Smaller Houses for Bigger Living
Minneapolis architect Sarah Susanka had just finished speaking at a local home and garden show, emphasizing that bigger is not always better in housing design. A couple in the audience came up to her, and the wife, her eyes brimming with tears, told a sad story.Skip to next paragraph
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"We just built a $500,000 house, but we can't bear to live there," she said. "All we've got is square footage with no soul. It's too big."
"Too big" is a lament Ms. Susanka hears more often these days as new homes increase in size. Owners, saddled with impersonal, cavernous spaces, sometimes wonder what went wrong - why they feel so profoundly disaffected from the very place that is supposed to nurture and satisfy: home.
"People are deeply, deeply unhappy with what society is offering up in housing," Susanka explains. "Our lifestyles have metamorphosed, but houses haven't changed. I can't tell you the number of people who say, 'This isn't really me.' "
These showplaces, sometimes dubbed trophy houses or McMansions, illustrate what Susanka calls a "Versailles complex - the notion that houses should be designed to impress rather than nurture." Many feature vaulted ceilings, Palladian windows, walls of glass, and separate rooms for single activities - media rooms, exercise rooms, hobby rooms, art studios, yoga rooms.
Susanka emphasizes that she is not advocating a small house, but rather, as she puts it, a not-so-big house.
"People are almost desperate for a sense of home," she explains. "We're using quantity to find home, but home isn't anything to do with bigness. Spaciousness just isn't conducive to comfort. In these humongous houses, people are living in the smallest space where they can find a little shelter. They're living in the kitchen, and other spaces are atrophying."
Susanka suggests eliminating rarely used spaces such as formal living rooms ("almost a memorial to the way we used to live") and formal dining rooms ("dinosaurs"). She replaces them with adaptable spaces, designed to be used every day.
These include multipurpose eating areas, alcoves for reading or working at home, and window seats. Ceilings of varying heights help to define space, as do lighting systems that enable family members to "set the scene" for different occasions.
Much of the quest for more space, Susanka finds, stems from a desire to get away from the noise of television. One solution involves creating an acoustically private "away room."
By favoring quality of design over quantity of space, homeowners can spend more on beautifying a home rather than simply making it bigger. What really defines the character of a house, Susanka points out, are the details: a beautiful stair railing, well-crafted moldings around windows and doors, and useful, finely tailored built-ins.
Another important element in any home is privacy. "Adults want spaces to be alone," Susanka says. "It's an unacknowledged need, but it's absolutely crucial. We have an independent personal existence as well as the life we live as a couple. Even if it's just a tiny space, each of us needs a place. People are looking for cozy."
During an interview in Cambridge, Mass., where she was lecturing to architects at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Susanka, a principal with Mulfinger, Susanka, Mahady and Partners in Minneapolis, describes the "fictions" many homes are built around. "We don't live as formally as we think we will," she says. "Even those times we think we need formal dining, we don't."
Her own house, which she and her architect husband, Jim Larson, designed, illustrates the point. Although they have no formal dining room, they can seat 27 for Thanksgiving dinner in an open eating area adjacent to the kitchen.
Another myth centers around homeowners' desire for many bathrooms. "In a high-end house, someone will say, 'We really need two powder rooms, one for the kids when they come in dirty, and one for guests.' " Yet this "bathroom proliferation," she warns, often wastes space and money.
Beyond obvious benefits of comfort, not-so-big houses offer important environmental advantages by consuming less energy. "We're using so much of our resources in these humongous houses," Susanka observes. "Isn't there a better way to use our resources? Make every tree that goes into the building of a house really enhance the life that it's enclosing."
Sharing that philosophy are Greg Britz and Elizabeth Brown of Hillsborough, N.C. Last month the couple and their three young children moved from a 2,600-square-foot, five-bedroom house to a smaller home. They plan to build a 1-1/2-story house with 2,000 square feet. After beginning with passive solar power, they will eventually convert to active solar.