Books: The Not So Big …

I’m going to formalize the trend of the last few posts into a theme; June will be the month of Small is Beautiful.  Its impossible to talk about making houses smaller without acknowledging the books of Sarah Susanka.  Her first, The Not So Big House: a blueprint for the way we really live, published in 1998 sparked an entire Not So Big series and is a touchstone book for new home builders.

The beginning of the Movement

In the introduction to The Not So Big House, Susanka describes a couple who came to her at their wits end after building a $500,000 tract home that was completely unsuited to their needs as a family (housing bubble anyone?).  They wanted an alternative to their “great room” and two story foyer.  I can’t actually recall what happened to that first couple but Susanka dedicates the book to them and to all the other people “who have lived in these impersonal oversized houses.”  And then she asks her central question:

Are Bigger Houses Really Better?

The Idea

Her answer is no.  What we should strive for is not the biggest house we can afford but the best – the most closely suited to our individual needs, with thoughtful design in every detail and money spent on quality materials rather than square footage.  Its a simple enough concept but one that was not being touted by any glossy design magazines or large photo architecture books before she came along.  She also talks about breaking out of traditional room lists (do you need a separate living and family room?) and encourages new types of spaces (an away room to separate TV noise from the rest of the house) when setting out a floor plan.

The Critique

I know a green builder who refers scornfully to Susanka and her “Not so Small” houses.  His complaint is that her ‘small’ houses are bigger than a lot of people’s and that she doesn’t go far enough in encouraging people to re-evaluate their material needs.  To be fair, I think that, while she doesn’t epitomize any sort of real minimalism and certainly was not the first to encourage the idea of a small footprint paired with good materials and design, she really does deserve credit for making a huge impact on the ideas that laypeople have about home design.  And for those of us who scoff that she hasn’t gone far enough there is still a big advantage in having the trail blazed.

I think that Susanka doesn’t always take her ideas far enough but, in her defense, she never really claims to – its not the Minimalist book or the Tiny House book … its the Not So Big.  And the group she’s talking to had never really considered that alternative before.  As an antidote to the “starter mansion,”  Not So Big is a breath of fresh air and I appreciate that.

To that end I think everything I design will necessarily be conditioned by her ideas and most of what I write will reference the Not So Big Movement.

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