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Not So Big . . . Better

A Midwestern architect turns a simple notion into a bestseller--build smaller, quality homes.

May 30, 1999|MARNELL JAMESON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

So many big houses, so little soul, laments Sarah Susanka in the opening of her hot-selling book "The Not So Big House." But if readers buy into her concepts as readily as they're buying her book, that may change.

For Angela Glover of Camarillo, Susanka's message--which asks architects and home builders to think better not bigger--definitely hits home.

Glover first heard Susanka on a talk show, then bought her book. Susanka's concepts are helping Glover and her husband, Julius, rethink a home they bought in Ventura to remodel for themselves and their three sons.

"Her ideas just make sense," said Glover, who has had trouble finding an architect who understands what she wants. "They all want to put in a big living room, a big dining room and lots of other rooms we'd never use."

What makes the "Not So Big" concept work, Susanka said, "is that superfluous square footage is traded for less tangible but more meaningful aspects of design that are about beauty, self-expression and the enhancement of life."

"It's easy to get caught up in the big house because that's what the neighbors or your colleagues are doing," Susanka said in an interview from her home in St. Paul, Minn. "But you should stop and ask: Is this what you really want?"

While swapping footage for quality, Susanka suggests that those designing their own homes forgo formal spaces such as living rooms and dining rooms and make the rooms they use every day accommodate several activities. (Don't all parties end up in the kitchen anyway?)

Vary ceiling heights, she says, making them lower in places you always sit, and create alcoves where the house can embrace you.

In short, make the scale of your home human.

Apparently her message has struck a chord. Since its release in October, "The Not So BigHouse" (Taunton Press, 1998), has scaled unlikely heights for a $30 niche book on home design: It is in its eighth printing with 175,000 copies in circulation. Though it entered the market late last year, it finished the year as Amazon.com's leading home design book for 1998.

Its author, a low-key architect and principal of Mulfinger, Susanka, Mahady & Partners, an architectural firm in Minneapolis, is pleased but not altogether surprised by the book's success.

"I had a feeling a lot of people would see themselves in this book," said Susanka, who was on her way to tape a May 3 segment of "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Catapulting her notions still further, the May issue of Life magazine features two 1999 dream houses that her firm designed. (The two houses actually use the same floor plan, but one house is called Back to Basics and costs about $250,000 to build, while the other, called the Whole Nine Yards, costs twice as much.)

One reason for the book's hot reception is that it taps into two trends while possibly starting one of its own. One trend is the simplicity movement. Susanka's book offers a new take on the popular notion that consumers are maxed out and want to pare down. It also taps into the trend of homeowners paying more attention to the comforts of home.

Futurist Faith Popcorn suggests two reasons why people are opting for smaller houses: First, they're cashing out, she says, quitting the corporate rat race, choosing simpler lives and scaling down.

In a second more spiritual trend she calls "anchoring," people are simplifying their lives to concentrate on things that really matter.

"What's important to them is a dwelling place that's warm and centered," Popcorn said. "Huge, cold spaces are much harder to humanize or infuse with meaning."

Though written primarily for architects and custom home builders, the book is also being purchased by remodelers.

Also fueling sales are the 78 million aging baby boomers, who, as their children get older, realize they don't need such big houses, though they still want nice ones.

Taunton publisher Jim Childs believes the book's success is a reaction to the excesses of the 1980s and early 1990s.

But the reality is Susanka's ideas are not about less but about a different more. Her homes are still expensive, but the dollars go toward better materials, better construction, more detail, more built-ins and more customization. In short, it's an architect's dream.

As an example, the book cites one couple who, after building a 4,000-square-foot "starter castle," as Susanka calls the too-big house, weren't happy. The place wasn't them. So they contacted Susanka's firm, which, for almost the same cost, helped them create their 2,300-square-foot dream house.

Sounds good, but try explaining this to real estate appraisers.

Regardless of what Popcorn and Susanka think, the fact remains that the numbers people--Realtors, appraisers and mortgage lenders among them--look at cost per square foot and room count when determining a home's value. Thus, not so big may be not so bright in terms of resale.

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