If you’ve been following the career of architect Sarah Susanka, author of the “Not So Big House” books, you’ve been able to read her words, see her house photos and even see her in person (she is a speaker at the West Coast Green conference coming up Sept. 20 to 22 in San Francisco).
Now you can also see her on DVD. This 40-minute program, which she did as a pledge drive special for public television, explains what makes a house cozy and comfortable. Most of us want just that: to feel comfortable in our homes. But oftentimes we move into or build large and sterile-feeling spaces where we feel ill-at-ease. Not being architects ourselves, we often don’t really understand the dynamics of space and light.
P.S. Sarah’s last name is pronounced “suh-SANKA.”
American Public Television recently spoke to author and architect Sarah Susanka about her new special THE NOT SO BIG HOUSE: HOME BY DESIGN, premiering 6/30/07.
How was the “Not So Big House” born?
I had been studying residential architecture for 15 years and had been watching how everybody had been coming into our office knowing that they didn’t want the average house, whether they were building or remodeling. They didn’t know what they wanted so they would try and tell us. I started to realize early in my residential architectural career that we’re sorely lacking in language by which to describe the qualities of home. If you look at real estate listings, for example, you’ll see that they’ll say “cathedral ceilings, hard wood floors, spiral staircases.” It’s all about things, quantities. The things that make people feel really at home have almost nothing to do with all of those quantities, and yet there’s no word. If you use the word “cozy” in a real estate listing it means there’s not enough space. So, I started making some real estate words and phrases to help define the things that let people feel that their house is their home.
Why do you think, even if they are aware of the “Not So Big House” concept, many homeowners still opt to build a “McMansion”?
It’s just because that’s the answer that we’ve sort of packaged for people. A lot of our decisions we make unconsciously; we just do it because everybody else is doing it. The one that is the most obvious is that our living rooms are furnished like they were 70 to 80 years ago. Nobody sits that way anymore. Nobody sits formally. And yet, across the country there are millions and millions of living rooms waiting for a kind of guest that we don’t have anymore. And so I call them the “no living rooms.”
You speak about sustainability in your books. How can an average person who is either trying to build a home or redesign their home incorporate sustainability into their new design?
The first step in sustainability should be to build not-so-big. I’m talking about remodeling or building new. They’re both the same thing. It’s really like “right sizing”. It’s design, tailored like a good suit, instead of “off the rack.” And once you do that, you are living more sustainably because you’re living in less space that really nurtures you more. It’s also true, that if something is beautiful, you look it over generations. We don’t normally talk about that side of sustainability, but it’s really important. Beauty is one of the most important aspects of the sustainable structure.
Another topic you discuss in your book is using technology gracefully and not wearing it like a badge.
Exactly. You know, that’s such a reflex these days. We’re proud of our toys and we want to be able to show them off, and have the latest of everything. That might be what you do with your car, but it’s not what you do with where you live — where you live has to be comfortable. I’m just beginning to write another book, actually, that talks about remodeling and the quality of home people are usually looking for. I’m going to use the clothing analogy again. The clothing we see on the runway at a fashion show in New York might look elegant on that runway, but try sitting down in it. It may not be very comfortable. And this [idea of home] is more like a nice, comfortable cardigan and a nice pair of slippers that you really enjoy being in. That’s what these houses are about — they gotta feel good.
What elements do you think have the most design impact on a house? I’m sure there are tons of them, but if you can give one example…
We spend the majority of our time looking from place to place within the house. One of the analogies I use in the program is that, just like a well-composed piece of music, the interior of your house can be just as composed and just as inspiring. (Johann Wolfgang von) Goethe uses this phrase, “architecture is like frozen music.” There’s the same kind of harmonics and melody and rhythm. It’s just spatially oriented, rather than oriented in time. Whenever I think about design, I’m always looking at the inter-relationships from place to place. I seldom think about one spot.
Many stations will be using this program during their fundraising drives. Which premiums do you think people will find the most useful?
Well, the two that are probably the most useful are the Not So Big House and Home By Design [books]. Home By Design is like a dictionary of all the principles that I talked about in all the other books and Not So Big House is wonderful because it sets the stage and helps people look at every house in a different way. Then there’s one that I really think would be useful, not because it’s so much about the content of the program, per se, but because it takes [the "not so big" concept] another step further: a new book I have coming out called the Not So Big Life. Just to give you a little preview so that you know what it is and how it might tie into this program . . . Not So Big Life is really an attitude and a sensibility… it’s really taking [the "not so big" concept] up to the fourth dimension and [applying it] to time and how we inhabit our lives.
What do you hope to accomplish with the public television program beyond what you’ve accomplished with your books?
I never cease to be amazed by how many people there are who want this information and don’t know that it’s there. So every year I find new people saying, “Oh my God! I just read your books and I loved them!” Even though they’re bestsellers, I think there’s a lot more people who will embrace this [concept] with public television. And the thing that is fascinating to me — and I’ve known it for many, many years — is that the people who are my best audiences also are public television viewers or national public radio listeners. They are exactly the same demographic.