A line of acolytes snakes through the room and spills into a corridor of the Minneapolis Design Center. Clutching copies of The Not So Big House to their chests, the fans are waiting to meet its author. Some have brought the boxed set, including Creating the Not So Big House and Not So Big Solutions for Your Home, for Sarah Susanka's signature. They're a little timorous awaiting their turn, until they reach her table and encounter her warm greeting.
Then they start their barrage of questions: "How do I make my stair hall feel more welcoming and human in scale?" "Do you still design houses? I'd like to talk to you about a project." "I'm designing a house, and it's already way too big, can you help?" With each, Susanka, AIA, is patient, gracious, helpful. She doesn't disappoint her admirers; she's as approachable and accessible in person as she is in prose.
force for change
She's back in her old hometown, where she made architecture and then made architectural history, appearing at a show devoted to the influence of her Not So Big House opus. She's also back to organize her house, the original Not So Big House, which she's just sold. She's moving on, ending this chapter of her career. Almost nothing about her life remains unchanged. She wrote a blockbuster bestseller in a genre that doesn't have bestsellers; she divorced Jim Larson, the architect with whom she designed and built her Not So Big House; she quit the firm she co-founded 20 years ago; she moved to Raleigh, N.C.; she remarried; and she had breast cancer.
But Susanka is pragmatically zen about all of it. "At one point, when I was feeling overwhelmed and crushed by it all, I asked a friend what I should do. She said, 'Why don't you just do what's in front of you.'" She did; she does. Indeed, she's a bundle of forward-motion energy, with another book in the works, a house or two on the boards, a couple of speaking engagements each month, and a Web site (notsobighouse.com) she funds herself. And then there's her drive to gather and market better-designed house plans for the masses.
Susanka is on a mission to demystify and improve residential architecture. And in teaching the lay public to understand and value well-designed houses, she's also helped them to appreciate the skills of residential architects. "We architects try to explain what we do in words—and long words at that?but language is ill-suited to what we do," she says. "I'm trying to pull away the layers of confusion. The real power comes from being able to reveal what it is you do. Our medium—space and light—is incredibly important, but until we can make it understood, it won't be valued as it should be."
Fortunately for residential architects, Susanka has a knack for explaining difficult principles, and for connecting some very important dots—all done in an engaging personal style. "She taught me a lot about bringing one's ideas to the public," says Dale Mulfinger, cofounder of her former firm, Mulfinger, Susanka, Mahady & Partners (renamed SALA Architects after her departure). "Sarah always waltzed into the office as a breath of fresh air, smiling and optimistic. She was fair, open, and engaging—and a natural leader."
not so big notions
It was another MSMP colleague at the time who gave her the kernel for The Not So Big House. Robert Gerloff, now out on his own, wrote an article for Architecture Minnesota magazine called "Bigger Isn't (Necessarily) Better," in which he argued for smaller, more artfully detailed houses. It became a guiding principle for the firm. When Susanka began talking with Taunton Press about writing a book (she'd been writing a regular column for its magazine Fine Homebuilding for some time), they suggested one about small houses. "I wasn't into small houses, but I was into writing a book," she recalls. "I knew Robert's was the nugget I wanted to pursue."
The other nugget she picked up from an article in IONS Review. It concerned sociologist Paul H. Ray's research into a group he called "Cultural Creatives." The subculture numbers 50 million in the United States, he claimed in his later book on the subject, "who care deeply about ecology and saving the planet, about relationships, peace, social justice, and about self-actualization, spirituality, and self-expression." Says Susanka, "One thing he mentioned was that they were looking for a better-designed house. I named my book something that allowed the market to see itself in the title."
That explains some of the inspiration for the book, but there was a dollop of frustration, too, motivating its author. "I got very sick of sitting on the phone, explaining to clients how to get the most for their money in a custom house," she says. "I thought there were many people across the country who might benefit from that information."
not so fast
Susanka has always maintained that The Not So Big House was not about small or inexpensive houses. It's about how to make houses more comfortable and livable. Presuming a fixed budget, the best way to do that, she asserts, is to eliminate wasted space and spend the savings on better-quality materials and detail work. The book, and its successors, is an antidote to McMansion indigestion—the hollow, empty feeling people get when they blow all their money on bloated, characterless houses. "She was the first one to put into words that we should design small to quality, rather than big Sheetrock containers," says Wynne Yelland, of Minneapolis-based Locus Architecture, which specializes in designing and building affordable custom houses. "But the book has lots of not-so-big expensive houses."
Others claim Susanka was not the first to argue for better-designed houses or to explain the importance of intimate, human-scaled spaces within the home. And she would agree: "I've always described myself as a child brought up on Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language. It's a fundamental text—something we can grow from. It's a great beginning. But it would give wings to the profession if we weren't afraid to be derivative."
Her fans concur. A quote from a reader review on Amazon.com: "These are by far the best books I have seen on this topic ... Susanka is a genius, and like any good genius, she is merely stating the obvious."
Perhaps. But there's nothing "mere" about it. "The first book verbalized even more than I understood," says Susanka. "I had the sense when we were done with the process that it was going to be a big deal." And it was, because the book elucidated not just the aesthetic and functional benefits of a properly designed house, but also the emotional gratification that comes with it.
For many of her readers, grasping that connection had the power of revelation. (Just wait until they read her forthcoming book, House Therapy.) For architects, it ups the ante on what it means to design someone's house. It's not simply an aesthetic and programmatic exercise. "What most people are afraid of is that the architect will force something down their throat," she says. "But you have to understand that you are their servant. You have to enter into it with humility. The only thing you're doing is making a wonderful place for people to live."
Thanks to Sarah Susanka, a half-million more people understand that's no small accomplishment.