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In Choosing Homes, Bigger Isn't Necessarily Better

* Today's trend is for huge rooms and high ceilings, but most people yearn for the comfy feeling smaller spaces provide.

November 25, 2000|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most of us may live in relatively modest and affordable homes, but when we dream, it's usually about size. Rooms larger than tennis courts, ceilings rising up and away, views as wide as a panorama shot.

It's simple: Bigger is better.

Not always so, says Sarah Susanka. That's the thrust of her just-released "Creating the Not So Big House" ($35, Taunton Press, 2000), the companion to her popular "The Not So Big House" published in 1998. She believes people feel more relaxed and homey when they avoid the enormous and, instead, settle in smaller spaces with "a protected feel" about them.

"We can be beguiled by something huge, whether it's an immense formal dining room or a tall ceiling," Susanka said during an interview from her home in Raleigh, N.C. "That, however, may not be right for the way we really live. Consider who you are [and] what your home life is like.

"Going for a more intimate [environment] or making changes to what you already have could be smarter" than stretching the bank account by grabbing for the great indoors.

Susanka, who had an architectural firm in Minnesota before turning to books, realizes her message is counter to a trend that's grown over the years. Housing statistics show that in 1970, the average single-family home was 1,400 square feet. Now, the norm is 2,225.

She just shakes her head at that, noting that her buying-and-renovation philosophy is especially useful these days because this size-hunger has been fueled by so many people entering the housing market recently, many with extra cash that comes from a good economy.

"There is more affluence now [and] people are spending more on homes [but] making mistakes along the way," Susanka said.

For instance, "the rule of thumb from Realtors these days is to spend three to four times on the house construction than the actual lot.

"Let's say you spend $250,000 on a lot, then that would mean $1 million on the home. That's just a very huge house [and] I think it could be a very wrong decision. I'd suggest having a smaller home, more lot size and build a much bigger garden."

Of course, few can open their wallets that much anyway, even if they've been riding high-tech stocks the past several years. But Susanka points out that it's just an example; the bottom line is not to be motivated by pretense and stereotypes.

Who needs to keep up with the Joneses? Keeping up with the needs of your family and friends is plenty of inspiration, she said.

"Many homes are there for show," Susanka said. "I'd like them to be there for comfort."

And another thing: Don't be overly moved by resale value.

"Too many times we think of how attractive it will be when we sell," she said. "That also leads to [purchasing or building] bigger. Why not think about how you live now? Make something you like today, that should be enough."

OK, so what suggestions does Susanka have when remodeling or shopping for a new home? First, don't think smaller necessarily means cheaper. You should still expect to spend, but on design and craftsmanship instead of square footage.

After that sinks in, consider where you hang out the most. It's probably not the living room, but the kitchen. Susanka said we congregate there, or at least near there, whether alone, as a family or for entertaining.

"We usually get excited over a formal dining room or a living room with cathedral ceilings, but that's not really where we live," she said. "I always like to think about what you can do with the kitchen and what's near it."

To create a more comfy vibe, Susanka suggests having a casual eating area right next to the kitchen. Maybe separate the two with French doors or loosely connect them with some lattice or railing treatments. Perhaps an architect should be brought in for ideas.

And when turning to the rest of the house, take note of these general concepts Susanka details in her books:

* Shelter around activity: "Creating shelter around a specific activity is a concept that children instinctively understand when they make a cozy hideaway out of a cardboard box," she writes. "As adults, we do much the same thing when we gravitate to the corner of a room or an alcove to sit. Walls wrap around us so were protected, but we can look out into the larger space that our sheltered alcove is attached to."

* Doing double-duty: "Our homes have grown larger in part to accommodate all the activities we engage in. Rather than build a room for each function, think about ways spaces can be shared. Allowing areas in a house to 'moonlight' is a way to make them do double-duty."

* Varying ceiling heights: "High ceilings are often considered more desirable than low ones, but [they] are often more impressive than comfortable. What's important is not the overall height; it's the proportion of the height to the other dimensions of the room. By varying the heights [throughout the house], spaces are enlivened and individually defined."

* Interior views: "Houses are usually designed to take advantage of outside views, with a lot of thought going to getting the windows in just the right places. But we also spend a great deal of time looking within the house, which makes the composition of interior views equally important."

* Diagonal views: If you want to make your home seem larger (good for cramped apartments), keep geometry in mind. "If you arrange a space so that you can look along the diagonal, from one corner to the opposite one, you are looking along the longest view available [making] the space feel larger than it actually is."

* A place of one's own: "Our houses are getting bigger in part because we have no place to get away to, no place to be by ourselves. [Make a small place] for writing, for painting, for meditating, and for displaying those things that have special personal meaning."

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