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Don’t Supersize Me


By Anya Kaplan-Seem

Sarah Susanka, FAIA, is an architect and the best-selling author of seven books that propose a “Not So Big” approach to building and to life. A tenth-anniversary edition of her prescient first book, The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live, was published in September of 2008. GreenSource took the occasion of its release as an opportunity to ask Susanka what changes she has seen in the home-building industry since 1998, and what changes she predicts for the future.

Sarah Susanka
Photo courtesy Sarah Susanka
Architect and author Sarah Susanka, FAIA, discusses her quality-over-quantity design philosophy with GreenSource’s sister publication, Architectural Record.
Produced by Architectural Record
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GreenSource: The tenth anniversary edition of your first book has just come out. How will your readers’ increased awareness of sustainability issues influence the way they receive the book today?

Susanka: I have a feeling this is a wonderful time for it to be having its second hurrah. Obviously with the economy doing what it’s doing and the financial markets and the number of climate catastrophes we’ve been having recently, I think a lot of people are really wondering, “Well, what do we do now?”

GS: Have you seen perceptible shifts in the home-building industry over the last ten years toward a more “right-sized” approach?

Susanka: Definitely. A lot of builders and developers have told me about how they have changed the way they offer their services since reading my books.

GS: What are examples of those changes?

Susanka: The biggest shift I’ve seen is that a lot of builders are foregoing the formal living room. When I wrote The Not So Big House, that just didn’t happen anywhere outside of California. Oftentimes there are also no formal dining rooms now, and the three-story foyer phenomenon seems to be biting the dust. And certainly today there is less proliferation of new rooms for new activities. Instead, multiple functions are being assigned to one room.

GS: As designers take a more right-sized approach, how do they deal with the expectations of a market that continues to base prices on square footage and features like “bonus rooms”?

Susanka: I’ve never asked builders that question directly, but I think what happens is that when a product line has charm, or beauty, or more appropriate proportioning, it sells itself. People see it and say, “Oh, I want that.”

GS: What about realtors—have they too jumped on board with the Not So Big idea?

Susanka: When I gave my very first talk about the Not So Big House, it was to a group of 300 realtors. I learned then that although real estate agents have to sell these big houses, it doesn’t mean they like them. They were actually really excited about the notion of a new vocabulary that could describe a better house rather than a bigger house—that could separate those two ideas so that bigger didn’t necessarily mean better.

GS: Do prospective homebuilders now have fewer concerns about the resale implications if they build a house that fits them too well?

Susanka: Most of the things that people want are things that other people want too. There’s been a missing link between what bankers and appraisers are telling people they have to have for resale, and what people actually want. Now the appraisal world is catching up.

GS: What can we do about already existing “so big” houses?

Susanka: If you literally have too much square footage—well, a lot of humongous houses from the past got turned into multiple units. Until very recently, that wasn’t a cool thing to say, but if you have a really big beautiful house and you split it up, every bit of it can be quite wonderful. And if something is beautiful, people will care for it.

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This article appeared in the January 2009 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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