I had a great telephone conversation with Sarah Susanka yesterday. I've been writing about the new book she wrote with Marc Vasallo, Not So Big Remodeling: Tailoring Your Home for the Way You Really Live, quite a bit these last few weeks, and I finished up that phone call even more convinced that Susanka's onto something important.
Susanka grew up in England, in a village in Kent. At the age of 14 her family moved to Los Angeles and the resulting culture shock planted the seed that would become The Not So Big House years later. The years passed, she went to school and became an architect. She soon found herself as an architect with a bustling practice. After 15 years of that, she realized that she had something to say and she started to write.
Separating Susanka from the ideas she gets across in her books isn't possible and to point that out, when she realized that she wanted to write she found herself with a schedule so full that at first she thought she didn't have time. Never one to accept excuses, she made time for herself the only way she knew how. She scheduled herself onto her own calendar. Instead of seeing clients at the appointed hour, she set aside the time for herself to write. In treating her Sarah's Writing Time with the same gravity she'd treat an appointment with a client, she wrote without a specific goal in mind, but what that scheduled writing time yielded evolved into 1998's best seller The Not So Big House.
In her latest book, Not So Big Remodeling: Tailoring Your Home for the Way You Really Live she touches on this theme again in the chapter 17, A Place of Your Own. Setting aside A Place Of Your Own, or Poyo in a living space makes practices like writing or meditating more possible than they would be otherwise. The ideas she espouses, like the Poyo, are not about square feet or size. Instead, they are about intention and scale. Human beings are social animals, that's abundantly clear. But people need a place to retreat and think just as much as they need to be surrounded by the others who share their lives. Why not create yourself a nook in which to be quiet when you're planning a space? Why not indeed? And why does this sound so revolutionary when someone does?
I asked her where she thinks the current housing market situation will lead us as a culture. She answered that she "suspects that the situation today will affect us for the next few decades. That effect is bigger than the housing market, and people are beginning to consider what matters. Instead of focusing on the next best thing or house, people are beginning to look at what they already have. There's a regrouping going on as people begin to see their homes not so much as an asset to be traded, but rather a place to settle. As people see their homes as a place to live more than as an investment, priorities will begin to change." She sees a lot more remodeling happening and she sees builders beginning to build smaller and better-designed homes. "There will be less emphasis on square feet and more emphasis on quality," she predicts.
And for people currently stuck in poorly-designed and scaled homes built during the boom years, she offers a salve in the form of chapter 20, Too Bigness. Vaulted ceilings and wide open floor plans sound great as ideas, but as executions they are notoriously wanting. Chapter 20 is a terrific primer in space planning for these too large proportions and it's brimming with ideas that will help anybody wrestle some of these unwieldy floor plans back into something resembling a human scale.
But chapter 20, like that chapters in all of her books, isn't about instruction. The Not So Big books aren't how to manuals and that's the root of their appeal to me. Sarah Susanka is a visionary and her books lay out a philosophy of home. These books are bigger than square feet or vaulted ceilings. They take a step back and take a meta view of what the nature of a home is. The chapters and exercises in her books are there to get you thinking. "I'm an interpreter and not a creator" she used to tell her clients and there's a lot of that sentiment that comes through in her work today.
The only people who really matter when it comes to how to use a space are the people who live in it. It's my job as a designer to listen to those people and guide them to a place where their lives are enhanced, where they can feel truly comfortable and at home. A home is the background for the main act, life. All too often, those roles get reversed and I for one take great comfort that someone like Sarah Susanka is saying things like this in the public square. A house is about who lives in it, it's not about Jonathan Adler or Kelly Wearstler or Todd Oldham or even Sarah Susanka or Paul Anater.
I asked her what words of advice she had for people dealing with deflating home values and she responded that "people should stop thinking about now." By that she meant that it's easy to lose sight of a future when now looks so bleak. "Prices will rise again eventually, and people with underwater mortgages today won't be underwater forever. If you can hold on, then hold on."
Great advice and if I may add on my own, the ideas and philosophy espoused in the Not So Big books were never more needed or appealing than they are today. If you're interested in any of these ideas, I encourage you to go to Sarah's website, Not So Big. On Not So Big you'll be able to see the show houses she designs as well as participate in discussion forums, buy house plans and even find an architect or designer. While you're there too, you'll notice that Not So Big isn't a style or a trend so much as it is a mindset. A mindset where quality means more than quantity. "Not So Big is completely present," she says "and not an attempt to recreate anything from the past." As an idea, it takes inspiration from and connects to yesterday but it doesn't dwell there. Life moves and changes, but the human need to to live in homes conducive to the business of living never changes. Sarah Susanka's onto something I tell you, she's on to something.