Saturday, May 16, 2009

Available in unlimited quantity: good design

Bigger isn’t necessarily better when it comes to the design of your home.

Best-selling author and architect Sarah Susanka made the case in her 1998 book The Not So Big House that bigger isn’t necessarily better. A graduate of the University of Oregon’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts, Susanka urged us to “focus on quality rather than quantity” when designing residences. In some respects, the success of her book was remarkable when set against the late-nineties backdrop of a rapidly expanding real estate bubble. We increasingly regarded our houses as investments rather than as homes. Many purchasers, laden with more money than good sense, equated quantity with quality. After all, four-and-a-half bathrooms were better than three, or so we thought.

We have since been chastened by the collapse of the housing market and the attendant economic downturn. We’re not likely to see another real estate bubble. The rules of the game have changed. The new reality is that the contraction of our economy may be permanent, a consequence of the increasing scarcity of easy credit, cheap energy, and other resources. Houses will no longer be viewed primarily as commodities. Our lives – where we work, how we grow our food, where we choose to live, and the houses we dwell in – are destined to be rescaled. The American penchant for “super-sizing” and “McMansions” is a thing of the past.

Despite the dwindling of many critical resources, one article of trade will always remain available in unlimited quantity: good design.

Buy stock in good design because it's become a currency of choice. We are transforming ourselves from a consumption-driven society to one that values place, history, and meaning in our homes. We’re pointing toward smaller, more urban (and urbane), site-sensitive houses that are as unique as their occupants. More than ever before, we're designing sustainably and building for the long haul.

Good design is what makes it possible to imagine living as comfortably and happily in a smaller home as one might in a much bigger house. Eugene architect Dan Hill coined the term "qualisizing" to describe how we should design and build the new homes of the future. A "qualisized" home could easily be as small as 400-500 square feet per person in size. The concept is to design well and build with an emphasis upon quality rather than quantity. Evaluating a home’s site for the best exposure to sun, wind, and rain can have a huge effect on the outcome and quality of the living environment. Planning for change such as growth and/or downsizing in a family can be important driving forces in a design. Efficient use of space just makes sense on so many levels. Smaller homes also consume fewer resources to build, heat, and cool.

Good design doesn't have to be expensive. A window shifted three feet from center to better view the best location for a flower garden doesn't cost a penny more, but adds to the pleasure of every morning's cup of coffee for years to come.

Good design ensures meaningful homes whose primary aim is to enrich the lives of their occupants, rather than impress the neighbors. Cookie-cutter, pattern-book houses may be functional, affordable, and constructed soundly, but they can also be soulless. Fundamentally, good home designers are tailors who take the measure of their clients’ dreams to create dwellings that are completely original and unique to each customer. The results are homes that are rich in detail and specificity, more like jewelry boxes than shoeboxes. The best homes are our refuge in difficult times and backdrops for the celebrations of life during the good times.

The core of Sarah Susanka’s message is that the sense of “home” that we all seek has everything to do with quality. Creativity, imagination, and inventiveness are needed more than ever. Readers responded to her book The Not So Big House precisely because it gave homeowners the language they needed to ask for what they want: a house that values quality over quantity, and emphasizes comfort, beauty, and a high level of detail. In this era of new frugality, it will be our investments in good design that will be a prominent measure of the value of our homes.

This post was originally drafted as a possible column for The Register-Guard's monthly Home & Garden insert. It has not yet been picked up for publication.


sarah said...

Thanks for the wonderful endorsement of my work. I thought your readers might be interested in knowing that that first book, now one of eight in the series incidentally, has recently been rereleased in a 10th Anniversary edition that offers a new final chapter describing how homeowners have implemented the lessons of the book in their own not so big homes. There's a lovely example included in that chapter by architect Bernie Baker from the Pacific Northwest incidentally.

I attribute much of my success to the architectural training I received at the U of O, which was far more residentially oriented than most of the nation's architecture schools.

For those who want to know more, they can check out the Not So Big House website, ( where there are all sorts of resources including a Home Professionals Directory that allows visitors to find an architect, builder or interior designer in their area to help them with their project.

All the best, and let's hope you're right that our homes will soon become better scaled for the lives we REALLY lead.


Sarah Susanka, FAIA

Randy Nishimura, AIA said...


I own two of your books - The Not So Big House and Home By Design - and I don't even design houses. They contain lessons that all architects may find invaluable. Your books are a joy to read.

Regarding our common background at the University of Oregon, I believe that the school's longstanding commitment to architecture that emphasizes the importance of social well-being and enhances peoples' lives is applicable to all types of design. This is as true for houses as it is for schools or places of work.

Thank you for posting a comment on my blog!

Randy Nishimura, AIA