Architect and author Sarah Susanka shares why scale is such an important aspect to consider when building a house. She also explains how a ‘not so big' philosophy can be applied in many areas of our lives.
Interview with Sarah Susanka
Sarah Susanka grew up in Knockholt, England, but when she was 14 her father got a job at Mattel in Los Angeles and so their family relocated to the United States. This amazing journey of moving from a sleepy British village to an area of American sprawl was to provide her with the foundations of what would become the Not So Big philosophy.
The Suburbs in Los Angeles Had No Place to Walk to
Upon arriving in America in 1971, Sarah had to get to grips with a whole new scale of things – for example, her high school was three times the size of her old village! She also had to adjust to the fact that it was difficult to get anywhere on foot, with the nearest shops about two and a half miles away. Even at the age of 14, Sarah felt that there was something huge missing but it wasn't until she had been through architecture school that she began to help people create smaller but better houses.
The Feeling of Home Has Nothing to do with Size
Sarah talks about ‘American mansion phenomenon' whereby people build bigger and bigger houses thinking that somehow it’s going to get them the sense of home for which they are looking. Sarah's observation is that this has nothing to do with scale and it's a quality not a quantity.
Shape the Whole Space, Not Just the Floor Plan
Having grown up in English houses that had lots of nooks and crannies, Sarah contrasts this to many American homes that are devoid of the history and the very things that make them feel like homes. Shaping the whole space is important. Sarah illustrates with an example of how being able to sit in a little window seat within a thick old wall would give you an incredible experience. Most American walls are either 2-by-6 or 2-by-4 which make them feel paper thin.
People Didn't Know How to Ask for a Well-Designed House
In 1998 Sarah released her first book The Not So Big House. She'd become aware through working with her own clients that they seemed to want well-designed houses but didn't know how to ask for them. At the time there was very little understanding of energy efficiency and sustainability, which Sarah's practice was doing instinctively.
Sustainability Must Consider the Big Picture
Sarah sees sustainability as something that goes beyond ourselves, our families and our communities. Every decision we make should not just be made on a self-serving basis but looking at the whole picture and understanding that we are part of one whole organism. Whether we call it sustainability, green design or energy efficient design, the goal is to create a place that is going to last for a very long time and is going to support us in the best means possible while using the minimum amount of resources to heat and cool that place and to decorate it, etc.
Beauty Must be at the Core of Any Sustainable Home
We, as human beings, are a very important part of keeping something sustainable. We respond to beauty. However, if something isn’t beautiful we don’t tend to look after it. Sarah uses an example of a group of 100-year old bungalows that were based on the work of William Morris and Gustav Stickley. Although simple in design they embody a sense of beauty that has meant they have been looked after, so that today the value of those homes far surpasses what you would imagine for a house of that scale.
Less is More
Sarah suggests that it's worth revisiting the Arts and Crafts movement, but not so much in terms of the style of architecture, more for the attitude that sometimes less can be more. The qualities of home are really what make us feel inspired. Avoid complexity and keep things simple!
Create Houses Where All the Space is Used
There is little point in having a house with formal living rooms, dining rooms and guest bedrooms that are rarely used. Just build a house with a floor area you need and create informal spaces that can be used every day. When friends come over, change the lighting to make it a delightful room in which to entertain. Your guests want to be with you rather than wowed by excessive living spaces.
The Right Amount of Space is Down to the Individual
Each person must decide how much space is right for them. Sarah tries to avoid being prescriptive – what might be too much for one person may be just right for somebody else. So she gives people the tools to make those decisions themselves.
Rooms Can Do Double Duty
In the same way that the living area can serve both formal and informal functions, consider how other rooms might do the same. Could the function of an in-home office be hidden on the few occasions when visitors stay?
We All Have an Understanding of Building and Architecture Within Us
Sarah explains why A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander is such an influential book. It allowed people to really grasp that they can choose how they want their environment to be using principles that are very simple to apply. For example Christopher Alexander talks about one pattern is what he would call alcove and it simply says that human beings like to hangout in smaller spaces looking into a larger room. So that alcove almost becomes an archetype for designing and building. When people who are not trained in design look through this book it tends to make them feel as though they have a set of tools by which to think about space.
Sarah's fourth book ‘Home by Design', which is actually dedicated to Christopher Alexander, set out to make those principles even easier for home owners to absorb.
The ‘Not So Big' Philosophy Can Also be Applied to Our Lives
In the same way that we often have more space in our homes than we need, Sarah's book The Not So Big Life looks at how we try to cram too much activity into our lives! This is often at the expense of not enjoying what we have right in front of us. These attitudes are often interwoven so we should understand that we can slow down a little bit and really enjoy our lives in the moment as opposed to rushing around trying to keep up with all of the emails and all of the things that we have to do.
A Lot of America Grew Up Around the Automobile
Whereas in Europe many communities have developed over hundreds of years, Sarah says that the big difference in the United States is that a lot of development occurred after the advent of the automobile. As such, everything is very spread out and it's actually difficult to walk anywhere. This also means there's reduced interaction because everyone is in a car and has no opportunity to stop and chat. The New Urbanists (such as Congress for the New Urbanism) are trying to learn from both European towns and villages and older American towns. Their work starts at a basic level with things like working out what proportioning of streets gives pedestrians a good connection with the other side.
Our Infant Global Brain is Coming Online
Sarah believes that the simplicity with which ideas can be shared between people thousands of miles apart is revolutionising every part of how we live and work. Working virtually between states and countries is only going to become more common.
People are Becoming More Receptive to Change
Hard economic times have been valuable because they have woken people up to the recognition that they don’t need as much stuff and as much space as they thought they needed. Sarah highlights generational changes. The millennials and the boomers are both really interested in downsizing and in living closer to the town centre or a place where it is very walkable.
Don't be Afraid to Make Your House Your Own
Sarah has met many people who are scared about doing things to their houses because they've been told that they won't be able to sell them at a later date. However, the way to make your house really feel as though it fits you is to start by looking at what you like? Make it as personal as possible – with pictures, etc. – because this is what will make you fall in love with your house.
Find Out More About Sarah Susanka
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