The Not So Big House Show

by Josh on August 24, 2007 · 2 comments

in Uncategorized

The local PBS station showed a program last night as part of their current pledge drive featuring author and architect Sarah Susanka and her ideas about “The Not So Big House.” From reading other houseblogs and skimming the liner notes of her books on store shelves, I knew that she might be someone I’d enjoy reading as a contemporary voice with values sympathetic to some of the bungalow-era ideas that went into our house.

If you aren’t familiar with Susanka, here’s a few ideas that I gathered from the show:

  • Space vs. Place Most houses built today are unnecessarily large and lack details that give a home intimacy, character and a sense of place.
  • Shed Unused Rooms Many rooms in houses –particularly formal living rooms and dining rooms– sit unused nearly all the time so the family rooms and informal dining spaces that people actually use should be designed in a way that allows them to serve more formally for the limited occasions when that is desirable, and eliminate the dedicated formal rooms.
  • Do Double Duty Using rooms for two complementary purposes reduces pressure on house size– like combining a guest room and home office using a murphy bed.
  • Personal and Purposeful Nooks A small sheltered area– a nook– connected to a larger room provides a container for activities while adding to the overall sense of space. This could be a music alcove off the living room for the piano, or a small library/office off the kitchen.
  • Details, Details, Details Susanka has lots of ideas for how to improve the experienced quality of a house that basically involve the thoughtful implementation of built details. These include variation in ceiling height to differentiate connected spaces, placement of windows to draw the eye and expand the room, and incorporation of built-in shelves, seating and other thoughtful, space-saving features.

This all sounded pretty good to me, and more or less in keeping with the kinds of values I see in many bungalows and other Arts & Crafts houses. Unfortunately, when Susanka featured older homes in the program they were either heavily and modernistically remodelled or, as in the case of a former house of Susanka’s, a 1900’s Victorian, used as counter examples of her philosophy. That’s too bad, because there are a lot of older homes that model at least a portion of Susanka’s ideas and could be (and, in fact, are) popular with people persuaded by her argument in favor of quality of place over quantity of space. Nevertheless, Susanka is principally a foil for the conventional wisdom of contemporary building as currently practiced in suburban subdivisions all across America, but her’s is a progressive vision, not nostalgic one.

The most surprising detail I learned from the program was Susanka’s connection to the Twin Cities. Apparently she lived here for a period of years and built a “not so big” house for herself in St. Paul. She said on the PBS program that leaving that house in St. Paul was one of the hardest things she ever did because she loved it so much. Do any of my Twin Cities readers know where this house is located?

So to sum up, I liked the Not So Big House show, and I’m more educated and intrigued about Sarah Susanka than I was before. For bungalow owners, she has a lot of relevant ideas to consider when remodelling, furnishing or marketing their houses.

A sampling of books by Sarah Susanka:

I’m going to see if these or some of Susanka’s other titles are available at my local library– I’m particularly interested in ideas for placement and design of some built-ins I have in mind for future projects.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Becky September 9, 2007 at 12:34 pm

i always find myself frustrated with the not so big house lady because flipping through her books, these places are NOT small. they ARE big. and they always look expensively, extensively remodeled with no thought toward the house’s true nature. i do like that she’s advocating for non-mcmansions, but it’s still all a little overboard for me.


Josh September 10, 2007 at 12:14 pm

I hear you, Becky. But it isn’t called “The Small House” now is it? Just not so big.

I don’t really mind “overboard.” American Bungalow magazine and many of the lovely bungalow books in my library are often overboard, too. It sounds like you and I both prefer our overboard to have more historical character in it.


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