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Show house in Libertyville, Ill. Designed by Sarah Susanka.

Barry Rustin,

'Not So Big House' takes center stage

  • Article by: LYNN UNDERWOOD
  • Star Tribune
  • November 19, 2011 - 2:34 PM

Sarah Susanka wanted to show people how they can live comfortably with less space.

So the celebrated architect and author of "The Not So Big House" series of books designed a showhouse in SchoolStreet, a new housing development in Libertyville, Ill., which opened for tours this week. We chatted with Susanka about "better-not-bigger" design, strategic wall color and the house of the future.

Q You've designed demonstration houses for builders' shows -- why did you decide to do a model home?

A I spent the last 12 years writing books about the "Not So Big House," and I realized the best way for people to learn about house design is by walking through and kicking the tires. It's open for six months and then it'll be sold.

Q How would you describe the home?

A SchoolStreet is a Front Porch Revival community. I would say it has bungalow character with a lot of Craftsman details -- but with all the ideas of the not-so-big house, which is eliminating formal spaces that are rarely used and building so every square foot gets used every day.

Q Why are you a proponent of front porches?

A People are craving a reconnection with their community. But the way we design houses, the living space is far from the front of the house. This floor plan has the kitchen adjacent to the front porch, creating a strong connection to the street.

Q Some people might consider the 2,450-square-foot showhouse quite large.

A When people hear "not so big," they assume that means small. What it means is that we take square footage out, such as in wasted formal spaces, and use those dollars to add in character and details -- lots of built-ins and trim work. Things we love in older homes.

This is intended to be a new model of a house for an average family. We could use the same set of ideas in a 1,200-square-foot home as well as a 4,000-square-foot home.

Q How does the showhouse demonstrate your "better-not-bigger" design principles?

A One of the key ideas is a variety of ceiling heights. It can give the impression of separate rooms without using walls. And lower ceilings can make a room feel more cozy and give a sense of shelter. Ceiling heights also affect acoustics and break down sound waves, so it doesn't feel so echo-y.

I design rooms that do double duty and perform more than one function. The "away room" can serve as an in-home office, TV and gaming room or a guest bedroom with one of the world's coolest Murphy beds.

Q What's one of your favorite features in the SchoolStreet showhouse?

A A rooftop terrace that feels like a back yard. People don't expect it.

Q What's one way you make a smaller home feel more spacious, yet cozy?

A Strategic use of color. The walls below the trim line are painted slightly darker than the area above the trim line. Arts and Crafts houses did this frequently. Then there's the occasional introduction of a much stronger color on focal walls.

Q In the tour brochure, why did you write that the showhouse learns from the past, but is a house of the future?

A People like things that are familiar. A lot of my ideas are from the Arts and Crafts movement, Prairie school, Japanese architecture and Shaker architecture. But then we make them our own and work for how we live today.

Q What will the house of the future look like?

A It's not going to look like it landed from outer space or the house from the Jetsons. It will look more familiar to us in terms of stylistic characteristics. It will look like a house from your grandmother's era, but designed for the way we live today.

Q You wrote your first book, "The Not So Big House," in 1998. Do you think those concepts are even more relevant today?

A There's always been a loyal fan club. But with the economy taking a downturn, there's a much larger audience. People are struggling to make payments, mortgages are under water and it's making them think there's a better way. It's a huge mind shift from a house being primarily an investment to a comfortable, easy-to-maintain place to live. More people are asking for a smaller, better-designed house.

Q Has the emerging green movement also had an effect on house size?

A It will have a big impact on the housing market. Homeowners are concerned about utility costs and are realizing that every decision they make has an impact on the carbon footprint. They're starting to grasp that the less square footage you have, the less you are heating and cooling. Not-so-big should be the first step toward sustainability. But it doesn't mean forcing everyone into tiny shoeboxes. You need to figure out how to build a space to make it feel larger than it actually is -- so it feels like you have a better house, not a smaller house.

Q You offer the floor plan online for the home you built in St. Paul when you lived in Minnesota. Will this one be available, too?

A Probably -- but not for a couple of years.

 

Q What's next on your plate?

A I'm hoping to do more of these types of houses. We have a plan for another one in Libertyville that's 1,600 square feet. Then I want to take this show on the road to other cities. I'm hoping to start a company that creates these kinds of homes for mainstream America. The Twin Cities is a marketplace that's right for it, just like Chicago.

For floor plans, photos and drawings, go to www.notsobigshowhouse.com

Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619

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