The Not So Big House
Green Radio
Sean Daily

Episode 106 - 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: 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 Susanka.

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 live.

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 connected.

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.

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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 shorter.

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 concepts?

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.

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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.

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Sean Daily: Thanks as always to everyone listening in today. Remember, for more free on demand podcast, articles, videos, and other information related to living a greener lifestyle, visit our website at We'd also love to hear your comments, feedback, and questions. Send us an email at [email protected].

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