Just over a decade ago, a little-known Minnesota architect named Sarah Susanka put a name to a particular philosophy of home design that championed modest scale, quality details and people-friendly features. Her first book, “The Not So Big House,” (Taunton, $32) resonated with many other professionals in the residential design community and with thousands of readers searching for a more intrinsically satisfying concept of home.
Clearly, Susanka had struck a chord that carried great distances. Why, she asked, were architects designing and consumers asking for large and overstated residences built mostly to be impressive and imposing? Why wasn’t anyone looking past the seeming opulence of such homes to recognize their often unwelcoming nature for both occupants and guests, not to mention their financial and environmental costs?
It might have taken another decade to dissect all of the root cultural causes for the so-called McMansion trend, but Susanka’s concern was more about finding solutions to the problem rather than exposing its origins. In this first book and a few subsequent volumes, she articulated a concept of home that celebrates the simple virtues of shelter and of spaces that allow and encourage the quiet, almost ritualistic moments of everyday life. The sentiment wasn’t groundbreaking or revolutionary in itself. In fact, for generations it had been embodied intuitively in human habitats around the world.
But the pace and the scale of late 20th-century American life had rendered quaintness, modesty and many other humble characteristics obsolete. New materials and machines, as well as a bloated economy and a growing appetite for excess, swept most of us along with the bigger-is-better tide. Life grew supercharged and as fast-paced as an electronic signal, with no hand on the switch.
Susanka’s concept of not-so-big architecture helped pull the plug on that frenzy. Measuring a home only in terms of square footage, trendy gadgets and soaring ceilings misses the mark, she argued, and it costs us qualities that in fact can make our homes more satisfying to live in. Page after page, in photo after photo, she offered examples of homes and spaces designed around archetypal human activities and needs — gathering to prepare and eat meals, welcoming friends and guests, raising healthy children, having conversations. A properly designed not-so-big home wasn’t just functional, it was inviting and comfortable, even nurturing. That was the message.
It was heady, it was inspiring, it was revelatory. Unfortunately for some readers, it was also a frustrating glimpse into a world they’d never inhabit. Why? Because many weren’t in a position to hire an architect to design their new dream home. They already had homes they couldn’t or wouldn’t leave, or budgets that weren’t up to building new.
Apparently some of these folks got in touch with Susanka, because her new book — co-authored by Marc Vassallo — aims directly at their priorities of renovating a home they already have and/or working with a smaller budget. “Not So Big Remodeling” (Taunton, $32) continues the theme of reality-based home design, but this time the methods and message are for those who are staying put or wanting to reinvent an existing home.
Susanka introduces the book with the story of her own home, a modest cape that, like most pre-owned homes, wasn’t suited precisely to the needs of its new owners. But it had good bones, good potential, and so she and her husband undertook a sort of architectural triage — some things needed immediate functional improvement, while others were character issues that could be resolved over time. Then there were evolving needs, the ideas that took shape as they lived in the home. Finally, there was a wish list of potential upgrades — if they decided they could live with the disruption and the expense.
This more personal tone not only lends credibility to the author and her book, it helps the reader understand the design and renovation process more thoroughly. We all start with a less-than-ideal home and want to make it more our own, like she did.
What follows is a useful working template that operates throughout the subsequent chapters in the book. First, figure out what works and what doesn’t. Think about the activities — the real living that goes on inside those spaces — rather than just room names. What do you like and dislike about your home’s exterior? Entry? Kitchen? Living spaces? Bedrooms? Bathrooms? Master suite? Each list of questions is tailored to the respective space.
Studious readers will close the book and open their eyes to a lot of unrecognized potential in their own home. Things such as ceiling height, wall colors, trim details and room proportions will reveal themselves as defining qualities, things that can be altered and improved in order to create a friendlier, more livable home that with each day impresses the people it should — its occupants.