It has been ten years since The Not So Big House became a surprise best seller, elevating a successful but unknown Minneapolis-based architect, Sarah Susanka, to the couch of Oprah Winfrey. Shortly after its release, the book became number one on Amazon.com, the force of which wasn’t fully understood or appreciated back in 1998. Since then she’s published five more books in the Not So Big series, but none have benefited as much from pitch-perfect timing. Not only was technology reaching people in new ways, it was reaching the very people for whom Susanka was writing, even if she didn’t know it at the time.
In the introduction to the 10th Anniversary Edition, she admits to being perplexed by the overwhelming response to her “not so big” message, but then she read an article on “Cultural Creatives” by sociologist Dr. Paul Ray, who identified a previously undiscovered segment of the population that was looking for ways to live “responsibly, sustainably, and meaningfully.” While the term “Cultural Creatives” is essentially the New Age version of Richard Florida’s “Creative Class” (and equally ill-defined), clearly her book was at the forefront of something – be it a new culture, a new class or a new generation. Most likely a combination of all three, let’s call it the Dwell magazine demographic.
In the pre-Dwell magazine world of 1998, however, Susanka’s book – if not cutting edge architecturally (her aesthetic draws heavily on Frank Lloyd Wright) – was in sync with this emerging demographic’s tastes. Of course, urban Dwellers have always dealt with smaller spaces and lived “sustainably” whether they meant to or not. But Susanka’s book focused exclusively on the non-urban single-family house, which is where the vast majority of people were and still are living in the United States. Reviewers took note that her message bucked the “starter castle” trend, (a term that has since been dropped in favor of “McMansion”). For those Dwellers not inclined to move to urban areas or fix up older housing in declining inner-ring suburbs, there was little to choose from that emphasized quality over quantity. As the success of her book clearly demonstrates, not all Dwellers were rejecting the suburbs – with its low-density, car-dependent development pattern. For some, it was the housing stock itself that was the problem. It simply no longer fit the way many people actually live.
“Today’s houses still wear the architectural equivalent of a hoopskirt, even if the accessories seem more contemporary,” wrote Susanka. “While we’ve been busy evolving over the past century, most of our houses have not. Their evolution has been constricted by outdated notions of what we think we need and what the real estate industry says we need for resale. At the turn of the new century, most houses are designed for the turn of the last.”
How did that happen? The real estate industry is notoriously slow to respond to change, which was well underway in 1998. Globalization and technology were (and still are) changing the way people live and work, but the housing stock was stuck in the industrial era with its emphasis on a division of labor both inside and outside the home. In his 1991 book, The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities, Richard Sennett, a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, noted that in the industrial era, cities had become all but unlivable and people retreated into their homes. “The public world of the street was harsh, crime ridden, cold, and above all, confused in its very complexity.”
To counteract the chaos, he noted, “[t]he private realm sought order and clarity through applying the division of labor to the emotional realm of the family, partitioning its experience into rooms.” Communal areas of the home gave way to activity-specific, divided rooms, with the man in the study, the woman in the kitchen, the children in their own separate bedrooms or play areas: “Separation created isolation in the family as much as it did on the street. . . . The hearth was supposed to give warmth, yet the division of labor [inside the house] gradually cast its own chill.”
Today’s suburban McMansion is essentially the same isolating nineteenth century home on steroids (although far from urban chaos), and the housing bubble in the first half of the decade only made matters worse. Like a supernova that burns brightest just before collapsing in on itself, McMansion developers went on their final building spree despite the trend that Susanka had identified. One executive in the homebuilding industry told The New York Times in 2006: “We haven’t been as quick to adapt to the market as we should have been.” Why? “Most home builders are reluctant to change the formula that made them so profitable over the past 10 years,” explained James Chung, president of Reach Advisors, a Boston-based marketing firm.
According to Reach Advisors, among the Dwell demographic who prefer single-family houses, they want smaller homes built closer together with amenities that foster interaction with their neighbors, such as dog parks and walking trails. They would also prefer their private space cultivate family interaction rather than be divided into separate activity rooms. For decades, progressive urban planners have advocated for mixed-use buildings and blocks, but the same could be said for a suburban house. Multi-use spaces are where families interact, and that interaction makes the difference between a house that is merely occupied and a home that is truly lived in.
But rather than scale down to a more efficient design, McMansion builders just kept adding on to the already bloated floor plans, with the industrial era house at the core and all the new economy rooms tacked on. Media rooms, home offices, and hearth rooms – a poor imitation of a loft-like space, where the kitchen flows into eating and sitting areas anchored by a fireplace – grossly expanded square footage. According to Census data, median square feet of floor area for new privately owned, single-family homes jumped from 1,560 in 1974 to 2,248 in 2006. The typical McMansion is 3,000 square feet or larger. The numbers are not yet all in, but anecdotal evidence indicates that it is these energy-inefficient behemoths built far from job centers that have experienced the most drastic price declines in the current housing market crisis, possibly the worst in American history.
With prices already down almost 20 percent, home values are on track to decline as much as they did during the Great Depression. According to Robert Schiller, professor of economics at Yale University and an early predictor of the housing market decline, currently there are about 10 million homeowners who owe more on their home than it is worth. And even if the market has hit bottom, after adjusting for inflation, most homeowners will continue to lose money.
Of course, this is not solely the fault of McMansion builders and buyers. Old neighborhoods in rust-belt cities with small, densely packed houses have been devastated as well. But clearly, the market is not in turmoil because working class people fell victim to subprime loan sharking but in part because developers built and middle class and wealthy people bought way more house than they could ever need or even want. The New York Times recently featured a 26,000 square foot home in Greenwich, CT that has been put up for auction. “We kind of knew even before the house was finished that it was too much house for us,” said the homeowner, Stan Cheslock, a Baby Boomer-aged financial investor. While this is a gross example, would the housing market be in better shape if “not so big” were the predominant building philosophy, and not just a countervailing trend among the Dwell demographic? One could make a case.
Like the American auto industry rediscovering demand for fuel-efficient cars, in the current housing crisis The Not So Big House still feels highly relevant if no longer revelatory. Susanka took inspiration from the sailboat, where efficiency and multi-purpose space is essential. “Because of this careful, thoughtful use of space, it’s no great exaggeration to suggest that six people can live more comfortably on a 40-ft. boat than they can in a big, badly designed house.” To that end, she emphasized cozy spaces over cathedral-like great rooms; socializing areas that flow together but utilize ceiling height variation and lighting design to delineate spaces; and “away rooms” for private time. She noted that some of her clients discovered the appeal of the “not so big house” when it came to building a second home for summers or weekends. When her clients realized they preferred their second home – with its emphasis on informal comfort and efficiency – they began to rethink their primary residences.
But for most people, the fact that large formal living and dining rooms go unused for all but a few days of the year, ditto that oversized jacuzzi in the master bath and formerly screened-in porch – which was much loved in the summertime but after being converted to a year-round room became just another underutilized sitting area – is not enough to convince them to choose smaller spaces. So the McMansion explosion happened at the same time the “not so big house” message came to define the tastes of an emerging demographic of homeowners. But 10th Anniversary edition, Susanka doesn’t do much to explain why.
One clue might be found in a new twist on the theory of conspicuous consumption, as noted in a recent issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Kerwin Kofi Charles and Erik Hurst, two economists at the University of Chicago, show that a relatively poor group in close proximity to a relatively well-off group will spend more on “bling” at the expense of their own needs and private comforts. While they were studying differences in spending habits of blacks and whites, the same could be applied to the growing gap between the upper middle class and the super wealthy, a relatively new phenomenon. Between 1949 and 1979, income at all levels grew relatively equally, but since then income growth has occurred disproportionately at the upper echelons. The richest 1 percent increased their portion of the national income from 8.2 percent in 1980 to 17.4 percent in 2005. The Economic Policy Institute calculated that in 2004 only the top 5 percent of households increased their incomes, while the remaining 95 percent had flat or falling incomes. It’s not too much of a stretch to apply the “bling” theory to the upper middle class and their McMansion home-buying habits. If your income is stagnant or even dropping, keeping up appearances becomes paramount.
For the Dwell demographic – which never expected to be super rich – the point is not smaller for its own sake but a shift of emphasis to quality materials, customization and detailing with a technological update. This preference doesn’t necessarily lead to one aesthetic. Dwell readers will not find much in the way of cutting edge design in the Not So Big House, either in the original book or the 10th Anniversary edition. Susanka’s tastes are “Minnesota nice” – a house should compliment, not detract from its neighbors (Susanka now lives in Raleigh, NC). Photos emphasize suburban bliss in warm hues, with lots of woodwork and overstuffed couches. It is the “not so big” philosophy that defines the Dwell demographic with its more traditional middle class emphasis on private luxury in the service of comfort, practicality over bling. Just a sampling of a few Dwell articles over the years: “Affordable Luxury: 10 Homes that Do More with Less,” “Bathrooms 101: Innovative Materials, Cool Products,” “Collapsible Furniture for Cozy Spaces.”
Despite having defined this emerging demographic’s housing preference, not only does Susanka fail to reconcile the popularity of her book with the McMansion explosion of the past ten years, she claims a little more credit than is probably due. She notes in the preface to the 10th Anniversary edition that the average size of a new home in the U.S. finally leveled off at just under 2,500 sq. feet (an accurate statement) and that over 40 percent of new homes are now built without a formal living room (a dubious statistic). “I think the Not So Big House series has helped to turn this tide,” wrote Susanka. Clearly, that tide was turned by much larger forces.
Lisa Chamberlain is the author of Slackonomics: Generation X in the Age of Creative Destruction and covers real estate for The New York Times.