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Home to today's living; Real life: Too many people consider large spaces ideal, when a smaller, more livable house is better, one architect says.


Considering that she's challenging the way architects design houses, the way builders build them, the way appraisers appraise them, and the way real estate agents sell them -- not to mention the way people live in them -- it may seem surprising that Sarah Susanka hasn't gotten into trouble over her new book, "The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live" (Taunton Press, 1998, $30).

"I've talked to builders and Realtors at conventions, and I tell them, I feel like I'm walking into the lion's den," says architect Susanka, a principal with Mulfinger, Susanka, Mahady & Partners of Minneapolis and Stillwater, Minn. "But I have not gotten one single negative comment."

Susanka's thesis is simple: Houses that are being built today are not designed for the way people live in them.

Instead, she says, their rigid division into formal and informal spaces, and the perception that square footage equals value, are creating soulless palaces that go half unused.

As just one example, she told of a couple who came to her firm because they had just built a $500,000 house and they hated it. "It's just not us at all," the wife told Susanka. "All we've got is square footage with no soul."

When Susanka looked at the house, she found a front entrance "scaled more for an office building than for a home," and an oversized kitchen "made up of all hard surfaces that gave it the acoustics of a parking garage." The master bath was larger than the couple's former bedroom.

What happened, Susanka says, is that, offered a choice of floor plans, the couple picked one based on what architects call spatial adjacency -- that is, where is the dining room in relation to the kitchen. "But they didn't have a clue how big the spaces were."

And when it was done, they were so uncomfortable in the house they didn't have the heart to furnish it.

This couple is not alone, Susanka says. More and more people are asking, "Can you design us a house that is more beautiful and more reflective of our personalities -- a house we will enjoy living in?"

The answer is yes, Susanka says: "And the key lies in building not so big, in spending more money on the quality of the space and less on the sheer quantity of it."

Character, personality and comfort are all more important than sheer square footage in making a house a home, in Susanka's view.

The problem is that houses being built today still follow the Victorian model, when life was much more formal. Visitors were the chief entertainment and places were designated to interact with them. In middle- and upper-class homes, servants did the cooking, and dining was formal -- so there was a separate dining room for that activity. Since it was the domain of servants, and because the activities there were considered dirty and smelly, the kitchen was relegated to the ground level, away from the rest of the house. Children did not take much part in adult lives.

Even though family activities are the chief entertainment today, most homes have no servants and kitchens are the center of domestic action, houses still have formal entries, formal living rooms and separate, formal dining rooms. Susanka calls it "hoop skirt" architecture -- outdated and irrelevant.

Building too big is also wasteful, Susanka points out; it wastes materials, resources, energy and land. "We need to make better use of resources and build what people need, rather than what their grandparents needed."

But there's no need to sacrifice comfort, or even luxury. "We need to change the equation from quantity equals value to quality equals value."

And that, Susanka says, requires rethinking the house. She suggests thinking in terms of activity places, rather than rooms. Do you need a whole room for a computer desk and homework table? Howabout an alcove in the family room instead?

Instead of having separate rooms for dining, cooking, and watching TV, why not integrate these activities into continuous spaces, "physically and visibly open to each other," that are shared by friends and family?

The formal dining room is a good example of a superfluous space, Susanka says. People say they want a separate dining room for formal occasions, but in fact they may use the space only half a dozen times a year. "In most houses the main function of the dining room is a place to sort mail," Susanka says.

Instead, the not-so-big house would have an informal dining area that could become a more formal space with changes in lighting or the placement of screens. That means rethinking the traditional "informal eating space," which may be no more than a nook -- "a hole in the wall," as Susanka puts it. "But the informal eating place should be a lovely place" where people want to be.

Money saved on sheer square footage can be invested in details such as built-in storage and bookcases, and in architectural enrichments such as interesting trim, lovely stair railings or stained-glass windows.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the not-so-big house is the inclusion of spaces that, in traditional architecture, have no names.

"It's part of getting people to put themselves into the new way of using space," Susanka says. She always asks clients who are beginning a project to create a "reality" list -- what they think they have to have -- and a "wish" list -- what they would like to have. Then she asks, "What spaces would you like to have, but since there's no name for them, they're not on the list?"

One client, she said, turned out to have an intense relationship with her coffee pot. "She lived for her coffee pot. So that became the center of the house."

Sometimes a wish for a space is really a wish for a feeling, Susanka says. People say they want a library, or a home gym, or conservatory, but what they really want is just a pleasant place to exercise, or the comfort of having books around, or the feeling of being closer to the garden.

Whatever it contains, the wish list is especially important, Susanka says, because "that's where the sense of soul comes from."

Susanka is the first to admit that, despite the support she's gotten so far, changing the housing industry is like turning the proverbial battleship. "But you have to be out there, turning the battleship, even if you're paddling."

Still, she predicts, "We're at the cusp of a big change. The public is going to have to start asking" for quality of space over quantity, she says. "If the public asks for it, there will be change."

Pub Date: 1/10/99

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