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Published on May 12th, 2008 | by Stephanie Evans


GTR: Small Space Living with The Not So Big House

The Not So Big House Sean Daily, Green Living Ideas’ Editor-in-Chief, discusses small home living and the growth of New Urbanism with Sarah Susanka of Susanka Studios, author of The Not So Big House.

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Sean Daily: Hi! Welcome to “Green Talk”, a podcast series from “Green Talk” helps listeners in their efforts to
live more eco-friendly lifestyles through interviews with top vendors,
authors, and experts from around the world. We discuss the critical
issues facing the global environment today as well as the technologies,
products, and practices that you can employ to go greener in every area
of your life.

[musical interlude]

Sean Daily: Hey, everybody. This is Sean Daily, Editor-in-Chief of and this is “Green Talk Radio”, thanks for joining
us as always on another episode. In today’s episode, we’re going to be
talking about the not-so-big life and the not-so-big house and to talk
with me about that is the person who really coined those phrases, Sarah

Sarah, welcome to the program.

Sarah Susanka: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Sean Daily: Yes. Sarah, I should mention, is a bestselling author
and also an architect, and also I understand [xx], a cultural
visionary, and you’re part of really what’s become a movement of
redefining the American home and, I guess, really with your latest
book, “The American Life.”

Sarah Susanka: That’s right.

Sean Daily: This idea of building better and not bigger, tell us about how you got into that.

Sarah Susanka: There a whole bunch of different stories but they
really started when I moved as a teenager from England to the United
States. They started to notice that although all of the American houses
of my friends had the same rooms in them that I was familiar with in
England, they didn’t use it the same way. In England, we would use our
formal spaces all the time, all day everyday, and in this country, they
seemed to be covered in plastic and not really meant for anybody to
actually sit in.

Sean Daily: Yes, it’s very true.

Sarah Susanka: I’m very excited to just become an observer of
American culture and of American houses in particular at the time. So
when I began a career in architecture I was very interested in house
design and started to help people rethink what it was they actually
wanted. As I started this practice–I began in 1983 in Minneapolis and
St. Paul–and with a numbers of partners, we developed a very
successful practice largely because we were able to help people spend
their money more effectively. So we were designing houses for the way
people really lived as opposed to for the way our grandparents used to

Sean Daily: It really does seem to be one of these things where
nobody ever questions, it just continues because it’s just the way
things have always been done. So that’s the way it continues to be done.

Sarah Susanka: Exactly. We do these things on automatic and we do
them because all the professionals that are advising Joe Q. Public
about what he needs for resale have never actually asked Joe Q. Public
how he’s using his house these days.

Sean Daily: Right. I imagine this guy would be a lot of fear of
“Gee, if we do it in a different way, we’re going to have that
different house that we can’t sell them in the market because it’s just
weird or something.”

Sarah Susanka: That’s what drives the whole equation. So part of why
I wrote the “Not So Big House” in 1998 was because I recognized that if
people couldn’t speak how they actually live and how badly designed the
typical thing that we’re told we need for resale fits their lifestyle
that it was going to continue ad infinitum. Sure enough, as soon as the
“Not So Big House” came out, it shot up to number one on Amazon, it was
an instant success because people said, “That’s what I want.” Then, by
being able to point to a set of ideas that this book embodied, they
were able then to start convincing the appraisers, and the bankers, and
all those people that really influence how we build that there was
another model coming on the market.

Sean Daily: If you think about it, there’s an enormous amount of
irony in the idea of a family living in a house based on a large
percentage potentially of that house not suiting what they actually
want but rather what some mysterious future potential buyer might want.

Sarah Susanka: Exactly. It’s absolutely nuts! You wouldn’t believe,
at least 85% of the population isn’t using rooms that they are actually
building for this future buyer who won’t use them either. So it’s a
very confused system.

Sean Daily: Yes, it is. Well, we certainly welcome visionaries as
yourself. They’re training that [xx]. So to tell us, just talking about
the “Not So Big House” first, what are key features of a not so big
house or nonfeatures?

Sarah Susanka: Basically, that the house is first and foremost
designed for the way that you actually live. So if you don’t use a room
in your present house more than half a dozen times a year, don’t build
that room again. In a new house, take that same money that you would
have spent on building that room and instead, put the money into the
quality and character of the spaces that you use everyday.

The real idea behind the “Not So Big House” is that every space is
used everyday and it’s used sometimes to do double-duty. So it might
be, for example, that you would have an informal eating area that could
become a more formal eating area for those few times a year that you
have guests over, understanding that people actually–when we have
guests over, there’s Joe and Cathy from next door, and they actually
want to be where you are.

Sean Daily: Right.

Sarah Susanka: So it’s typically a very different motivation than
how we tend to build with those formal rooms that’s so rarely get used.
Then, it has to be comfortable. This is something  that we forget how
critical it is that our house is make us feel at home. So we’re so busy
focusing on what people are going to perceive from the outside, we
don’t realize that our house is have to make us feel like we have a
place to settle. If they don’t, they’re not really working.

So I focus on in the “Not So Big House” and, actually, there are now
another five books in that series, helping people to just see that
quality and character is something that you can build in. It’s not just
something that you bring with the furniture. So making the house an
expression of who you really are is a very important part of the whole
design process.

Sean Daily: I can fully agree with you on that and it’s one of the
things that’s interesting because there is that people have that fear
factor of resaleability. Now, you just to take that and bear that out.
Let’s say for folks–by the way, I just say I’m in the club of people
who–we did a remodel on our home and we made it perfect for us. It’s
so weird and funky and cool in all of the us ways, it’s really our
house. We did all kinds of things that suited our family in the way we
live because that’s how we want to live. But we really didn’t think
about resale value with a lot of the features because I’m not sure how
many people are really going to want a kung fu yoga studio above the
garage. But that for us is very important because we really have a
whole community of people that come and participate in that, it’s not
only for our family. Are those fears based on reality? Does that hurt
you when you go to sell?

Sarah Susanka: There are certain things that you can do that will
make something not of interest to a large portion of the population. I
had, at one point, a client who wanted a 6,000 sq. ft. house with one
bedroom. That was not going to be likely to resale fast. But there are
a lot of things that you can do to make your house more personal. Your
kung fu space, for example, somebody else would see it as a marvelous
carpentry shop or a media center. It could be so many different things,
it can be reinterpreted.

Sean Daily: It’s certainly just a space.

Sarah Susanka: It’s just a space, exactly. So what I tell people is
if you don’t make your house personal, guess what, you’re going to want
to move. So make it personal, make it beautiful, make it inspiring, and
recognize that in doing that, you are vastly more likely to want to
live there for a long time and that’s one of the most sustainable
things that you can do.

Sean Daily: That’s an important concept, I’m glad you said it. It’s
funny because people talk about the importance of living in the moment.
We’re talking about living in millions or billions of moments for how
many years one might actually live.

Sarah Susanka: Exactly.

Sean Daily: I appreciae what you’re saying, too, is it’s like a
self-[xx] prophecy is the reason that people are moving so much is
because they’re not creating the spaces that make them want to stay.

Sarah Susanka: That’s exactly right.

Sean Daily: So how does this idea been received in the land if the year is always better.

Sarah Susanka: Amazingly, it’s been received tremendously well, and
I think what we don’t see reflected very much in the mass media is that
there’s a lot of people who don’t see themselves in what they see on
television. They don’t see themselves in what they see in this large
what I call “starter castles” marching their way across the hillside.
So for that audience, they were desperate for some other alternatives
and the “Not So Big House: Home by Designs”, some of the other books
I’ve written have really helped them to see how they can get a new
house or remodel an existing house to really fit them. It doesn’t have
to be anything to do with resale or being ostentatious or showy, and
that’s news to a lot of people.

Sean Daily: Yes, I would imagine so. This is a topic we’ve talked to
you on this program before, we had Shay Solomon who’s involved in
living smaller homes. We were talking about the intimacy of smaller
spaces, too. How much of that has come into play, the idea that we’re
living not only culturally separate from one another in terms of the
typical suburban set up of homes. Every man in his island and his
family in an island separated from one another, but within the home,
the typical traditional designs separate us from our families and those
we live with.

Sarah Susanka: It’s a huge issue and I think it’s one that we really
don’t recognize the impact. With the “Not So Big House” which I should
clarify, doesn’t necessarily mean small. It just mean I usually say
about a third smaller than you thought you needed but just as
expensive. So you’re just taking dollars out of square footage that you
don’t use and making the space you do use better. But those houses have
a definite sense of intimacy and that’s what makes families feel

Now, it doesn’t mean you’re all in one big space all the time
either, and “Not So Big House”, the way that I described it is one that
actually feels quite a bit bigger than it actually is because with good
design, you can make something feel really spacious. That requires
somebody to have thought about how the spaces are composed in relation
to one another. So that for example, you can see perhaps from one
corner of the house to the opposite corner along a long view–I call it
the “diagonal view”–so it accentuates the longest access in the house.
It gives you the sense that there’s more space there.

Sean Daily: That makes a lot of sense rather than the compartmentalization of all these minicubes.

Sarah Susanka: Absolutely, the small house with small cube rooms is
horrible and, in fact, you can build a very large house all of those
small cubes and you [xx] you feel like you’re cramped. So it’s not so
much for square footage, it’s how it’s designed.

Sean Daily: I want to hear more about that. We’re going to take a
quick break to hear from the sponsor of the show and we will right back
with Sarah Susanka who is an author of a number of books including the
“Not So Big House” and the “Not So Big Life” and who’s a principal of
Susanka Studios. We will be right back.

[radio break]

Sean Daily: We are back talking about the “Not So Big House” and
“Not So Big Life” with Sarah Susanka, an author and principal of
Susanka Studios. Sarah, I’m just curious, when we were just talking
about some of the ways from an architectural standpoint that you’ve
come up with to accentuate and optimize really the space that you do
have. You had mentioned about diagonal design and being able to see
through the harm of noncompartmentalization. Are there any other
aspects that you would include in that?

Sarah Susanka: Actually, there’s a lot. [laughs]

Sean Daily: Give us the top five.

Sarah Susanka: Yes. My second book, “Creating the Not So Big House”,
helps people to see some of these things that can really make your
house feel larger and I’m going to just give you an example of one of
them. If you put a lighter painting at the end of a hallway, you’re
physiologically moved towards that painting and there’s a principle
behind this. It’s what I call “light to walk toward.” You’re moved to
walk towards that light and it’s not just a near-death experience, it’s
hard wired into us.

So architects use this all the time when they’re stirring people
through public buildings, for example, they’ll place a window at the
far end of the vista or some pieces of a sculpture that has a focal
point of light on it. It makes you move towards that thing.

Sean Daily: Interesting.

Sarah Susanka: And we can do this in our houses. If you think about
all of the ranch houses, for example, you know where those deadly
hallways to the bedrooms and the bathrooms. Put a lighted painting at
the end, it will entirely shift the experience of walking down the hall
and also, you’re feeling about the whole wing of the house. So that’s
probably a $300 remodel and it has an enormous return on investment.

Sean Daily: That’s very cool. We need you to come over to tell us
how to design our house because [laughs] we’re not getting those kinds
of things.

Sarah Susanka: Actually, for those that are interested in it, I have
a book called “Home by Design” which is like a visual dictionary of all
the principles that can help you make your house more alive because of
just implementing some of these ideas.”

Sean Daily: OK. I also understand that you’re also covered the
outside, too, with gardens and such and outside the “Not So Big House”
as well.

Sarah Susanka: That’s right. There’s also one that tells about the
details which is called “Inside the Not So Big House”. So there’s
plenty of choices out there.

Sean Daily: I’m curious, if you look at all of the material that
you’ve put into the series of books, what would you say is the most
important must and that people can be drawing from this, people such as
the listeners of the show that are interested in living green?

Sarah Susanka: There’s a very simple one and it’s something that
people don’t usually think about. We are three dimensional creatures
and we’re very sensitive to the third dimension. That’s the heights of
everything. Unfortunately, we don’t recognize that when we’re selecting
a plant to build, we’re selecting based on two dimensions: on just the
floor plan itself.

So what you need in order to really know whether your house is going
to be a really comfortable one or not is information about the heights
of everything. As we become more aware of how much that influences how
we feel, I think we’ll end up with housing choices that are vastly
improved. I’m not just talking about tall, taller, and tallest which is
what we tend to do today.

But for example, alcoves that have lower ceilings. I’m sitting, as
I’m speaking to you, in an alcove that’s got a seven-foot ceiling in a
room that’s eight-foot tall. So there’s just ways to make a space feel
more cozy and make the eight-foot ceiling actually feel taller because
you’re experiencing it in relation to something that’s contrastingly

Sean Daily: Interesting. So it’s tricks of the trade as it were to manipulate space and human perceptions.

Sarah Susanka: Exactly.

Sean Daily: Human engineering [xx]. Now, just moving from the “Not
So Big House” for a moment, I know that your most recent book is the
“Not So Big Life”. Can you tell us how that came about in the
transition from more of the architectural home, residential home versus
concepts to moving into really like all of green living.

Sarah Susanka: That’s right. Exactly. It’s about how we engage our
lives just as we have tended to live in bigger and bigger and bigger
houses as we can afford them and then we realize, “Boy, there’s
something missing.” We’re doing exactly the same thing in our lives
with getting busier and busier and busier. Think of all the tools that
we have that supposedly save us time, when in fact, what they do is
they allow us to do more things simultaneously. But in the process,
we’re not actually showing up in our lives. We’re always thinking about
what we’ve got to do next on our to-do list. We’re worrying about what
just happened.

So “Not So Big Living” is really about learning how to be more
engaged in what you do and in what your heart really desires to do. The
reason I came to write this book was that I could not have written the
“Not So Big House” series had I not made some pretty major changes in
how I was living my life. I always had love writing but I didn’t have
time to write something that I knew the world really needed right now
which was this understanding that I had about how to design better
houses and really to give the toolbox to the homeowners and say, “Look,
here’s how you do it.”

So the “Not So Big Life”, if I can sort of give it a little
synopsis, is simply that it encourages people to start living their
passions, to start looking at “What is it that I’ve always really
wanted to do?” Then start finding ways to engage those passions. The
punchline is that that is the most sustainable thing you can possibly
do. We can’t usually see that, we think of it perhaps as self-indulgent.

But as you start to engage what you’re passionate about, you’re
automatically present in what you’re doing because you’re so delighted
by it and that is the way that the planet rebalances because our hearts
and we, human beings, are actually part of this whole process. So when
our heart’s longing to do something, that is the planet expressing its
needs through us and that is something that I think we rarely look at
and yet it’s really what Gandhi meant when he said, “We must be the
change we wish to see in the world.” That’s what he meant.

Sean Daily: Yes, and it’s one of my favorite. One of my favorite
sayings and I really appreciate the eloquence with which you put that
because–I love the way you said that–that is the planet’s way of
expressing what it needs is through our world. So I guess, much in the
same way as artificially building homes to be of certain size or layout
that isn’t really true to our hearts and other functions that we
require in–I hate to use the word–but process-shooting ourselves out
to do work that isn’t really heart-centered for us.

Sarah Susanka: That’s exactly right.

Sean Daily: We pervert the entire intended process, never mind
making ourselves unhappy in the process to search for the almighty
dollar or whatever that is.

Sarah Susanka: That’s right and it’s actually so simple when you
stop and recognize that the thing that you really want to do is exactly
what the world needs. That is such an exciting message for people. So
that’s what the “Not So Big Life” is really all about.

Sean Daily: Yes, that’s missing. I can see, that spirit is
definitely the same spirit that drives home architectural decision is
the same thing that does fall over into this other areas. I’m curious
about–who is the audience for this that you’re finding there is this
notion of–and this expression and you talk about it on your [xx],
cultural creatives which is this idea that some believe that we are in
a period of great–I happen to be one of them–that we’re in a period
of transition culturally as an entire world civilization. We’re in the
threshold of that and we’re moving into a new age of–not [xx] new
age–but really to an entirely new period of human culture and relation
and so forth.

Some have a negative view of that, some have a very positive view of
that, and some, I suppose, are in between. Is that 50 million segment,
I guess, that was only coined by American Demographics magazine in an
article they wrote back in ’97 that the cultural creatives, I guess,
allegedly 50 million of them in the United States. Are those the people
that are [xx] into this they’re using mass general adoption of these

Sarah Susanka: There’s definitely been originally when the “Not So
Big House” came out, it was actually right at the same time that that
cultural creatives term was coined. They would definitely the segment
of the population that jumped on it and said, “Wow! That’s what I
wanted of the ‘Not So Big House’. That sounds perfect.” That coincided
with what the study began to recognize was a set of values growing in
the American culture that people were looking for something that was
not so big in all sorts of way whether we’re talking about cars or
houses or sizes of meals, etc., etc. They’re just realizing that the
quantity solution to things really wasn’t where it was at.

So and for those listeners who want to look up more, if you go to, I have an introductory letter on there and it
actually provides the link to the original article on cultural
creatives right there. So it’s very useful to just get a sense of what
that audience is looking for. And I think since that time, so we’re now
10 years later, I’ve seen the movement towards not so big in all these
different venues, happened to larger and larger segment of the
population. I don’t know that all of those would classify themselves
with the same set of values that you can read about with the cultural
creatives article, but they are recognizing that they’re missing the
boat somehow by just focusing on quantity. So by this, we’re looking at
where do we find meaning? Where do we find the quality of life that
we’re looking for? That’s where this audience is coming from, the
people who are reevaluating what’s important.

Sean Daily: That’s very fascinating and I have to say that one of
the things that I always encounter along these lines is when I travel
in Europe and in Asia, it’s the way, where they’re forced into more
economical lifestyles and smaller spaces and they’ve learned to make
the most of it out of force. They needed to do that because it’s
financially impossible in those countries, in those continents to be
able to have the enormous wealth of space that we have here. So they
make it cool and it’s got style.

Sarah Susanka: Right. Exactly, exactly. That’s the key because I
think those Americans are worried that if they build smaller, it’s also
going to be less interesting. What you’ve seen with through your
travels and what I know through my cultural background from England is
that bigger is not necessarily better and very frequently in the big
mess itself, we actually lose the quality that we’re looking for. So I
often say, “Home has almost nothing to do with square footage.” So
we’re looking for home in this country with the wrong tool.

Sean Daily: Yes, it really is a change of perspective, it’s a complete revolution of perspective that I certainly welcome.

Well, I have a another very important question but it’s going to
have to wait until after our last sponsor break which we’re going to
take right now. We’ll be back with Sarah Susanka, author and principal
of Susanka Studios and you can find her online at
We’ll be right back.

[radio break]

Sean Daily: OK, and we are back with Sarah Susanka. We’re talking
about “Not So Big House” and “Not So Big Life” to improve our lives and
to live more sustainably. As I guess, really one question, the last
question we really have time for today would be what key piece of
advice would you have, Sarah, for giving our listeners today who are
seeking to live more sustainably? What’s the most important thing they
can do and is it something they can just start with the immediately?

Sarah Susanka: There’s something really simple and I actually have
written about this on the “Not So Big Life” website recently. It’s what
I called “decluttering.” We can declutter both our houses and our lives
and as we do so, everything gets a little bit simpler. In the process
of that simple sign, we can slow down a little bit. By slowing down, we
end up showing up more and there’s nothing better for just rebalancing
your life than that both inner and outer decluttering. I’ve had a lot
of people respond to the blog post that I put on the website related to
that and I think that a lot of your listeners would probably enjoy it
and learn something from it, definitely.

Sean Daily: I know that was [xx] of me, I never feel better than when I–the semi-annual cleaning of my office.

Sarah Susanka: That’s right, exactly.

Sean Daily: It clears your mind and I definitely believe in like the
Zen space. For everybody who’s ever done spring cleaning on their
garage or your bedroom, whatever it is, give away your old clothes, you
donate them and how you feel when you create the void and then, we [xx]
into it, it’s kind of a magical and hard to describe event.

Sarah Susanka: Exactly. It’s hard to believe that something so simple can have such profound effect.

Sean Daily: So decluttering.

Sarah Susanka: You’ve got it.

Sean Daily: All right. That’s good advice. We would love to have you
back. I’m sorry we’re out of time for today but we’ve really enjoyed,
I’ve really enjoyed talking to you and I know the listeners enjoyed
hearing the information and the advice you have and your perspectives.

Sarah Susanka: Thanks so much, Sean, I’d love to be back.

Sean Daily: All right, great. We’ll see you again, and thank you, everybody, for listening in today.

[musical interlude]

Sean Daily: Thanks as always to everyone listening in today.
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