The Not So Big Anniversary

After ten years, architect-turned-author Sarah Susanka’s message to build small is more relevant than ever.

Sustainability was hardly a word, much less a buzzword, when architect Sarah Susanka wrote The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live ten years ago. In that edition of the best-selling book, Susanka often touched on the idea. But a new edition due out in September “really brings this message home, that ‘not so big’ should be the first step in sustainable design,” she says. “If you ‘right-size’ and design to withstand the elements for the long haul from the get go, you’re not heating and cooling more than you need to and you’re using resources to ensure your home lasts hundreds of years, not just decades.”

It’s amazing to think it’s already been ten years since the book’s release. I remember scouting Susanka’s former home in St. Paul, a great example of the not-so-big concept, for a national magazine as she was in the midst of writing the book. She and her colleagues at the Minneapolis firm Mulfinger, Susanka, Mahady & Partners (now SALA Architects) had long been pushing the idea that small design was responsible and beautiful. The message just hadn’t reached a sizable audience. So much has happened since the book was published, however, I can’t believe it’s only been ten years. Building small and smart has become such an important part of the national design dialogue.

Living in the Twin Cities may be skewing the way a lot of us see things. Such was the case for Susanka. She recalls a seminar at the Science Museum of Minnesota some time before the book came out. She and architect Dale Mulfinger expected a few dozen attendees and 350 showed up. “People in Minneapolis and St. Paul have always had an interest in making their homes better and in quality over quantity,” she says. She then points to an American Institute of Architects national convention panel discussion when she and Minneapolis architect Rosemary McMonigal spoke about their clients. She remembers how “the other architects asked us, ‘What planet are you guys from?’ Large numbers of people seeking residential architectural services was unheard of elsewhere.” It was very evident, she says, that the Twin Cities was an “extraordinary cutting-edge marketplace for residential architecture.”

The market’s influence on Susanka’s book, and on the book’s subsequent success, made it clear that she should include one more Minnesota home in the tenth anniversary edition. Designed by SALA Architects’ Eric Odor and John Abbott, the home west of Buffalo “has all the characteristics I describe in not-so-big-house spaces—mixing formal and informal functions, connecting rooms so that you can see from place to place.”

Although Susanka now lives in North Carolina, she still makes it back to Minnesota two to four times a year. She speaks to groups, sees friends, and stays up on the architectural scene, including projects such as the one near Buffalo. “I really can’t tell you how far ahead of the game Minnesota is compared with other places,” she says. “The funny thing is that many people in Minnesota don’t realize it.”

For more on the new edition of The Not So Big House (The Taunton Press, $32), visit the website.

Susanka’s Top 5 Going Away:

  1. Cathedral ceilings
  2. Formal living rooms that aren’t used
  3. Two- and three-level foyers
  4. Decision-making based on resale alone
  5. Separate dining spaces

Here to Stay:

  1. Customizing for a perfect fit
  2. Attention to craft and detail
  3. Universal design (features to accommodate all, no matter age or ability)
  4. Sustainability
  5. Personal expression and practicality on a budget