We re-run an interview from 2013 with architect and author Sarah Susanka on the importance of scale. We discuss how much space we really need when we build a new home.
Interview with Sarah Susanka
In 1971, at the age of fourteen, Sarah moved with her family to Los Angeles from a little village in Kent with a population of a thousand people. Her new high school was three times the size of the village where she’d grown up. Having lived in both the UK and the US, Sarah's perspective enables her to comment on the American house and American development habits and how to build differently.
The feeling of ‘home’ comes from the qualities it possesses, not its size
Recent hard economic times have woken people up to the recognition that they want something that looks nice and feels nice to live in, but they don’t need as much stuff and space as they thought they did.
Sarah bases her approach on the principle that it is the qualities of a home that really make us feel inspired. Her advice is to shape the whole space not just the floor plan. She mentions ‘A Pattern Language’ by Christopher Alexander, which is a good reminder for self-builders that they already have inside them an understanding of building and architecture.
Sarah describes using a set of tools to think about space. Her fourth book ‘Home by Design’, dedicated to Christopher Alexander, helps homeowners to absorb and then apply these principles, with illustrations that readers would be familiar with. These archetypes for designing and building include many features known to British homeowners, such as nooks and crannies or window seats within thick walls. Alcoves such as these satisfy a human desire to be in a smaller space, looking into a larger room.
Build the square footage you need, rather than all kinds of spaces that get used very rarely
People build bigger and bigger houses thinking that somehow this is going to get them the sense of home they are looking for. However, referencing the sensibility of the Arts and Crafts movement, Sarah promotes the idea that less can sometimes be more.
Some people go wrong because they don’t know how to ask for a well-designed house where every square foot can be used every day.
Rooms can serve more than one purpose
The best way is to build informal spaces that are used every day. For example:
- With clever lighting design you can adjust the lighting in a living room to make it more suitable for entertaining
- A dining area can be your everyday space but can also be a formal space when you need it to be
- A guest bedroom can double up as an in-home office
When Sarah designs a house, she tries to make sure it has a workspace in it that can be the in-home office allowing people to work virtually. We no longer need to meet and work in one place, since technology allows us to talk to each other so easily. As Sarah works with architects in several different states, she has seen how working remotely is becoming far more acceptable. Moreover, working from home is another way to save a lot of energy.
Ultimately the amount of space depends on the individual who is building a house. Sarah encourages them to make decisions in a way that really benefits their lifestyle.
Make your house personal because that’s what will make you fall in love with it
The way to make your house really feel as though it fits you is to start by looking at what it is that you like. Don’t be afraid to make your house your own just because you’ve been told it will make it harder to sell later.
Human beings respond to beauty. If we create something that we’re proud of, that is beautiful, we tend to look after it. Therefore beauty has to be at the core of any really sustainable home.
Sustainability is about creating something that is going to last for a very long time
Whether you call it sustainability, or green design or energy efficient design, building your own home not only needs to look after you and your family, but also the community, the neighbourhood and the planet as a whole.
Good design will help you build a home that gives you what you want while needing the minimum amount of resources for heating, cooling and maintenance. Sarah designs all her houses to be energy efficient and well insulated and have good indoor air quality.
Everyday exchanges are vital to feeling connected to one another, fostering a sense of community
Sarah recalls how there was no need to walk anywhere after the move to Los Angeles. But when you pass people in a car you don’t get to talk to them; you don’t get to stop and ask how they are doing. This phenomenon is typical of America as a lot of the country was developed after the advent of the automobile. Comparing the US and the UK, she comments: “There’s such a wonderful sense of community in so many of the towns and villages in England that is largely absent in this country”.
Sarah is now seeing that the millennial and baby boomer generations are both really interested in downsizing and living closer to a town centre or in a place that is walkable.
Find out more about Sarah Susanka
Old Holloway Passivhaus Blog
Juraj Mikurcik is building his own home in Herefordshire and is documenting the process as he goes.
The house is built with Ecococon straw bale panels and is clad in charred cedar. There is also a tin roof.
Juraj is a great photographer and that really helps this blog come to life.