Soft-spoken Sarah Susanka wouldn't seem to be the "I told you so" type, but ... well, she told you so.
For more than a decade, the architect has campaigned for houses to be built smaller but better. Her basic message: Figure out how big a house you need, and then subtract about a third of the square footage. Good design will make up the difference.
Lots of people caught on right away: Her wildly popular series of "Not So Big" home-design books earned her practically a cult following, and her publisher says she has sold more than 1 million books.
In the meantime, however, builders generally nodded politely and shrugged, continuing to put up ever-larger homes as fast as the public would buy them—which, not so long ago, was very fast, indeed.
Times, as you may have noticed, have changed. And the idea of smaller-but-smarter houses is starting to get more respect, Susanka says, a bit incredulously. These days, when her phone rings, it's likely to be a home-building company seeking her counsel on what to offer wizened consumers in post-recessionary America.
"I went to the International Builders Show in January, and honestly, it knocked my socks off," she said. "It" was not the giant home-building trade show itself, but the ubiquitous message there—from pollsters, designers, product manufacturers and the builders themselves—that the American home was now trying to get "right-sized."
"I never imagined that I would find the party line suddenly being what I wrote about for the last 10 years," said the architect. "Suddenly, the mass market seems to have embraced smaller, better design."
But the real mass market, she knows, is the people who own existing houses—many of which, they tell her, lack the warmth or the practicality that she pushes in her books. They want to remodel, they say, but not on a grand scale.
Thus, her eighth book, "Not So Big Remodeling: Tailoring Your Home for the Way You Really Live" (Taunton Press, 330 pages, $32), co-written with architect Marc Vassallo. It aims, she says, to help homeowners make smaller remodeling gestures, or, in her parlance, "Not So Big moves."
Susanka's buffet of remodeling solutions leans toward less expense and less disruption of daily life. She places them in three Not So Big categories: working within the existing footprint; creating room "bumpouts" that extend the space by a couple of feet; and smallish, cost-effective room additions.
A few of her strategies:
Go ahead, lower those ceilings.
Considering that we've just come through an era when it seemed like no ceiling could ever soar high enough, advising someone to lower theirs might seem like design blasphemy.
"Ceiling height is something that people don't understand," Susanka says. "If you make all ceiling heights 9 or 10 feet tall, it becomes monotonous."
She dropped some ceilings in two rounds of remodeling at her own home in Raleigh, N.C., that are chronicled in the book. Among other spaces, she dropped a middle section of a long passageway between foyer and kitchen to a height of 7 feet. This created a needed "transition area" between the foyer and kitchen—and made those rooms' ceilings actually seem higher, she said.
And she defines "dropped ceilings" rather broadly: Many rooms will benefit from borrowing the idea of a soffit from your kitchen in order to achieve "visual layering."
That is, adding a soffit to encircle a family room ceiling, for instance, doesn't remove any square footage from the space, but may help to differentiate it from the rest of the house. It also may make a smaller space seem larger because our eyes now perceive several spaces where before, they just perceived one, she says.
"Just as punctuation helps us to extract the full meaning of a sentence, spatial layering serves the same function for our eyes, separating the space we're looking at into bite-sized pieces without obscuring the experience of the whole," she writes in the book.
Head for the light.
Susanka says a highly effective way to make a house feel bigger is to provide a "view" along its longest axis, such as from a foyer toward the back of the house. A view might be acquired by directing the eye toward a distant light source, such as installing a window at that far end. Or it can be had more simply by putting a lighted painting on the far wall. The effect also helps to move people toward the back of the house, she says.
Kitchen redos, minus the nervous breakdown.
Recognizing kitchens as the leading design problem in most houses, Susanka devotes about one-third of the book to the subject. Though she addresses full-size room additions to gain more kitchen space, generally she focuses on improving what's already there.
Her suggestions include the predictable—consider the work triangle, leave the utilities in place in order to minimize construction cost, add an island, et cetera.
But her ideas also include "borrowing space" from adjoining areas in order to open up the room. Her principal target here is the dining room, which she suggests ditching.
"I don't hate dining rooms, I just hate rooms that aren't used 99 percent of the time," she says. Most homes don't need both formal and informal dining spaces, and a properly designed space can handle both, she says.
A less-radical tactic would be to attack the wall between kitchen and dining room. She suggests eliminating that wall entirely (perhaps bolstering the feel of a discrete space by using judiciously placed columns), or creating a half-wall in order to increase the openness of the space.
Pay attention to the "beltline."
No, not yours—your powder room's. Because they're usually small, powder rooms tend to feel too tall, Susanka says. Bring them visually down to size with a "beltline"—a horizontal division in the wall space that comes from using moulding, wainscoting or tile in the middle.
Commute to work through a "gateway."
Make sure your home office has a clear sense of separation from the rest of the house. "Once you've entered, you know you're at work, and you are more likely to stay there for the remainder of the workday than when this kind of designation is absent," she writes.
One way to achieve this separation, if a home office is its own room, is to make the door entirely different from others in the house. In an existing space, such as a converted dining room, add sliding doors, she suggests.
In the actual remodeling category, she offers examples of converted attics and dormers that acquire work space without significant construction.
Everybody needs a POYO.
That is, a Place of Your Own—a getaway space for reading or hobbies. "Not So Big Remodeling" explores ways to create alcoves or to carve out personal space. Her own, as pictured in the book, is a private workspace in a corner of her home office, consisting of an overstuffed armchair and ottoman, surrounded by shelves.
"I'm sitting in it now," she says during a telephone interview. "Ideally, a POYO is far away from the main living space—off the bedroom, in an extra bedroom, or in an attic.
"It's a space that's your very own, your personal space," she says. "It's your private realm."