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No So Big can be Oh So Livable

Thank goodness. The Next Big Thing in home building, after the 8,000-square-foot mansions, kitchens with double appliances, and master suites the size of your parents' home, will be Not So Big.

Specifically, the Not So Big House, one that has fewer square feet and fewer rooms but tailors all of it lovingly to give its owners special spaces for every activity, from opening the mail to meditating. These spaces also incorporate beautiful things _ from prized antiques to hand-crafted stair railings.

The Not So Big House has large, warm public spaces in harmony with cozy private ones whose beauty and utility are enjoyed every day. You can't quantify the value of a Not So Big House as, say, a five-bedroom/four-bath mansion, or see it easily in a two-dimensional floor plan, but its quality is tangible to the touch and distinctive to the eye. What makes less more is design and detail of the interior.

Architect Sarah Susanka, whose firm has built such houses for a decade in Minnesota, has trademarked the concept and is crusading for it nationwide. It will be hard to miss her ideas this year, presented in a beautiful new book, The Not So Big House, A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live (The Taunton Press, $30), columns in Fine Homebuilding magazine, a Web site (www.notsobighouse.com), and the 1999 show house for Life magazine.

In an era that redefines excess with almost every parade of homes, Susanka's gospel combines a thorough indictment of modern houses with an idyllic vision of a new way. She enjoys telling how a couple who had just built a 4,000-square-foot home for which they paid $500,000, broke down in tears after hearing Susanka preach about alternatives to what she calls "starter castles."

They had already found out that the new house they built so their two children would have more room to play was so big they felt lonely, cold and lost. Worse, it looked ostentatious, just another house for rich people.

Susanka's pitch that bigger isn't better is an inescapable fact of human nature. Children love small spaces, from cardboard boxes to lofts, and so do adults. Sitting in a window seat, for example, is like being embraced by the house, as Susanka says. Small windows tempt our eye more than picture windows. Even slobs love the compact efficiency and beautiful detail of an old wooden cabin cruiser, and many people with second homes find their simple cottages more comfortable than a big city house.

The Not So Big concept is also a call to bring architects (long since replaced by designers and CADCAM computers for assembly-line builders) back into making houses. They have the skills to get the most style and utility out of small spaces, things that cannot be picked out of the average builder's portfolio of plans and lists of options and upgrades.

She concedes that an architect's cost per square foot may be half again a builder's cost, and so her solution is brilliant: Make the house smaller and spend the savings on quality, not quantity. The teary-eyed homeowners above wound up paying almost as much for a 2,300-square-foot house but got a home they love.

Yet Susanka's ideas are not just for the rich. After all, much of her inspirations comes from Arts and Crafts bungalows, many built from pattern books or bought off the shelf from Sears, and from Frank Lloyd Wright's vision of the affordable Usonian home. Her book is useful for anyone building, remodeling or even buying an older home.

Don't look at it as another dream book or shelter magazine full of pretty pictures of things you'd love. The interiors photographed have so many windows and so much woodwork they distract from the main point. Instead, read her words carefully, because she teaches how to think about what you really want in a home, the difference between wishes and needs, and how to articulate what you want when talking to architects or builders.

Since quality of design and detail costs money, her most instructive principle is to focus first on what you don't need so you can afford what you do.

She starts with outmoded thinking. Some date back centuries, when living rooms and dining rooms were foremost and formal, and kitchens were dirty places in the back of the house (or yard). Others wrong-headed ideas are more modern "great rooms," good-morning rooms and other rooms dedicated _ on paper _ to uses we never make of them.

Susanka suggests a long list of features to cut out or rethink:

n Living rooms and dining rooms: Some families do use them. Most visit them only two or three times a year. Even at parties, guests crowd into kitchens or family rooms rather than drift across "great places for entertaining."

n Sunrooms: If a house has plenty of daylight, or at least one room does, don't build a second one. It will go unused.

n Laundry rooms: They sound noble, or at least earnest, but most of us sort or fold clothes elsewhere.

n Front and back doors: The formal door and entryway into the house are never used, while the back door leads through dirty machinery and storage space.

n Bathrooms: Massive, elaborate bathrooms appeal to our fantasies but not to reality. They are very expensive and often are underused. Ditto for bathtubs; one is usually enough.

Think not of rooms but of Not So Big space that is well-designed, and Susanka can meet your needs beautifully.

Not surprisingly, the Not So Big house puts the kitchen forward, extends it to include sitting and gathering space, and connects it with larger space that encompasses all the activities that might otherwise be divided among living dining and family rooms. Although Not So Big, this space still feels large, offers long views across the house and can handle crowds. And within the space there are alcoves, benches, cutouts and nooks where one or two people feel comfortable.

In the private space of the house, Susanka carves out an "away room," a place that is quiet when the rest of the house is noisy with TV and computers, that is brightly lit when the house is dark, or the opposite.

Dividing and connecting the public and private spaces, landings stairs and hallways are designed to be more open. Shelves and counters mean they are neither tunnels nor dull corridors but provide pleasant views and useful storage. Susanka even includes a loop in the traffic flow that children can race around without upsetting activity in the kitchen.

The architect also makes an effort to invest the house with maximum storage, in drawers under seats, stairs and eaves, and along walls with shelves and cabinets, whether to show off a beer can collection or an ancient tansu chest.

It's not impossible. Susanka includes some practical insights and a few money-saving tips:

+ Pay attention to height, the third dimension. High ceilings often make space feel smaller; lower ceilings can expand a room; and varying heights can define alcoves or special spaces within a room.

+ Change the lighting: Dimmer switches or two levels of lighting can make the same space serve formal and informal purposes (but so can candles).

+ Use the outdoors: Even in Minnesota, screened porches are an inexpensive way to add glorious livable space to a house. Walkways under projecting roofs are grand too.

+ Try sliding doors: They're sturdier than they used to be and add privacy without taking up room.

+ Pay for craftsmanship: You don't have to use the most expensive materials. Sometimes talented design and builder skill can add distinction to the interior using standard materials.

+ Rethink windows: Make them lower to make a stronger connection to the outside. Use clerestory windows to add light and interest. Instead of a circular window, add a metal hoop inside a traditional.

+ Be careful with storage: Built-in storage costs as much as good furniture. Plan storage where needed, such as a place for toilet paper in the bathroom. Use open shelves to display what's beautiful.

+ Think square, or at least rectangular, for the frame: The more corners and curves on the outside skin of a house, the more expensive the framing and foundation. It's easier and cheaper to make unusual space, angles and layout inside, even if the outside is square.

In appearance, Susanka's home of the future will look much like the traditional bungalows and cottages of romantics' dreams, not coldly futuristic like the "machines for living" of the modernists.

Still, Susanka's book and houses are Not So Big as to have all the answers for the bigger problems of American housing. Despite its smaller size, the Not So Big House does not break down economic segregation or limit urban sprawl; it can fit right in.

Susanka may describe her clients as poets, potters and people who want a house "'where the family could dance together," but most of the houses shown are Not So Affordable and Not So Practical for all but the most privileged.

Houses custom-designed and custom-built will remain out of reach for most Americans, who spend less than $150,000 on houses and move frequently. Some mass-production builders have already enlarged kitchens and added more bookshelves and other built-ins. They'll probably add "away rooms" and maybe even bring more architectural sensibility into the design process.

At the other end, those who can afford the Not So Big house may not learn to live more simply. Susanka may just whet the appetites of the rich (old and nouveau) for new luxuries of design and detail to add to ever-larger cocoons.

Yet America has a long tradition of dream homes. Getting an architect to design one Not So Big for the way we really live is a good start.

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