Interested home buyers, Architects and Builders should become quickly aware of the ramifications of designing and building ‘Not so Big’ (NSB). The term has connotations of environmentalism and universality, which may be why little or no critical response has challenged the tenets to date. While obviously not a new concept, its base appeal is gaining popularity and creating expectations that one can afford to design and build a substantially ‘better’ home by merely cutting out relatively inexpensive floor area and dedicating it to upgrades, additional trim, better quality doors/ windows, etc. The consumer should understand that the added costs for building Not So Big are typical of any custom design project, and can raise the soft and hard costs to double or triple for the work required to fulfill their ‘wish list’.
A NSB house then is basically a fully detailed project that is ultra customized for a relatively smaller home than would be built for that budget otherwise. The concept was developed as a result of allegations by architect Sarah Susanka that the existing ‘system’ is designed to offer consumers only larger, less detailed and out of scale houses — houses that simply do not have any real architectural character and have unnecessary wasted and normally unusable spaces. These ‘mcmansions’ have unsightly exteriors while offering ill proportioned and merchandised interiors that do not respond to an unserved market segment requiring better detailed and built homes. She contends that potential homeowners have few options in terms of cost/ value and that the market is leading the consumer to build bigger but not better.
Ms. Susanka also believes that most people do not understand that architects are actually charged with designing houses (among other building types) – rather than builders. She is championing an awareness of the design professional as primary in the home design process. Her proof that her assessments have struck a deep felt chord is mainly evident in the number of requests for smaller, but highly detailed and more imaginatively conceived houses her firm and others connected with her program have received after publication of her two seminal books, and the call for personal seminars from various parts of the country to hear her speak. Newest on her agenda is a holistic approach to designing the built environment that will probably address suburban sprawl, while appealing to green building, feng shui, etc. to cure the ills of the world.
The idea of building smaller but better is not a new one. Anyone contemplating construction must meet the same issues of size versus quality at the very beginning. Budget is discussed at initial meetings with an architect or builder and the question is immediately raised concerning space in relationship to quality of finishes, materials selection, style and size of home. Building professionals must constantly advise their clients with cost estimates based on outline specifications at the beginning before proceeding with design schematics and until complete specifications are issued.
The question as to how much smaller does one have to build in order to make the final result ‘better’ in terms of design and quality is complex and is dependent on the skill of the architect, the capabilities of the builder, the availability and transport of materials, and the experience of the trades and subcontractors. But by embracing this carefully crafted statement, potential custom home clients assume that it is a relatively simple trade-off:
This is the art of the Not So Big House: to take out square footage that’s seldom used, so that you can put the money saved into the detail, craft, and character that will make it eminently comfortable and uniquely yours. In short, it favors quality over quantity.
In order to implement this idea Susanka then offers up this incredulous statement — one must plan for a home that is “… approximately a third smaller than your original goal but about the same price as your original budget.” The gain for this maneuver includes such items as “…a beautiful stair railing, well-crafted moldings around windows and doors, and useful, finely tailored built-ins.”
The idea is compelling but the practicalities are flawed. For openers: how can you plan for a house if you know you should take out 30% of it before starting to plan for your house? What Zen! And doesn’t this reasoning remind one of a similar argument made by many builders to the potential client: “Select one of the pre-designed plans from our portfolio and ‘customize’ it. Cut out the architect fees and put it into quality finishes or a bonus room.”
Building professionals know that this sleight of hand just doesn’t add up. It is a recurring reality that the wish list (basic requirements in terms of number of rooms, circulation, storage, etc. organized in a fashion that will have spirit and a style of its own), when translated in cost per square foot typically exceeds initial budget estimates. The client is overjoyed at the initial drawings that fulfill the program, but know that he must cut back somewhere in order to meet budget.
The first attempt to solve this problem is to cut some of the rooms down in size. This is a gut-wrenching procedure that seems unavoidable. The second step is to eliminate one or two rooms, which invariably induces near cardiac arrest. But for some reason budget is still exceeded. The answer is simple: one cannot cut out empty rooms alone and expect substantial savings. One has to reduce the quality of materials and finishes, perhaps lower ceiling heights and roof pitches, opt for less expensive cabinets and counter tops, architectural trim, etc. in order to meet budget.
There is no straight-line correlation between cutting overall living area in order to put savings into quality of space. The extra goodies Susanka offers up cannot be had by cutting raw space (living area square footage) alone. The budget must increase as well. In other words, taking out 1000 square feet from a 6,000 square foot house priced at $100/ SF (without lot costs), a 16.7% decrease in overall living area, will certainly not allow one to put $100 grand into general upgrading.
This point is well understood in the industry but confounds the consumer: if one keeps the basic elements of a house intact -stock cabinets, plumbing and electrical fixtures, windows, doors, AC and heating system, TV/ media/computer connections, etc– and simply cuts out the formal Living Room, extra bedroom, exercise room, etc. cost savings (in the above example) is at best only $25-50/ SF. Cutting out the elbowroom and extra spaces of a house may save on energy costs at best, and will buy some upgrades – yes, but not nearly how much is implied by the Not So Big approach. At the worst, eliminating ‘unused spaces and rooms’ may make a house feel cramped and less marketable at resale compared to its bigger but potentially less detailed brethren. And how can you possibly cut out one third of a much smaller house anyway without seriously affecting livability?
Imagine this scenario. A potential client meets with a building professional for the first time and claims — “I have been thinking about building about 3,000 square feet for my family. We have three kids and would like a three bedroom, two-bath home with a formal living/ dining, kitchen open to a family room and breakfast area. If you can squeeze in a study we would be thrilled, and another bath.” The professional responds with this: “Well, you know that if you cut 1/3 of your house down we can offer you some tremendous spatial effects, upgraded cabinets, inspiring trim, wood windows instead of aluminum…” The typical homeowner would stare in disbelief, get blue in the face, bluster under his breath, and storm out.
Actually, if one double backs two secondary bedrooms to a single bath, cuts on the upgrades in kitchens (appliances, cabinets and counter tops), elects for a basic communications/ electronics system rather than the top of the line home automation extravaganzas, specifies uniform trim and molding with just a few highlights, selects medium quality flooring, etc. then house size can be appreciably increased by a factor double that of the reverse-engineering Susanka proposes. And this is what Americans elect to do, from starter to luxury homes. The ‘Not so big’ concept actually works best for those with more money to spend, not less. More simple space is much less expensive per square foot than more detailed/quality space per square foot.
Mass production merchant builders offer up the best value for the smaller entry level, move up or empty nester home. This is done by building a fairly priced product through the economies of large-scale construction. Building ‘not so big’ also involves a degree of customization that will require additional soft costs: “Achieving the degree of tailoring that she champions, however, requires the services of an architect and a custom builder.” — Katharine Salant, Inman News. By her own admission, Susanka’s back to back ‘not so big’ version of the basic home of the same size proposed in Life magazine’s feature project a few years back, cost nearly twice as much!
The larger the home, the more a client is willing to invest in ‘architecture’, not the other way around. It is a numbers game: the merchant builders attempt to meet market demand. At this time more than ever before, there are home options for all demographics – condominiums, starter plans, empty nester designs, retirement homes, new urbanist houses, etc. You can be in a high-density urban setting or out in the suburbs. But the facts are that we are building bigger on the average.
Susanka blames the housing industry for leading the unknowing consumer into wasteful larger, less detailed homes (horrors!) and implies a dark conspiracy involving the financial cartel, materials suppliers, utilities providers, U.S. public policy, etc. This is patently absurd. American home buyers know exactly what they are getting into — know that architects are available to design any whim they might have in mind, but prefer in overwhelming numbers to grab the largest home they can find in the best neighborhood possible at the best price – usually erected by a merchant builder. Recent research (by Robert Frank, a Cornell University professor of economics, ethics, and public policy) proves that “…it is the ongoing behavior of our peers which ultimately determines how much we spend and how we spend it” – not ignorance, a national conspiracy, or Wall Street marketing hype.
The extra quality of life features opined by Susanka and other Arts and Crafts proponents (anti-classicists and modernists as well) simply cost much more than a space tradeoff. Such homes, which happen to be smaller as built at the turn of the century, were also built with an emphasis on hand work as a protest to machine production. Reactionaries to the Industrial Age, this movement could not withstand the increase of space required by families of all sizes and economic profiles that could only be offered in a Democratic capitalist society which depends on mass production to increase the quality of life for all.
Susanka challenges long-standing theories of space perception and cultural mores with such statements:
“With its tall ceilings and marble floors, it was designed to overwhelm and impress visitors, not to welcome.”
“We are all searching for home, but we are trying to find it by building more rooms and more space. Instead of thinking about the quality of the spaces we live in, we tend to focus on quantity. But a house is so much more than its size and volume, neither of which has anything to do with comfort.”
These and other like quips are patently false or misleading. Tall ceilings and marble floors work to impress and welcome. And so what if it is one and not another? Is this class war? Size and volume has as much to do with comfort as anything else. Her comment about floor plans is that “The “feel” (of a house) comes from the experience of our senses, not just from the route we take from one room to the next.” The experience of moving through space certainly has an effect of our perception of it.
Susanka claims that it is wise to cut the formal (read: presumed excessive or unusable) spaces such as Dining and Living rooms in favor of directing that booty towards a smaller total living area with better details while making up with spatial trickery. Are formal living and dining areas completely useless or so infrequently used that they ought to be left out of a Not So Big House? Traditional formal areas provide transition space from the ‘outside’ or public realm, to our inner sanctum, a well-developed tool for architectural spatial progression. A formal staircase, central to the house -practical and decorative, normally is situated in a large foyer. It offers up decorative detail and potent imagery. The typically situated formal rooms, for many people, have tremendous impact psychologically beyond being a ‘comfortable’ or ‘necessary’ room. Depending on the region, they are an inbred tradition: they are part of a culture of graciousness, they are an expected feature, they provide at least one area in which to get away from otherwise ‘rustic’ activities and yes, they offer a showcase for fine furniture/ antiques. Most importantly they make an opening statement about who we are. (The most endearing quality though may be that they originally allowed grown-ups to entertain and socialize with each other apart from the din of children screaming in the back rooms, something a ‘not so big’ house cannot offer.)
Susanka offers basic design motifs that are routinely employed by large and small space creators alike: “shelter around activity”, double duty space, diagonal views, change of ceiling heights, private and public space, perspective and scale, etc. These are not new revelations, just techniques often left out by the ignorant (or soon-to-be bankrupt!) merchant builder it seems, but not by all builders and architects. The astute custom or semi-custom builder will attempt to satisfy market demand and hire the appropriate talent to deliver it. ‘Hot buttons’ in terms of creature comforts and specialty space sells.
Susanka implies that all ‘larger’ houses are ill designed and have no soul, a comment that also contains a tinge of class envy). She especially despises tall ceilings. Those who design, build and live in large(er) houses offer models for the smaller budget builder to emulate. Those who build larger can afford more intellectual and technically capable architects who take the art to exemplary heights while often breaking the status quo to test new concepts and reinterpret the past. These innovations are routinely adopted by smaller home builders. They typically look to large luxury homes for design elements that they can incorporate in other price points. And note this: those who build the avant garde or ‘modern’ new concepts usually end up spending 2-5 times the cost of the conventionally constructed house.
If we stretch either point we have absurdity: either a tiny, cramped but nicely appointed house is better or one that is an out of scale pretentious marble barn with endless rooms. The fact is that both can be well proportioned and detailed to satisfy a great range of spatial experiences and gratify a smorgasbord of lifestyles with varying economic means. ‘Character’ is not exclusive to size; it is how space and finishes are organized/ specified. Most architects concur:
“The same materials and expense thrown away on an ugly, ill proportioned building, if guided by good design, would produce an elegant building, and this is why the architect is brought into requisition, to treat the materials placed in the architect’s hands so as to give an expression of beauty to the simplest form.” — George Palliser, 1878
Is it possible to think great thoughts in small(er) spaces? Most likely. Can large(er) spaces be inspirational as well? No doubt. Is bigger better? Not always. Is smaller better? Not for everyone. And how do NSB houses look and work? Most of the examples are cleverly designed, well thought out homes that respond exactly to client needs and expectations it seems. But they also appear tight and inflexible. The explanation? “One of the most surprising aspects of building Not So Big is that the measurable dimensions are smaller, but the psychological dimensions are bigger.”
The first impression one gets upon entering Ms. Susanka’s personal home, as illustrated in her book, is a blank wall immediately at the Foyer. Her not so big house, on the outside, consists of a two-car garage slamming into a narrow box of living area, not much different from the typical mid-west suburban ‘great room’ tract house on a small lot. Yes, there are some attractive ‘craftsman-like’ details in low ceilinged rooms, materials contrast, color work, and smart combined space use. Most of the not so big plans featured in Susanka’s books are situated in rural areas (avoiding the garage in your face malady) and appear small and crampy outside their central ‘everything open to each other’ space, with narrow halls and passages, tight kitchens, occasional fixed seating, minimum baths, etc. providing little storage space and the ability to move furniture around or be able to ‘customize’ rooms over time. In fact, some feel like mcHobbits versus the mcMansions she decries. They are static and obsessively designed to fulfill the unwavering initial mindset of the owners and architect. Of course it is difficult to offer flexibility in smaller space, but not multiple spaces. These not so big houses are extremely idiosyncratic; in short they are ultra-customized and would have severe resale consequences in a typical subdivision – which is probably why most are nestled away from one.
Homes with many rooms offer options to experience day-to-day tasks under different circumstances: the change of light and season, for example. It is revealing that the European villa type of the 16th century and later was constantly internally reorganized depending on the seasons. Dining and Living rooms were interchanged depending on breezes, lighting, views, prevailing temperatures, etc. How often does one wish to escape the monotonous fate of having to do everything in a limited space, over and over?
The drive towards larger, bigger-is-better, happens to be a national epidemic, er…characteristic. It is evident in everything we do — how we build our cities, cars and roads, and where we live. Building more or bigger offers cost savings due to volume purchases and mass production. You can generally get more for your architect’s fee and from your builder –as you can by buying in bulk– by building bigger. In fact, most architects would charge more as a percentage of construction cost for a smaller design than a larger one. And if you have to situate your specialty home away from the immediate suburbs, your costs of construction will increase as well.
For better or worse, Americans crave the freedom of larger rooms, larger houses, more land, bigger offices, theaters, sports and recreational buildings, etc. The average livable area in new homes is at a record high. From 1971 to 1998 the average American home grew over 40% from 1,520 SF to 2,190 Sf.. Builders and architects simply respond to the market.
What then makes for character in today’s homes? More often than not, and unfortunately so, ‘character’ is what people are carrying around with them as they move up or down career/ job-wise from town to town. It not as evident in the physical house structure of our time as compared to houses built before WWII. We customize our interiors with our movable belongings and gadgetry. Our mobile nature and meager artistic schooling (of late) combine to yield this unfortunate cultural sandwich: we care little about fine art nor recognize the extra details that can make architectural ingenuity and embellishment add meaning or comfort to our lives. We would rather fill our air-conditioned homes with space-age, high-tech gadgets for entertainment, communications, and business, and, with our furniture/ accessories — take these things with us every 2-5 years rather than throw surplus cash into architectural refinements. Our disposable housing mentality is reflected in how houses are built as well. We do not build heritage estates for our families or posterity because… we have condo mortgages to take care of and need to upgrade our cars every year or two!
If you can afford to build ‘better’ for the long term, fine, but we do not hold onto houses as long as we used to, therefore the adage: ‘They don’t build ’em like they used to’. In the end: we buy what we can afford or not, what we rationalize, how we wish to project ourselves (as far as luxury goods go — and the Not So Big House is a luxury item!), and how we intimately wish to live behind our four walls.
Bottom line: we would all love, — no, lust to have bigger homes in which to live. That appears to be our first priority when contemplating a new home. Less can be more to some people, but less is less to most. I find little truth in this statement: “A Not So Big House feels more spacious than many of its oversized neighbors because it is space with substance, all of it in use every day.” — Susanka. Space is viscerally discernable and less space feels like it! Of course, small house builders use every trick in the book to make the houses appear larger!
Susanka has a section in one of her books comparing housing to automobiles. In a recent online poll (About.com) SUV owners were asked how much they would pay for fuel before trading in gas-guzzlers for subcompacts.
30% said $3.50
8% said $5.00
1% said $6.00
59% said “You’ll pry that steering wheel from my cold dead hands”
Building ‘not so big’ could be detrimental to your client’s bottom line, the ‘savings’ tradeoff does not work number-wise, and Susanka’s sweeping statements relating size to quality of space also do not hold up to established architectural theory. She has managed to lure many more people than would normally visit an architect to their offices, but I am afraid many of these folks are becoming disappointed and annoyed when the bottom line becomes evident. The expectations are simply too high based upon this feel-good approach and may cause bitter client/architect/builder relations in the end.
As it stands, we will build first as large as possible considering budget, then as good as possible. This is tradition, at least of recent times. To be really green about it: cut out the large yards, build three times the density of the typical suburb or eliminate it completely, and put the savings back into the quality and features of our homes, externally and internally. Whether we like detail or space is an economic and cultural consideration. If any ‘art’ can be invoked in all of this, so much the better.
Every man’s body is a measure for his property, just as a foot is a measure for his shoe. If then, you abide by this principle, you will maintain the proper measure, but if you go beyond it, you cannot help but fall headlong over a precipice, as it were, in the end. So also in the case of your shoe; if once you go beyond the foot, you get first a gilded shoe, then a purple one, then an embroidered one. For once you go beyond the measure there is no limit.
Epictetus, The Manual
At first the prophet only wished to write a practical manual on home design, but now bolstered by respectable book sales and positive feedback from her wide-eyed constituents, the author of this mini-phenom, picking up on the karma, has launched into a new-wave environmental campaign. At a recent conference for the AIA, Susanka preached a combination of home design basics and general observations peppered with feng-shui mysticism and save the planet epithets. We were not impressed