Sometimes smaller is smarter

U.S. architect and author Sarah Susanka is the spark plug behind a design movement to deliver modest homes packed with fine finishes and multi-functional rooms.

The Ottawa Citizen, August 4, 2001 – Kathryn Young

When Sarah Susanka turned 21, the architect spent part of the summer living on a 40-foot boat with six other people and she still calls on those memories when designing smaller houses where every square inch has to be functional.

"1 often think back to the level of detail on that boat and the ways it helped us live in relative harmony, despite its cramped quarters," the U.S. architect writes in her book The Not So Big House "Six people can live more comfortably on a 40-foot boat than they can in a big, badly designed house."

Ms. Susanka says people usually need much less space than they think they do and that idea struck a chord with Ottawa architect Linda Chapman. She bought several copies of the book and lends them to clients, many of whom come to her with dreams of grandiose homes.

"We have to try to convince them to tone down their dreams," says the Ottawa architect. Ms. Susanka contends that people should build smaller homes and put the money saved into special details. "Build rooms with character not just more and more and more rooms," explains Ms. Chapman.

Not So Big homes have built-in cabinets and drawers, open plans, niches and alcoves. There's lots of warm natural woodwork and what Ms. Chapman calls "livable roofs" using dormers and high ceilings on the top floor to make sure of attic space.

Rooms are multi-functional - the dining room is also the breakfast nook; the living room is really a family room, playroom and media room. All the spaces are used daily, rather than having lavish formal rooms that get used three times a year - which Ms. Susanka describes as "the architectural equivalent of a hoopskirt."

"There's greater interest in more compact living as much because of cost as because of more flexible lifestyles," Ms. Chapman says. "It's not something new, but there's a cultural swing toward it."

Indeed, the majority of Canadian housing built during the 1900s has been small says John Archer, who works for the National Research CounciL

He has helped develop building and fire codes and is also an adjunct professor at the Carleton University School of Architecture.

"There weren't all that many periods of large house planning in (the 20th) century," he explains. "Canada hasn't built many big houses. We haven't been as wealthy as the Americans."

Only since the 1980s have we seen many big suburban homes, he says. And in recent years some of those have approached the 6,000-square-foot mark, although the market for huge homes has fallen off lately.

"It's actually more difficult to design a small home than a larger one'" he says. "You have to make it multi-functional."

The term "small" is relative, of course. A modest home in the Middle Ages would have been a 14-by-20-foot shelter for the family and the cattle. By the 1950s, small was anything less than 900 square feet. "Nowadays, 1,200 square feet is pretty small," says Mr. Archer.

"We haven't built 1,200 square foot singles since 1983 because that's too small for a single-family home," says Robert Greenberg, vice-president of Minto, the largest builder in Ottawa . Also, with the costs of servicing lots and building the house, the minimum size that makes financial sense for builders is 1,500 to 1,600 square feet for a bungalow or single-family home, he adds.

He's skeptical about Ms. Susanka's basic premise, saying people want to buy the biggest house they cam for the money. Given the choice between a 1,500-square-foot home with lots of detail and a 2,000-square foot home with no detail, "it's a more financially intelligent decision to buy the larger house," Mr. Greenberg says. It has better resale value and you can add details yourself, he says. "Her argument makes sense if you plan to spend a long time in the same house."

Production builders' profit margins are too slim to allow them to put in all the expensive details Ms. Susanka recommends, says Mr. Archer.

Still, in recent years homes built by Minto, Urbandale, Claridge and Richcraft have included more and more architectural features such as columns, halfwalls topped with oak, coffered ceilings in dining rooms, crown moulding, hardwood floors and shelves and niches built around family room fireplaces.

Flexibility is also a trait Ms. Susanka promotes in her homes and something one of Ms. Chapman's clients considered when they hired her to rebuild a home on their west-end lot after their 50-year-old home was demolished.

"We did a bit of thinking about how much our needs would change in the future, as far as we can predict" says the homeowner, who doesn't want to be named. His basement home office, for example, could move upstairs if a future teenager wanted privacy in the basement.

For now, the main floor is one big open space so the parents can keep an eye on the young children. When playtime is over, toys can be hidden in window seats built into bay windows in the living room area.

This homeowner didn't want a 4,000-square-foot house taking up all the space on their 100-by-40-foot city lot. So they built a 2,400-square-foot Craftsman style home and put the extra money into quality details and features such as six-inch oak baseboards, cherry kitchen cabinets, high-end plumbing, lots of specialized lighting and many pitches a dangles on the roof.

"We certainly didn't save any money," he says, adding that Ms. Chapman did a good job of incorporating ideas from Ms. Susanka's book. "It really reflects how we live."

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