I’ve long been a fan of Sarah Susanka, author of the Not So Big House series of books and champion of designing homes “for the way we really live.” If you haven’t heard of Susanka, this is her claim in a nutshell: homes should be livable, beautiful, comfortable, and a lot smaller than the McMansions that have sprouted likes weeds across the suburban landscape.
As you may have guessed, this last bit was what first attracted me to the Not So Big House. I’ve written elsewhere (for example here and here) about the environmental burden posed by the upward trend in American home size over the past half century, so I don’t want to belabor the point here. Suffice it to say that home size is a huge driver of residential energy use, and that in order for the residential sector to be part of the solution to the environmental challenges we face, we need to be building smaller, a lot smaller.
But sustainability probably isn’t what attracts most people to Susanka’s books. I would venture that what most people find appealing is the emphasis on livability. Which isn’t to say Susanka is silent on sustainability. She often touches on the environmental benefits of her approach, but what’s front and center is the experience of occupying smaller, more comfortable, functional and thoughtfully designed homes.
In some respects, the Not So Big House is a very simple and intuitive idea. Just consider where you spend your time at home. Where do you eat? Hang out? Entertain? Most people I know, myself included, rarely use their formal rooms. Perhaps the dining room is called into service a handful of times each year for holidays. Perhaps the living room is called into service during large parties (and we all know how often we host large parties). But for everyday living, and even regular entertaining, most people use their comfortable and informal spaces. What Susanka is saying to me (and others like me) is this: Next time you buy or build don’t invest in space that you’ll rarely use. Invest in design details and high quality finishes that will transform all of the house and not just a few select rooms into your home.
She’s convinced a lot of people, including me, that a Not So Big House is a better house. But I’ve started to wonder: is it also, as I initially thought, a more sustainable house? Last week, I received an email newsletter from Susanka announcing the opening of a Not So Big Showhouse in Libertyville, Illinois. While I was impressed by the space plan and design details, I was disappointed by the overall size of the home, which at 2450 square feet is actually larger than the average new American home built in 2010.
I don’t know the myriad factors that informed the overall dimensions of Susanka’s latest showhouse. There are surely constraints and concerns that are not apparent from the outside. But I do know that the message “smaller is better” gets lost if the showhouse isn’t actually smaller. Not to mention that show house will use more energy than it otherwise would have.
Which brings me back to the point I decided not to belabor earlier: the bigger you build a house, the more energy it will use. Unless of course you build the bigger house to higher energy performance standards than you would have if you had built it smaller. But this would never happen, except perhaps in Wonderland.
So what is the right size, not just for livability but sustainability? Well… fortunately there are some proposed answers to this question out there. In fact, there is currently a very lively discussion happening on green building advisor among folks who would like to pin some hard and fast numbers onto the ideal of building smaller (as part of a broader discussion of what makes for a “Pretty Good House”). The numbers proposed, and hotly debated, are 1000-1500-1750-1875 square feet for 1, 2, 3, and 4 occupants respectively. Whatever you think of those particular numbers (I suspect many homeowners would think them too small), it’s really good put them out there and debate them, even if consensus proves elusive.
Is the Not So Big House too big too be sustainable? I would say that as embodied in Susanka’s new showhouse it is. That doesn’t mean I’m going to give up on the Not So Big concept. On the contrary, I want to refine the concept–and, yes, try to attach some hard(er) and fast(er) numbers to it. The Not So Big House has an incredible amount of potential to help transform the residential landscape, so that our homes are more functional, more enjoyable and part of the solution to the environmental challenges we face. But we can’t realize this potential if we keep building homes that are As Big As the Average American Home.