Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
Inside the Not So Big House: Discovering the Details that Bring a Home to Life
Inside the Not So Big House: Discovering the Details that Bring a Home to Life
Marc Vassallo; Sarah Susanka
Taunton Press, 2005
216 pp., 34.95

Buy Now
Outside the Not So Big House: Creating the Landscape of Home
Outside the Not So Big House: Creating the Landscape of Home
Sarah Susanka; Julie Moir Messervy
Taunton Press, 2006
216 pp., 34.95

Buy Now

Andrea Nagy

Anti-Bland Design

Sarah Susanka's Not So Big House series.

Thirty years ago the term "American style" was something of an oxymoron. With the exception of a few upper-class sophisticates, Americans had no style. American cuisine consisted of meatloaf and Jello and Maxwell House. American house design favored wall-to-wall carpeting and ground-to-roof aluminum siding. And the ideal American front yard was a rectangular green lawn topped by balls of yew and forsythia.

Then in the 1980s and '90s came The Silver Palate and Starbucks, and Americans added to their vocabulary words like "pesto" and "arugula" and "cappuccino." At the same time Martha Stewart appeared, and we all learned how to arrange flowers and sponge-paint the bathroom and bake little lemon tarts. These arbiters of taste showed middle-class Americans how to enjoy the finer things that were once available only to the wealthy.

Another influence in this recent upgrading of American style is the architect Sarah Susanka. Just as The Silver Palate authors aimed to "take the mystery out of good food," so Susanka would take the mystery out of good design. Her Not So Big House seriessix books to date, starting in 1998 has sold nearly 800,000 copies, according to her publisher, Taunton Press. Susanka's mission is to rescue Americans from the deeply entrenched belief that when it comes to home, bigger is better. Too many families spend good money on houses with formal dining rooms and living rooms that are seldom used. Too many large and impressive houses never feel like home. Susanka would help the average American create a house that is "small and real rather than large and fake." A Not So Big House is not magnificent, but it is beautifully designed. It may have no dining room, but every room is loved and used every day. It is a house built not according to a dignified Victorian ideal but according to the informal living patterns of today's American family.

The newest entries in Susanka's series, Inside the Not So Big House and Outside the Not So Big House, further develop the ideas of her first four books. Inside shows how to design the built-in details of the interior, including ceilings, walls, floors, stairways, doors, windows, and lighting. Outside explains how to design the grounds and how to connect the grounds with the house in a meaningful way. Each book is arranged as a series of case studies that looks in depth at some twenty houses from around the country, most in the suburbs of major cities. Several houses are featured in both books, which helps to display the full design of a property, inside and out.

Both books offer a wealth of sensible suggestions. Inside begins each chapter with a full-page photo marked with advice such as "Contrasting levels of artificial lighting are more interesting than even lighting" or "A trim band set roughly at door height keeps tall ceilings from seeming too tall." The book also explains how to create some of Susanka's signature features, including the window seat, the overhead lattice, and the stairway library. A particularly useful feature of Inside is the pairing of similar photos to demonstrate the importance of a design decision. The first photo shows the room with a particular feature, and the second, doctored photo shows the same room without that feature. In this way we can see in a dramatic way the value of a low window sill versus a high one or the effect of a wall with color and texture versus a smooth, white wall.

Similarly, Outside solves practical problems such as how to keep a wooded lot from feeling dark, how to use hedges and fences to create outdoor "rooms," and how to make a small property feel larger. It also gives tips on building a path, a pond, and an artificial stream, and it discusses at length how to design transitional spaces between outside and inside, including patios, front walks, and entryways. Both books emphasize the importance of unifying house and grounds through the use of repeated patterns, such as lines or squares, and through the careful design of windows and doorways.

Some of the featured properties can hardly be classified as "not so big": both books present a number of expensive dream houses filled with vast granite countertops and over-designed patio-garden complexes that would be unworkable for a family with children. But the most exciting chapters of each book help you to design modest properties on a modest budget. For example, Inside features the remodeling of several nondescript houses from the 1950s or '60s, and Outside shows practical ways to transform a bland suburban lawn into an interesting landscape. Overall, both books promote Susanka's worthy mission to make architecturally designed beauty attainable to the typical suburbanite.

Nevertheless, both books also share some unfortunate flaws. First, like many architecture books, they suffer from flowery but unclear writing. Both include too many long, opaque sentences, such as "Intended to encourage the use of its many outdoor spaces whenever the weather allows, house and land interweave to create a series of spatial layers from interior, to a space I call 'beneath the roof but outside,' to garden." Both books use too many unexplained architectural terms, such as awning window, Shaker box, desire line, spillway, gange, ipé deck, ell, allee, paver, reverse curve, and inglenook. And both too frequently resort to unhelpful generalizations—"a home that makes sense"—or superfluous adjectives—"There's an elusive yet undeniable charm in the simple fairness of a curve"—or false profundities—"Natural materials tie us to our ancestral and historical roots and give us a sense both of security and connection with the natural world around us."

Second, both books could benefit from a more intelligible organizing scheme: a vague structure with headings such as"The Nature of Materials" or "Flow: Composing Journeys" might be replaced with chapters ordered according to geographical location or size or style of house.

Third, in both books it is frequently difficult to connect the text to the photos.  Inside omits floor plans, which is especially a problem when the text describes views across several rooms. Outside does include diagrams, but too often the accompanying text is impossible to follow. The photos in both books are generally clear, but it can be hard to decipher those that cross the inside fold of the book, and some photos are too small to be helpful. Writing about the visual is a difficult task, and it was accomplished more successfully in the earlier Not So Big books. Most readers will want to skip the main text of these books and simply survey the photos, captions, and sidebars.

But the most regrettable limitation of both texts is the lack of an overall rationale for their detailed and quite helpful advice. Why are cabinets with a "three-dimensional quality" desirable? Why is the repetition of forms important? What does it mean to say that a wall is "expressive"? Why should a design "emphasize the horizontal"? How do we know when to use a curve and when a straight line? It is not always clear how to apply the authors' advice because the larger principles are left unstated.

These unspoken principles are worth making explicit, because behind the particular suggestions lies a grand architectural strategy. The Not So Big House is distinguished by more than modest size and informality: more important, it creates an atmosphere of relaxation and excitement balanced in perfect congruity. This ideal is achieved when there is a correspondence between the symmetrical and the asymmetrical, the regular and the irregular, the ordered and the dynamic, texture and smoothness.

The problem with the typical suburban house is that it is boring without being restful, and this is because it is designed with too much symmetry, smoothness, and regularity. Texture—that is, some irregularity or variation in a surface—creates a sense of shelter. Texture can come from above, through variation in ceiling height; from below, through variation in floor type; or from the sides, through the addition of trim, woodwork, and alcoves to otherwise flat walls. The construction of small spaces within a large space generates that sense of security that makes us feel at home. Similarly, the repetition of forms, particularly archetypal shapes like circles or squares, is comforting and unifying.

On the other hand, a well-designed house must be more than a womb; it should also rouse us to explore the world. This need for stimulation is met through the use of asymmetry, through the placement of tiles or furniture on the diagonal, and through the design of long, unobstructed views, both within the house and from the inside to the outside. The house that achieves this balance nurtures a civilized life that is likewise balanced between the active and the contemplative, the material and the spiritual, the city and the country—in other words, the suburban ideal. This ideal has always been available to European aristocrats, but the middle class has traditionally been preoccupied with survival and career advancement. A thriving economy and Sarah Susanka's Not So Big House books make that harmonious life accessible to the ordinary American.

Andrea Nagy is a writer living in Connecticut.

Most ReadMost Shared