How Not So Big Got So Big
Author Sarah Susanka Has Turned Small Is Beautiful Into a Cottage Industry
By Deborah K. Dietsch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 13, 2004; Page H01
British-born architect Sarah Susanka could be called -- with slight exaggeration -- the J.K. Rowling of home-design books. Like the author of the phenomenally popular Harry Potter series, Susanka has spun a succession of top-selling tales for homeowners faced with the prospect of building or remodeling on a budget.
Her first book, "The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live," published in 1998, became a bestseller with the message that smaller can actually feel larger: If rooms are configured to maximize flow, daylight and interior views, she contends, there's no need to add another floor or wing to your bungalow or rancher.
That book, which stayed a top seller on Amazon.com for two years, was followed by "Creating the Not So Big House" (2000) and "Not So Big Solutions for Your Home" (2002). Her newest book, "Home by Design: Transforming Your House Into Home," was released in March (Taunton Press, 250 pp., $35).
These guides, a kind of Hogwarts school of magic for the home, offer spatial tricks and practical solutions to common home-building problems, from selecting a site to hiding the TV. Their advice hit a nerve with cost- conscious homeowners who shoved the books in front of their architects and builders with "I-told-you-we-didn't-need-all-that" admonishments.
As sales climbed, Susanka became a media star. Though hardly as famous -- or rich -- as Rowling, she has been quoted, interviewed and debated in the press enough to solicit admiration -- and gripes -- from other architects. So far, the four-book series has sold more than 750,000 copies, according to publicist Jodi Lapoint at Taunton Press, who says a successful home-design book typically sells 50,000 copies. Susanka, meanwhile, left her architecture firm to write and lecture full time.
"The books are about livability, not high design," said Susanka, 47, over lunch during a recent Washington visit to lecture at the American Institute of Architects. "I'm trying to show that it's quality, not quantity, that counts in making your place feel like home."
Susanka's own house in Raleigh, N.C., is clear proof that the author practices what she preaches. Completed this spring, the renovation of the 1970s Cape Cod where the architect lives with her husband, Al, a counselor who declines to give his last name, exemplifies her ideas about Not-So-Big-ness.
"It's not a great house," she said, "so I remodeled the heck out it."
The focus of the renovation is a 20-foot-by-12-foot addition built over an existing sunroom, with tall windows, wood-trimmed clapboard and a curvy roof. Its cozy rooms counter the American impulse to super-size, as exemplified by suburban McMansions, which Susanka portrays in her books as villainous space-wasters with "so little soul."
Her small-is-beautiful view, however, runs counter to homebuilding trends. Statistics show that the average house has grown steadily -- by about 30 square feet every year since 1995 -- to reach 2,329 square feet in 2003, according to Gopal Ahluwalia, vice president of research at the National Association of Home Builders. Only about a third of homebuyers, Ahluwalia says, are willing to purchase a smaller house with more amenities such as high ceilings, hardwood floors and more than one fireplace. "Most consumers want bigger houses," he said. "We're not going back to 1,600 square feet."
Not so fast, says the Not-So-Big author. More important than square footage, Susanka asserts, are living spaces that are used every day.
Instead of worrying about resale value and insisting on a formal dining room or a bathroom for every bedroom, she urges homeowners to make the most of a small house with casual, multipurpose spaces.
"We need to stop thinking in terms of room names. We need to think of the home as a sequence of places."
In her latest book, Susanka focuses her argument on the architectural basics of space, order and light.
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