20 March 2009

A conversation with Sarah Susanka

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.


  1. Smart Lady!

    It's so true, it's ridiculous that many people want to live in a picture perfect home.

    Those don't exist. A house must be a place that fits your needs as a family and be a HOME not a showroom.

    Have a great weekend Paul!

    gr. Mel

  2. Your comments make me want to learn Dutch so I can respond to you in your native language. Thanks Mel, you have a great weekend too!

  3. The premise behind the home remodeling/repurposing business I'm building is all about this - looking at what a home has, evaluating what works and what doesn't, finding ways (in complete collaboration with the home-owner) to address/design workable solutions that reflect lifestyle(s), ethics (i.e., green, energy efficient), etc., and then making those changes happen. If we can make the interior look pretty along the way with some special colour or decor, all the better! We live in a throw-away society - but with today's economic woes we can't just throw away our home if it doesn't meet our needs... we have to adjust, pur and simple.

    Paul - I'm so glad you put me on to Sarah Susanka... I'm going to pick up her book this weekend!

    Victoria: EdinDesign Interiors @ DesignTies

  4. You'll end up with all of her books before too long, believe me. Taunton Press, her publisher, publishes and entire library of beautiful books that bring home this same philosophy. Victoria, I like the way your mind works.

  5. Great blog! I am sure you enjoyed your interview. I will have to take a look at the books this weekend.

  6. Thanks and welcome JR, she's the real deal and she certainly practices what she preaches. Excellent conversation yesterday. Excellent.

  7. Paul, I totally relate to and agree with what Sarah is saying. Big does not mean better! I think a home should be your sanctuary. You should let out a deep breath and wash away concerns on the outside the minute you walk in...not be confronted with design flaws that drive you up the wall.

  8. Have you read any of her books Susan?

  9. I've loved her books and ideas since picking up the first one, The Not So Big House, in 1998. She's been a professional inspiration for me, and a wonderful interview, too, for several of my Tampa Tribune design articles.

  10. Great post, Paul :-) Thanks for introducing us to Sarah -- she has such a great design philospohy :-)

    Admitedly, our house is bigger than we really need. But the rooms themselves are just average size, and the spaces are pretty well laid out and utilized.

    There's a show on HGTV Canada called Mansions. I really can't stomach watching it -- the homes are SO excessive. Does anyone really need a bedroom bigger than some people's apartments?!

    I'm looking forward to exploring Sarah's web site -- thanks for the link :-)

    Kelly @ DesignTies

  11. Thanks Jamie and thanks Kelly.

  12. Love her books! Thanks for sharing!

  13. Great post, Paul!

    I love her point of view. I've seen her book (the first one) but haven't read it. It's my hope that people will once again pay extra for real craftsmanship rather than something cheap that looks impressive, in regards to both house size and everything inside.

    I was happy to see that she feels awkward spaces will be able to be reconfigured into something useful. I'm still somewhat worried about what will happen to cheaply constructed 4,000 sq ft houses in 20-30 years.

  14. Buy the book! You'll become a zealot too. That conversation she and I had stands out as the best perk to the blog I've ever realized. Amazing. She had a lot to say about salvaging the McMansion and she has another books' worth of thought on the topic.

    Unfortunately, a lot of those houses will be uninhabitable in 30 to 40 years because they were never intended to last that long. I have a feeling that the current melt down in the housing market will put an end to that entire school of home construction. I hope so anyhow. But the end of cheap money is upon us clearly, and that was the life's blood of that whole mindset.


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