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Best seller Sarah Susanka bucks the 'big house' trend

By Cathleen McGuigan and Ray Sawhill

So you're having a party, and you spent all day sprucing up your rarely lived-in living room--but where are your guests hanging out, noshing on the shrimp and cheese balls? In the kitchen, of course. That little fact of life is at the heart of Sarah Susanka's crusade for smaller, saner dwellings. Two years ago the Minnesota architect published "The Not So Big House," a surprise best seller, with more than a quarter million copies in print. Now she's back with "Creating the Not So Big House," a practical guide for home builders and remodelers--full of ideas and plans--which also continues her attack on the wasted formal spaces and grandiosity of the new suburban McMansions.

Not that Susanka's prescribing cheaper houses--her idea is that construction budgets ought to be spent on good design and materials and fine craftsmanship, rather than on the sprawling square footage that makes so many new houses feel about as homey as an airport. "After the last book came out," says Susanka, "I can't tell you how many architects and builders wrote and said, 'I gave a client your book and they came back and wanted a smaller, better house'."

Though Susanka has clearly hit a nerve tapping into the ecoconscious and simple-chic sensibilities, she's bucking a gargantuan trend. In 1970, the average new single-family house in the United States was 1,400 square feet; today it's ballooned to 2,225 square feet, even though families are shrinking. "People aren't cooking at home but they want a fancier kitchen," says Gopal Ahluwalia, director of research for the National Association of Home Builders. Other hot new essentials are media rooms--and you can't put a 48-inch TV in a dinky space--and two-story entry halls to rival the vestibule at Tara. Size matters because square footage is so closely tied to financing and resale value in the housing industry. Says Mississippi architect Samuel Mockbee, whose experiments with low-cost housing have won him a MacArthur "genius" award: The average American house, like the average American, is just over-weight. It needs some trimming down."

And dieting is never easy. Susanka's arguments against size aren't just a moral view of space gluttony but are based on the psychology of scale: the human body just doesn't feel relaxed and comfy inside enormous rooms. "We tend to gravitate toward the corners of spaces to feel protected," she says. "I'm addressing the 'feelings' involved in home and house design. Architecture is a skill that's almost entirely experiential, and yet we seem to avoid talking about this." Susanka, 43, has abandoned her successful architectural practice to keep on talking about these ideas. Besides writing her book, she's on the lecture circuit and her Web site ( is getting 4,000 hits a day. Not everyone may buy into her esthetic: Susanka spent most of her childhood in Britain, and favors a sort of English cottage/north woods look, with lots of nooks and exposed beams. But no matter what style a homeowner settles on, Susanka is raising sharp questions about how we live. And from the response she's getting, she's hitting home.

PDF file of the article.

From Newsweek, October 16, 2000, copyright Newsweek Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission and protected by the copyright laws of the United States. The laws prohibit any copying, redistribution or retransmission of this material without express written permission from Newsweek.


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