18 March 2009

Sarah Susanka and Marc Vassallo's Not So Big Remodeling: A Review

Not So Big Remodeling: Tailoring Your Home for the Way You Really Live by Sarah Susanka and Marc Vasallo published by Taunton Press, 2009

In the late '90s a new voice emerged to counter the rising tide of the More is Better school of home construction. That voice belonged to Sarah Susanka and through eight books, that voice has remained consistent and calm as it stated again and again that more isn't better, better is better. 

photo by Ken Gutmaker, used with permission

Beginning with The Not So Big House and continuing through Creating The Not So Big House and then on to Inside The Not So Big House and Outside The Not So Big House, her advice has been a level and kind reminder that there's much more to a home than the house. She's offered Not So Big Solutions For Your Home and Home By Design: Transforming Your House Into A Home. Then realizing that she'd been working on describing a way of life and not just a way of building, in 2007 she came out with The Not So Big Life. As I've mentioned previously, The Not So Big House provided me a Road To Damascus moment when it came out in 1998 and her subsequent books have come into my life in much the same way I'd receive the regular visits of a good friend or a cherished relative.

I found out last fall that Sarah Susanka and co-author Marc Vassallo had another installment in the Not So Big series due in March of '09. I blogged about it at the time and Sarah Susanka herself left a comment on one of my posts from last November. To say that made my day is an understatement of staggering proportions. I've had a press copy of Not So Big Remodeling for about four weeks now and I've been carrying it around ever since it arrived. My copy is already dog-eared and jammed with post-it notes. It's her best work to date and is also her second collaboration with Marc Vassallo with whom she wrote Inside The Not So Big House in 2005.

Photo by Ken Gutmaker, used with permission

In Not So Big Remodeling, Susanka and Vassallo put all of thought that went into the Not So Big series into renovation and their timing couldn't have been better. The housing market's collapsed if you haven't heard and more and more people are finding themselves stuck in the home they have. Combine that with the evaporation of the home equity line of credit and there are large numbers of people interested in renovations but with a third the budget they would have had a couple of years ago.

Photo by Greg Premru, used with permission

Not So Big Remodeling speaks directly to a new housing reality and offers sensible and often lower cost ideas about how to turn a house into a home. The book begins with Susanka's own home renovation in Raleigh, NC and uses her experiences with transformation as a launch pad to cover every aspect of her sensible take on home renovation. Not So Big Remodeling is loaded with examples of how to pull off a thoughtful remodel as Susanka and Vassallo start with a home's exterior and work their way through Kitchens and Gathering Rooms; Baths and Personal Spaces; and then they wrap it all up with a section called Pulling It All Together. Pulling It All Together covers such topics as how to deal with a too-large home and how to integrate green practices into your project.

Not So Big Remodeling is at once an inspiring photo essay, an architectural survey and a philosophical treatise. Though it's loaded with examples and floor plans, I wouldn't call it a how-to guide. The examples in the book are there to get the audience to think about their own homes. The goal here is to get people to think about the spaces they call home and then carry the lessons covered in Not So Big Remodeling and interpret them. Not So Big Remodeling is an anti-how-to guide in that sense. Throughout the book, Susanka and Vassallo are pretty adamant about having a home reflect the lives of the people inside of it. With every illustration and photograph there's a gentle nudge to consider the concept being illustrated and not so much the execution.

All told, I'm impressed by this latest installment of the Not So Big series, Not So Big Remodeling and it's a welcome addition to my library. If you're considering undertaking a renovation, it's definitely worth a read. If you just like to think about this sort of thing, then Not So Big Remodeling would great for you too. Just don't ask to borrow my copy. I'm a generous book lender under ordinary circumstances, but my Not So Big books are definitely part of my non-circulating collection. So pick up a copy and use it as an opportunity to think about your space.


  1. Dear Paul,

    Well, I'm going to make your day again. Thank you so much for the wonderful review. I can honestly say that it is the best I've seen yet. As you've discovered, there's a lot to this book. In many ways, it's a compendium of everything I learned over the twenty years in which I worked as a residential architect in Minnesota, first on my own, and then with the firm that now goes by the name SALA Architects.

    I learned so much during those years, and saw first hand the challenges people were up against as they tried to make their "not so lovely" house into a place that feels like home. Nowadays I'm in a position to be able to help connect homeowners, designers, architects, builders and remodelers around issues of common interest, and I'm hoping that this latest book will produce a groundswell of interest in making existing homes better for today's more informal lifestyles.

    If any of your readers would like to know more about the book as well as learn more about the architects and designers whose work is represented there, they can go to www.notsobighouse.com and click on the "Go to the Not So Big Remodeling page". There's also a place where readers can share their projects with one another, so that we can all learn from each other as we collectively move to improve our existing housing stock.

    Thanks again Paul. As you've probably guessed, there will be more "not so big" books coming, so I hope you'll stay tuned.

    Warm regards,


  2. Mission accomplished Sarah, you made my day. Thank you!

  3. Good timing on the not so big remodeling. I think that infill projects and remodelings are going to be popular for years to come.

    Simple,Unique, Creative and Green House Plans
    Spreading the word on great home design

  4. Welcome to my blog Ron and thanks for the post!

  5. I somehow missed that she had a new book out. It sounds wonderful! I'm eager to read it. I've enjoyed her other books. Great review!

  6. Thanks for stopping by Julia. If it isn't painfully obvious, I'm a fan. I still can't believe that THE Sarah Susanka left the first comment today. Wow.


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