Sarah Susanka Q& A - Remodeling on a 'Not So Big' Scale

By Nora Krug
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 26, 2009

If architect and lifestyle guru Sarah Susanka has one regret about her new book, "Not So Big Remodeling" (The Taunton Press, $32), it's that it doesn't include this phrase: "Given the economic downturn . . . ."

But Susanka need not worry about being so explicit. The latest volume in her "Not So Big" series broadcasts clearly the timely message that making small, relatively inexpensive changes to your home can have as great an impact on your happiness and the home's long-term value as blockbuster additions and luxury upgrades.

"We're re-embracing a value from the 1950s and earlier where people weren't constantly thinking of moving up," she says. "In many ways, I hope this book will remind people that it's okay to settle, to stay in a house and really enjoy that house."

Her book, the ninth in a collection that includes the best-selling "The Not So Big House" (Taunton, 1998, 2008) and "The Not So Big Life" (Random House, 2007), offers numerous ideas for transforming a so-so house into something that is first and foremost a comfortable home and, second, a worthy investment.

In some cases, the changes are small, such as the closet-hiding shoji screens and floating cabinetry in the bedroom of an 800-square-foot D.C. apartment. In others, the makeover is more extensive. Breaking down walls between the kitchen and dining room is common, as is adjusting ceiling heights and adding windows to an attic office space or bedroom. Susanka also offers her own Raleigh, N.C., Cape Cod as a case study on how to make thoughtful, incremental changes to a whole house, beginning, as per her mantra, with a small alteration that has an immediate impact (replacing the front door with one that includes glass) and saving larger projects, such as reconfiguring the ceiling heights and windows in the master bedroom, for later.

Is Susanka worried that her stay-put, make-do message might alienate real estate agents? "I have a feeling that realtors have the same problem as owners: They have frumpy houses they need to sell," Susanka says.

We explored some of those ideas with Susanka in a recent telephone interview.

Tell us about your book in your own words.

Remodeling is obviously a subject a lot of people want to know about because they can't afford to build or aren't planning to build new but have homes with little problems or things that don't fit them well. One of the biggest issues is that people either ignore problems or solve them by adding a substantial addition, like a 12-by-20 bump-out, which is like adding a new house to the back of the old one. This book is primarily about working in the spaces you already have and making them work better for you.

How do you define "not so big" when it comes to remodeling?

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