A dozen years ago, architect Sarah Susanka wrote The Not So Big House, a book that tapped into a yearning among Americans for homes that spoke more to comfort than to the showy, cavernous spaces of those much-derided McMansions. She urged people to build houses that were one-third smaller than they thought they needed, and use the money saved on square footage to add architectural details and finishes that enhance a home's comfort and character.
Today, Susanka believes the Not So Big house is where America is heading.
She sees her message reflected in the shrinking of the American home. Last year, for the first time in nearly three decades, the average size of a new home shrank by almost 100 square feet to 2,438 square feet, according to Census Bureau data.
There's also the tiny house movement, whose adherents set up housekeeping in homes that can be as small as a walk-in closet. It's another indication, albeit an extreme one, of people's desire to find more happiness in having less.
None of this surprises Susanka.
"This is exactly what I was writing about in Not So Big, but it takes a downturn in the economy for people to grasp this," she tells ProSales. "What I believe is happening is when they discover their resources are limited, they discover their house is not one of their priorities and the size of the house has nothing to do with the quality of their house. They were impressing their neighbors. When they find that the neighbors are no longer impressed by size, they figure, 'Okay, let's do something else.'
"What I'm saying is forget square footage; take the client's budget and build the best house possible. A house has to be inspiring to replace the bigness."
Susanka says spaciousness can be created, even in a house of 1,000 square feet or less, by using a variety of architectural tricks. Varying ceiling heights to shape the space; creating a vista using a window or a lighted painting at the end of a space; or putting a dining or living area on the diagonal to provide a sweeping view and an experience of greater space can all lend a home what she calls "a flavor of spaciousness."
Back in the 1970s, Susanka lived for a while in a tiny house on wheels. "I had 90 square feet, a bed loft above the walk-in closet, and a fold-down table that opened off the door of the closet," she says. "It was heated with a wood stove that also served as my cooking surface. It was cozy and charming, and people loved to come to dinner. I also learned that I was very happy with less. Happy had very little to do with what I owned."
That experience taught her a lot about how people live in a small space, and it helped form her notions of scale and livability.
Based on what she's hearing from the audiences at her speeches over the last year, Susanka says, "I think people are tired of big and empty. I think there has been a big shift in what's chic and trendy. [The recession] has been a big enough whammy that this will last for at least a generation. Big won't be standard any more."
The figures back up her gut feeling. Over one-third (37%) of respondents in a recent survey by real estate site Trulia said their ideal home size was 2,000 square feet or less, while only 9% indicated they desired a home over 3,200 square feet.
Builders respond to what homeowners ask for, Susanka says, and what homeowners are asking for now are smaller, better crafted homes using green products. There is a lot of potential for education, she says and she believes that LBM dealers have a role to play in educating their builder customers on sustainable products.
"That's how we end up with getting better houses in the long run."