Acclaimed architect and author Sarah Susanka is a cultural visionary with an incredible ability to understand the underlying structure of the American lifestyle and provide the language and tools that are redefining how we live.
Her “Not So Big” message is the launch pad for a new dimension of understanding -not just about how we inhabit our homes, but also about how we inhabit our planet and even our day-to-day lives.
Sarah visited Seminole State College on February 24 as part of its Speaker Series where she took guests on a journey that covered different aspects of what she does and explained her concept of “Not So Big” in terms of how it relates to a home and our lives.
“When I talk about ‘Not So Big,’ I’m really talking about how to be fully engaged in whatever you’re doing, whether it’s designing and building a house or whether it’s living your life,” she says. “Whether we’re talking about a house plan being more of a reflection of ourselves or our life plan being more of a reflection of ourselves, that’s really what ‘Not So Big’ is about.”
Sustainability is a hot topic in today’s society and has been for the last 15 to 20 years, according to Sarah. But what does it really mean?
“Sustainability has to do with how we can have a system really look after itself, so that it is self-sustaining,” she explains. “A lot of what I talk about has to do with that and so, at root, all of my books are really about sustainability, whether it’s a sustainable house, a sustainable community or a sustainable you.”
Another important part of the “Not So Big” message and sustainability is that beauty matters. Human beings are a key part of the sustainability picture.
“If we do not want to look after our houses, they will fall into disrepair,” Sarah says. “So if something is ugly, it isn’t sustainable.”
Look at the bungalows of 100 years ago and you see houses that people have cared for very, very carefully. Why? Because they were beautifully designed and inspire us to keep and enhance that beauty.
“Certainly, we need to do all the things that we talk about in terms of making a house energy efficient and using sustainable materials, etc. But at the core, you have to make it beautiful. If it’s beautiful, we’ll look after it,” she adds.
In her role as an architect, Sarah learned a lot about what people aspire to and that many people don’t have the tools to visualize what it was that she was drawing for them. This taught her how to communicate better, “which is something incredibly important for those of you that are in interior design and architecture to help your clients actually get what you’re wanting to do.”
For example, those in the design and architectural professions think three dimensionally. “It’s automatic for us,” she says. “We understand that there’s length and width, and then oh by the way, there’s height.”
When she published her second book, Creating Not So Big House, which is about the third dimension, Sarah was interviewed for the first time by a journalist. “Fortunately, she sent me the article before it got printed,” Sarah laughs. “When I talked about the third dimension, she thought I was talking about ESP (extrasensory perception).”
That’s when Sarah realized that the word dimension has a different meaning to a large portion of the population. Since then, she has worked to help people understand the impact that the third dimension has on our life experience.
“I’ve realized that when they’re building, so many folks start with a floorplan,” she says. “The problem is that the plan doesn’t tell you what the house will really feel like. I know that. Architects know that. Interior designers know that. Realtors know that. But homeowners don’t know that. So I wanted to find a way to explain it.”
When we look at a map, we understand that the map only tells us how to get our car or our feet from place to place. But we understand implicitly that it tells us nothing about what the place feels like. A floorplan is a map of a house, so it tells you just the same – how to get your feet from place to place. It tells you whether your couch will fit, at least in two dimensions, but it tells you absolutely nothing about what the house will feel like. To most homeowners, that is a revelation.
“When we were little, we loved to climb into our parents’ shoes and walk around,” she says. “There’s something about bigness that’s really exciting and so we’re tempted our whole lives to want bigger and that’s what’s happened with our houses, too.” We’ve ended up wanting more and more and more and so the bigness is what we’ve focused upon.”
Every client Sarah has worked with wanted a beautiful house or a beautiful remodel; every single person had a vision in their mind. “They are seeking something,” she says. “It’s like they are wanting to go home, literally, to feel like they belong.”
What’s happened, especially in countries that have a lot of square footage like the United States, is that our houses have gotten bigger and bigger and bigger in our search for that feeling of home “when in fact, the feeling of home has almost nothing to do with size because it’s quality rather than quantity.”
If Sarah could change one thing about how we build today, she would eradicate all references of square footage because it does not make a difference when searching for that desired feeling of “home.”
Not So Big Design
When Sarah talks about “Not So Big” in terms of house design, she’s talking about building better rather than bigger, building to last and building to inspire so that your home is the place where you wake up every morning happy to be there and happy to be alive.
But most importantly of all, Sarah believes that the design of our home needs to reflect the way we actually live. Sarah moved to the United States from England when she was 14 and couldn’t believe that there were large formal dining and living rooms that nobody ever used.
She advocates for making the best spaces in the house the ones you spend the most time in and for removing the spaces you rarely every use.
“If you use a space less than six times a year, then it’s ready to be repurposed into something you really want and then repurpose another space to do double duty for those times when, for example, you have guests over,” she says. “People who we are usually entertaining are our friends and they want to be where you are. So we have ideas about how we’re supposed to be and then we have reality. I want to try to connect this back to what’s the reality and how you can live it.”
Not So Big Life
Living three dimensionally is the topic of Sarah’s latest books. She often talks about how our houses tend to be focused on size, but also believes that they aren’t the only things that are too big. Sarah says that many of us are incredibly efficient but terribly ineffective. Her book Not So Big Living is about how to become efficient in what we do.
“When I ran my architectural firm in the ’90s one key part was missing: writing,” Sarah reflects. When she started college, Sarah’s father advised her to go into a field that made money, rather than writing. He told her to wait until she had something to write about before pursuing that dream.
“Twenty years later I had something to say but no time to write,” she says. “When I looked at my life, I realized that the one defining characteristic was that I was busy, self-designing busy. I was thinking over and over again that I was too busy to write.”
In order to make time to write her book, she scheduled a new “client” onto her calendar twice a week: herself. Sarah worried that her partner would fire her or clients would leave because she was spending time on herself. Instead, she was supported.
That experience taught me that I had to change by making a small step toward something I wanted to do,” she says. “Not So Big Life is a roadmap to help you start living your own full potential. Chapters parallel what you need to do when remodeling a house like removing clutter.”
The secret to Not So Big Life lies in letting go of obligations that no longer serve their purpose, being present in the moment, and becoming aware of how your thoughts shape the world around you.
Story appeared in the Spring/Summer 2016 issue (pgs 34 & 36) of Interior Appeal magazine.