark paneling as well, giving it a dated, ponderous feel. Susanka and her husband removed those worn elements and added a beautifully designed wall of built-in storage space. "We sacrificed a little square footage to build the shelving area, but you don't miss it. Getting rid of those beams and the dark colors opens it all up and it feels much more spacious," she says.
The kitchen is another example. Without removing any walls, simply replacing the cabinets and updating the appliances, she has created a sophisticated, warm space that is both efficient and beautiful. Her penchant for the Arts & Crafts style is clear throughout, with crisp lines and lovely details without fussiness.
There are subtle changes in ceiling height and added small soffits that move the eye and create smaller, more human-scaled activity spaces. This is another technique that Susanka recommends for people who are unhappy living in their "huge, impersonal storage spaces."
Her emphasis on creating a home that reflects a deeply spiritual sensibility and soul-nourishing spaces is unmistakable in the master bedroom. There, she has modified the existing walls to create a meditation area as well as a sheltered, beautiful sleeping nook that is separate, yet open to the rest of the room.
She has converted her attic space into an office for herself and an assistant. It includes a separate area for writing. Since moving to Raleigh, Susanka has decided to devote her full energy to writing and speaking engagements. With at least two more books in progress, as well as an upcoming television series on PBS, she only accepts one or two design jobs a year. Her mission is to wake up the public to the exciting new possibilities for living a thoughtful lifestyle that is comfortable and practical.
"Is there a way to think beyond ordinary boundaries to create a house that works better for us?" Susanka asks. "This is the secret to designing a Not So Big House--the ability to think creatively, responding to needs and wishes, not to preconceived notions of what a house should be.
"In many ways, the Not So Big House, although ostensibly about house design, is also about how we choose to live," she continues. "What's important for a balanced existence, and what will ensure a healthy planet and community for future generations. These are the concerns of many Cultural Creatives, eager to live their own lives in a way that supports their values. Not So Big thinking helps them to do just that."
www.notsobighouse.com contains dozens of helpful links, a lively bulletin board group with people who are using Susanka's concepts with varying degrees of success, recommended reading materials for people interested in "green" building, creative simplicity, the new urbanism, sustainability, and how to find a like-minded architect.