Smaller Houses for Bigger Living

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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"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.

"We want something that's much more energy-efficient," Ms. Brown says. Describing the house they sold, she adds, "It's beautiful, but it's just too much. We had two bedrooms we didn't use. We had a formal dining room that was wonderful as a playroom. And we had a huge living room that was beautiful, but we never used it."

Still, Brown finds the bigger-is-better mentality deeply entrenched. "I have friends in the neighborhood who are just scraping by to pay their mortgage, but they wouldn't consider scaling down," she says.

Homeowners seeking more practical floor plans also find themselves thwarted by a housing industry that insists on preserving outmoded spaces. Real estate brokers, appraisers, and bankers, Susanka says, perpetuate the notion that a house needs a formal living room and dining room for resale.

She speaks boldly about the need for big changes and "a revolution" in the industry. "When about 80 percent of your clients come in the door and say, 'We live informally, but we need a living room and dining room for resale,' you realize the tail is wagging the dog."

To encourage change and offer ideas, Susanka has written "The Not So Big House: a Blueprint for the Way We Really Live," to be published in October by Taunton Press. Her firm has also been selected to design the next Life magazine Dream House.

"It's incumbent on architects to explain how to think about home," Susanka insists.

Georgia Bizios, a professor of architecture at North Carolina State University in Chapel Hill, and a practicing architect, finds that some architects in her area are seeing an increase in residential clients. "Many consumers look around, and what they see are large, badly built houses that don't fit the site," she explains. "They are coming to architects saying, 'I don't want one of those. I want a better house.' "

For a while, Professor Bizios says, people welcomed very large houses. "Space was seen as a luxury. Now they realize that just having additional square footage is not all there is to it."

Beth and Michael Hoffman of Minnetonka, Minn., both real estate brokers, know the rewards of carefully planned space. Their two-story, three-bedroom house, designed by Susanka, creates an informal environment where their blended family can gather.

"The house is not big, but it doesn't feel confined," Mr. Hoffman says of the 2,500-square-foot structure. "The whole back of the home is the kitchen and dining area, and then you step down to the family room, which is the main living area." Stepping down creates a visual separation. It also gives the illusion of a high ceiling.

In working with real estate clients, Hoffman says, "I see people who think big is better, but it isn't. My home has to be a sanctuary for me."

Susanka echoes that sentiment as she talks about the importance of "achieving a sanctuary that nurtures and simplifies our lives." Her happiest clients, she finds, are those who spend money on quality, emphasizing comfort, usefulness, beauty, and craftsmanship. "If people start putting dollars into personalizing the house, they'll move less, and they'll have a fabulous house," she says.

That kind of stability and contentment brings obvious rewards. "We've got so much change happening around us, and our life is so frenetic," Susanka says. "Our house is the still part, the place where you have serenity and calm. Its importance has actually increased."

HOW TO STRETCH THE SPACE YOU HAVE

Sarah Susanka suggests these architectural features to help make the best use of space and provide maximum comfort in a house:

* The public kitchen. Because the kitchen has become the heart of a house, make it accessible and open to all the living areas. Once it is connected - physically and visually - to these spaces, the need for a separate family room, sunroom, and living room is gone.

* Also consider adding a hearth and a small cozy area where a few people can gather out of the traffic pattern of food preparation.

* Double-duty dining. Instead of a formal dining room and an informal eating area in the kitchen, create one place that can serve for everyday use as well as for the few occasions when you entertain formally.

* Window seats. Raise the floor, lower the ceiling, and bring in the walls to define a cozy place for one or two people.

* Circulation space. Don't sacrifice square feet at the entry and in passageways. Generous circulation areas make a smaller house feel bigger.

* Creative storage. Use nooks and crannies to maximize storage space. Make storage correspond to the place where the object is used. If you have a wonderful collection of something, use it as an exhibit - displaying plates on a plate rail, for example.

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