Not so Big? � Not so Smart!

by John Henry

         There is something in the call for the Not so Big House that touches our collective conscience.  Like the people responding to a prophetic warning of impending disaster if they do not change their ways, the moral overture is implicit: build sensibly or suffer consequences.  But this was not Sarah Susanka�s original motive: 

 This is the art of the Not So Big House: to take out square footage that�s seldom used, so that you can put the money saved into the detail, craft, and character that will make it eminently comfortable and uniquely yours.  In short, it favors quality over quantity.

Susanka goes on to explain how to implement this sleight of hand, by building:  �� approximately a third smaller than your original goal but about the same price as your original budget.�  The idea is compelling but the practicalities are flawed.  For openers: how can you plan for a house if you know you should take out 30% of it before starting to plan for your house?  What Zen!  And doesn�t this reasoning remind one of a similar argument made by many builders to the potential client:  �Select one of the pre-designed plans from our portfolio and �customize� it.  Cut out the architect fees and put it into quality finishes or a bonus room.�

  Building �Not so Big� certainly has a feel-good message, and many architects empathize with the notion that building with better details is better than not doing so (this should be the main point here), but the cold facts indicate that building �not so big� could be detrimental to your bottom line, the �savings� tradeoff does not work number-wise, and Susanka�s sweeping statements relating size to quality of space also do not hold up to established architectural theory.  Is Susanka proposing something new?

  The facts:

There is no straight-line correlation between cutting overall living area in order to put savings into quality of space.  The extra goodies Susanka offers up cannot be had by cutting raw space (area square footage) alone.  The budget must increase as well.  In other words, taking out 1000 square feet from a 6,000 square foot house priced at $100/ SF (without lot costs), a 16.7% decrease in raw area, will certainly not allow one to put $100 grand into items such as "�a beautiful stair railing, well-crafted moldings around windows and doors, and useful, finely tailored built-ins."  There isn�t $100 grand there!

Ask any builder: if one keeps the basic elements of a house intact �stock cabinets, plumbing and electrical fixtures, windows, doors, AC and heating system, TV/ media/computer connections, etc-- and simply cuts out the formal Living Room, extra bedroom, exercise room, etc. cost savings the example is at best only $30-50/ SF.  Cutting out the elbowroom and extra spaces of a house may save on energy costs at best, and will buy some upgrades.  At worst it may make a house feel cramped and less marketable at resale compared to its bigger but less detailed brethren.  And how can you possibly cut out one third of a much smaller house anyway without seriously affecting livability? 

Actually, if one double backs two secondary bedrooms to a bath, cuts on the upgrades in kitchens (cabinets and counter tops), elects for a basic communications/ electronics system rather than the top of the line home automation extravaganzas, specifies uniform trim and molding with just a few highlights, selects medium quality appliances, etc. then house size can be appreciably increased by a factor double that of the reverse-engineering Susanka proposes.  And this is what Americans elect to do, from starter to luxury homes.  Only the greatest mansions will be decked out extravagantly in every detail.  The �Not so big� concept actually works best for those with more money to spend, not less.  More space is much less expensive per square foot than more detail per square foot.  

Mass production merchant builders offer up the best value for the smaller entry level, move up or empty nester home.  This is done by building a fairly priced product through the economies of large-scale construction.  Building �not so big� also involves a degree of customization that will require additional soft costs:  Achieving the degree of tailoring that she champions, however, requires the services of an architect and a custom builder.� -- Katharine Salant, Inman News.  By her own admission, Susanka�s back to back �not so big� version of the basic home of the same size proposed in Life magazine�s feature project a few years back, cost nearly twice as much! 

  Susanka also blames the housing industry for leading the unknowing consumer into wasteful larger, less detailed homes (horrors!) and implies a dark conspiracy involving the financial cartel, materials suppliers, utilities providers, U.S. public policy, etc.  This is patently absurd.  American home buyers know exactly what they are getting into -- know that architects are available to design any whim they might have in mind, but prefer in overwhelming numbers to grab the largest home they can find in the best neighborhood possible at the best price.  Recent research (by Robert Frank, a Cornell University professor of economics, ethics, and public policy) proves that ��it is the ongoing behavior of our peers which ultimately determines how much we spend and how we spend it� � not ignorance, a national conspiracy, or Wall Street marketing hype.

  The extra quality of life features opined by Susanka and other Arts and Crafts proponents (anti-classicists as well), simply cost much more than a space tradeoff.  Such homes, which happen to be smaller as built at the turn of the century, were also built with an emphasis on hand work as a protest to machine production.  Reactionaries to the Industrial Age, this movement could not withstand the increase of space required by families of all sizes and economic profiles that could only be offered in a Democratic capitalist society which depends on mass production to increase the quality of life for all.

  Susanka also challenges long-standing theories of space perception and cultural mores with such statements:

  �The design of a Not So Big Houses is different from a typical house in that it is designed not only in floor plan, but in all three dimensions, both inside and out�all we�ve got is square footage with no soul.�  

�With its tall ceilings and marble floors, it was designed to overwhelm and impress visitors, not to welcome.�

 

�We are all searching for home, but we are trying to find it by building more rooms and more space.  Instead of thinking about the quality of the spaces we live in, we tend to focus on quantity.  But a house is so much more than its size and volume, neither of which has anything to do with comfort.�

 

Susanka offers us motifs that are routinely employed by large and small space creators alike: �shelter around activity�, double duty space, diagonal views, change of ceiling heights, private and public space, perspective and scale, etc.  These are not new revelations, just techniques often left out by the typical merchant builder it seems, but not by all builders and architects.  The astute custom or semi-custom builder will attempt to satisfy market demand and hire the appropriate talent to deliver it.  �Hot buttons� in terms of creature comforts and specialty space sells.

  Susanka implies that all �larger� houses are ill designed and have no soul.  (These comments also contain a tinge of class envy).  Those who design, build and live in large(er) houses offer models for the smaller budget builder to emulate.  Those who build larger can afford more intellectual and technically capable architects who take the art to exemplary heights while often breaking the status quo to test new concepts and reinterpret the past.  And note this: those who build the avant garde or �modern� new concepts usually end up spending 2-5 times the cost of the conventional �period� house.  

 

If we stretch either point we have absurdity: either a tiny, cramped but nicely appointed house is better or one that is an out of scale pretentious marble barn with endless rooms.  The fact is that both can be well proportioned and detailed to satisfy a great range of spatial experiences and gratify a smorgasbord of lifestyles with varying economic means.  �Character� is not exclusive to size, it is how space and finishes are organized/ specified.  Most architects concur:

  "The same materials and expense thrown away on an ugly, ill proportioned building, if guided by good design, would produce an elegant building, and this is why the architect is brought into requisition, to treat the materials placed in the architect�s hands so as to give an expression of beauty to the simplest form." -- George Palliser, 1878

  Is it possible to think great thoughts in small(er) spaces?  Most likely.  Can larg(er) spaces be inspirational as well?  No doubt.  Is bigger better?  Not always.  Is smaller better?  Not for everyone.  Let�s look beyond the fluff here.

  Susanka claims that it is wise to cut the formal (read: presumed excessive or unusable) spaces such as Dining and Living rooms in favor of directing that booty towards a smaller total living area with better details while making up with spatial trickery.  Traditional formal areas provide transition space from the �outside� or public realm, to our inner sanctum, a well-developed tool for architectural spatial progression.  A formal staircase, central to the house and practical, normally is situated in a large foyer.   It offers up decorative detail and potent imagery.  The typically situated formal rooms, for many people, have tremendous impact psychologically beyond being a 'comfortable' or �necessary� room.  Depending on the region, they are an inbred tradition: they are part of a culture of graciousness, they are an expected feature, they provide at least one area in which to get away from otherwise �rustic� activities and yes, they offer a showcase for fine furniture/ antiques.  Most importantly they make an opening statement about who we are.  (The most endearing quality though may be that they originally allowed grown-ups to entertain and socialize with each other apart from the din of children screaming in the back rooms, something a �not so big� house cannot  offer.) 

  The first impression one gets from Susanka�s personal prototype is a blank wall immediately at the Foyer.  Her not so big home consists of a three care garage slamming into a narrow box of living area, not much different from the typical mid-west suburban �great room� tract house.  Yes, there are some attractive �craftsman-like� details in low ceilinged rooms.  Most of the not so big plans featured in Susanka�s books are small and crampy, providing little storage space and the ability to move furniture around or be able to �customize� rooms.  They are static and obsessively designed to work with an unwavering initial mindset of the owners and architect.  These not so big houses are extremely idiosyncratic, in short they are ultra-customized and would have severe resale consequences.  In fact, some feel like mcHobbits versus the mcMansions she decries.

Homes with many rooms offer options to experience day-to-day tasks under different circumstances: the change of light and season, for example.  It is revealing that the European villa type of the 16th century and later was constantly internally reorganized depending on the seasons.  Dining and Living rooms were interchanged depending on breezes, lighting, views, prevailing temperatures, etc.  How often does one wish to escape the monotonous fate of having to do everything in a limited space, over and over?

  Finally, the drive towards larger, bigger-is-better, happens to be a national epidemic, er�characteristic.  It is evident in everything we do, how we build our cities, cars and roads, and where we live.  For better or worse, Americans crave the freedom of larger rooms, larger houses, more land, bigger offices, theaters, sports and recreational buildings, etc.  The average livable area in new homes is at a record high.  From 1971 to 1998 the average American home grew over 40% from 1,520 SF to 2,190 Sf..  Builders and architects simply respond to the market. 

  What then makes for character?  Character is what people are carrying around with them as they move up or down career/ job-wise from town to town.  It has stopped residing in the physical structure.  We customize our interiors with our movable belongings and gadgetry.  Our mobile nature and meager artistic schooling (of late) combine to yield this unfortunate cultural sandwich: we care little nor about fine art or recognize the extra details that can make architectural embellishment add meaning or comfort to our lives.  We would rather cram our air-conditioned homes with gadgets and furniture/ accessories and take these things with us every 2-5 years rather than throw surplus cash into architectural refinements.  Our disposable housing mentality is reflected in how houses are built as well.  We do not build heritage estates for our families or posterity because� we have condo mortgages to take care of and need to upgrade our cars every year!

  Bottom line: we would all love, -- no, lust to have bigger homes in which to live.  That is our first priority.  Less can be more to some people, but less is less to most.  In a recent online poll (About.com) SUV owners were asked how much they would pay for fuel before trading in gas-guzzlers for subcompacts.

30% said $3.50
8% said $5.00
1% said $6.00
59% said �You'll pry that steering wheel from my cold dead hands�

  As it stands, we will build first as large as possible considering budget, then as good as possible.  This is tradition, at least of recent times.  To be really green about it: cut out the large yards, build three times the density of the typical suburb or eliminate it completely, and put the savings back into the quality and features of our homes, externally and internally.  Whether we like detail or space is an economic and cultural consideration.  If any �art� can be invoked in all of this, so much the better. 

  Every man�s body is a measure for his property, just as a foot is a measure for his shoe.  If then, you abide by this principle, you will maintain the proper measure, but if you go beyond it, you cannot help but fall headlong over a precipice, as it were, in the end. So also in the case of your shoe; if once you go beyond the foot, you get first a gilded shoe, then a purple one, then an embroidered one.  For once you go beyond the measure there is no limit.

Epictetus, The Manual

  Epilogue:  

At first the prophet only wished to write a practical manual on home design, but now bolstered by respectable book sales and positive feedback from her wide-eyed constituents, the author of this mini-phenom, picking up on the karma, has launched into a new-wave environmental campaign.  At a recent conference for the , Susanka preached a combination of home design basics and general observations peppered with feng-shui mysticism and save the planet epithets.  We were not impressed.

Creating the American Luxury Home Available now on CD- rom. (click below left) This is a history of the luxury home with sections on working with an architect and builder, style, modern and traditional approaches, etc.  Also, companion volume: Dream Home Design Questionnaire and Planning Kit (click right below, available as PDF file via email)

copper cover DHomeQ

Chateau des Reves: click image above for exclusive video of interior space