Twenty years after a residential architect launched her not so big house concept, her ideas have expanded exponentially to influence homeowners and investors in what they buy, fix up, rent out, and sell.
When architect Sarah Susanka wanted to share the wisdom of building smaller and better houses back in the late 1990s, it was the era of the McMansion—big, expensive and often overdone—and light years away from anyone thinking small and certainly tiny.
“I was sad when I was driving through the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa, to give a talk and saw so many big houses dotting the hillsides, with so little redeeming merit. Often the houses had brick on the façade and vinyl on the other three sides where it didn’t show as much. They looked like nobody cared very much,” she recalls, adding, “I figured if it was happening there, then it was happening everywhere.”
A book kicked off the momentum
Before long, she wrote the first in her series of books—The Not So Big House (1998) from The Taunton Press, promoting the wisdom of putting quality ahead of square footage. The idea quickly resonated and the not so big movement was launched. Today, Susanka has written eight other books and sold a total of more than 1.3 million copies. She also lectures nationwide, speaks on radio and TV, continues to design new houses and remodel existing ones. In addition, she is credited by many for helping to kick off the tiny house movement, even though she never recommended going quite that small. The way she puts it is that “Not So Big is really about making a house about one third smaller than you thought you needed, so you have dollars available to make it truly a delight to live in.”
We recently talked with Susanka from her home and office in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina about how both homeowners and investors can benefit from the principles she first shared back in 1998. Her 20-year-anniversary, in fact, comes as a greater number of homeowners as well as investors look to pare their building, remodeling, and energy costs and preserve nature’s resources. The following responses have been edited and condensed.
Question: Was it initially hard to convince people of your message or did many get your concept right away?
Answer: Initially it was hard for some, while others were instantly on board. I wrote the book, so I didn’t have to keep explaining to new clients the reasons why they might benefit from building less square footage, so they would have budget available for the character of home that their inspiration pictures showed. Once the book was published, I could hand clients a copy and say, ‘Read this, and then let’s talk.’ My goal wasn’t to write about small houses but about better houses that suited the way we really live these days. Once the word got out, the reaction was amazingly positive. The book clearly struck a cord with a lot of people who’d been looking for a different kind of home. Within three months, many media players were sharing the idea by having me appear on their shows, including Charlie Rose, Oprah Winfrey, and Diane Rehm.
Q: Can you give us some specifics that can help readers visualize your ideas?
A: A lot of people build or buy houses with rooms that they rarely use. They may have a formal living and dining room because those are the rooms you’re supposed to have. But that substantial chunk of space—often as much as half of many main levels—sits vacant and unused. Yet, we are told by real estate agents and lenders that houses must have these spaces for resale. But the world has moved on, so our houses need to, as well. What I was trying to do with the first book was say, ‘Unless you use those rooms often, don’t include them just for guests.’ I share the same message today. Make the kitchen comfortable and inviting so it’s the place you most like to sit, and scale back on the formal rooms or do without them. Don’t build acres of space for those who don’t live in your house. You’re not entertaining the King and Queen of England; you’re having your neighbors over for a relaxing evening.
Q: How did builders and others react?
A: Initially some builders seemed worried because they thought I was trying to get everyone to build smaller houses, which they feared would mean reduced profit margins. But when they realized I was saying, ‘’Let’s just make great houses and stop focusing on square footage,’ then they got on board. You don’t pick a car based on square footage, but on quality, character, and special features. The same should be true of the way we pick a house. But our obsession with size and with cost per square foot prevents this.
Q: So where exactly does the money go in these better houses if not square footage?
A: It might be for bookshelves or other built-ins, or for varying ceiling heights—lower ceilings over smaller spaces, and taller ones of larger spaces—or for better materials and craftsmanship. I was encouraging people to reapportion their dollars from square footage to character and quality. Once homeowners—and investors—felt they had permission to do so, they allowed themselves to create houses that were tailored to their own needs, or to those of their renters if investing.
Q. What was—and still is—the effect of that first and later books on the housing market, including investors who buy and rent out or flip homes?
A: It was the beginning of people starting to understand and see that they didn’t have to focus just on size but on how a space and house felt and how valuable it is to use all your spaces every day. The goal is to have less wasted space, and to make rarely used spaces do double duty for functions that currently have no place.
Q: What about the effect on the tiny house movement? Do you feel you encouraged it? Many buy these for themselves or to rent them out.
A: Many perceive me as a big participant, but I haven’t really played a part in it other than to inspire doing more with less. I put into words something they wanted, even though none of my own house designs have been at that end of the spectrum. The goal is the same though in many ways—to make simple, beautiful, well-designed homes. Most of my audience wants a more average-size house, something between 1,500 and 2,400 square feet but some, of course, use my philosophy for much larger houses, too. I’ve probably done most houses over the last 20 years in the 2,400 to 3,500 square foot range. If you go too small you narrow the number of people who will be interested in your home, whether for sale or rental.
Q: Do you also think author Marie Kondo’s philosophy and her book—The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up—comes from a similar point of view?
A: Yes, absolutely. Both messages are about letting go of stuff and living more gracefully in your own home, or a house that’s for others to enjoy too.
Q: Were there some important lessons you learned through the years in writing and lecturing as well as assumptions you discarded?
A: One lesson has less to do with size and quality but understanding how an architect can help problem solve to improve living. So many I met thought design was about the floor plan alone. But it’s also, more importantly, about how a house works in all three dimensions— the heights of spaces as well, and how one space relates to another—and how each one is tailored to create a beautiful composition. By adding some bookshelves and other built-ins, you can use less space to do more for you, so things don’t feel so cramped. These little things can have a huge influence on how a house feels, making it much more livable in the process.
Q: What lessons regarding remodeling rather than just building new would you also share?
A: To make better use of your existing footprint before you add on. You recommend only considering an addition after you’ve worked with the existing space to improve it, and really make it work for you. Most houses—even quite small ones—have spaces that can be repurposed to provide space for a missing function. And that’s true for homeowners and investors. Maybe a window can be relocated or made larger to frame a beautiful view, or a wall can be removed to open up a view from the kitchen to the currently unused living room. Connecting spaces in this way makes them come to life. Suddenly, they are a part of the house.
Q: Many boomers are beginning to downsize. What lessons are in your books for them and investors targeting this niche?
A: Most people are looking for comfort and livability, rather than wanting to knock the socks off friends or neighbors when they come visiting. I believe a house should fit like a glove rather than a sack. When a place is beautifully tailored to the way you live, you don’t need a lot of space. Like a favorite piece of clothing, when it fits you well, you really feel at home in it. That’s the point behind Not So Big. It’s not about the size. It’s simply more comfortable to live in.
Q: Any other advice for investors or homeowners?
A: Avoid overspending, especially when you want a good return on investment. None of what I’m talking about here needs to be expensive. You can do simple things to make a place better—an interesting tile pattern behind a cooktop, better alignment of windows for views, a strategically positioned light over a painting, a wall of shelves that reflect you in their contents. Personal touches express you better and make you, and your guests, feel more at home. And let go of notions about what’s needed for resale, or a cookie-cutter mentality. Do what you really like. Your house is your most personal expression. So, if you want that new kitchen, or that window seat, and budget allows, put it in and know that, when it comes time to sell or rent, someone else will love it too. Even small touches can make your time in the house so much more personable and inviting.
Q: Any final tip homeowners and investors should consider whether building or remodeling?
A: Energy efficiency is important and can affect your budget, comfort, and what you can afford long-term. I recommend setting aside 10 percent of your budget to make some improvements that affect the energy efficiency of your home. It will pay off in spades, just fixing leaks around windows and doors, adding insulation and properly maintaining your HVAC system. Get an energy audit when you move in, which I talk about in my book, Not So Big Remodeling, to help identify all the things you can do. They’ll give you a check list of items that you can implement as budget allows.