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Sarah Susanka Interview

Sarah Susanka is the author of two best-selling books on architecture, "The Not So Big House" and "Building The Not So Big House." Below is a transcript of an interview I conducted with her on March 8, 2002.

CHRIS O'LEARY: How did you come up with the idea that became The Not So Big House? What was the sequence? What happened when?

SARAH SUSANKA: Let's start with coming over from England. I was 14 and my family ate every meal in the formal dining room -- breakfast, lunch, and dinner -- with a completely set table, table linens, and the rest of it. When we moved to America, I found that everybody has the same basic template for the house, with the formal living room and formal dining room, as English houses. But every time I went over to my friends' houses they all ate every meal in the kitchen -- at the kitchen table. And I kept looking into those rooms that in my life had always been the heavily used ones and thought, "Well what do they do with those?" And so I had, from 6 months after I moved to this country in 1971, this kind of hypersensitivity to "What do they do with those rooms?"
     I saw the same thing happen, interestingly, with suburbia. Where do people go to hang out? If you're always in a car, where are the corner stores? Where is the way you can get to know your neighbors? It was a different process than in England. And I remember looking at how suburbia was laid out and having similar thoughts about reconfiguration for this much more automobile oriented world.
     The whole new urbanism movement is doing the same thing for urban environments that I have been doing for homes. They are both saying basically the same thing. We don’t live the way the template was made for, so let's reconfigure the template.

CHRIS: I'm actually a big fan of that stuff. I'm a frustrated architect so I've read all of Christopher Alexander's (author of A Pattern Language) books.

SARAH: Well, Alexander really crystallized a lot of this stuff. And interestingly, he had an awful lot of graduate students working with him from all around the world and so they had understandings of how things worked in their countries and they were able to find the common ground that created this set of patterns about how people lived in various different kinds of circumstances and how you create a place that's vital.
     I actually worked with a couple of graduate students after they left Alexander's shop and realized that the thing that really made that all come together was the collective experiences were the same from culture to culture. So he was doing much the same thing. Having all of these transplants from all over the world looking at America and going, "Well why do they do it that way? What's missing here?"
     I think a lot of us who come from a place that has had a much greater history, a much longer history of built environments see what works. It's funny, it's stuff that you would never probably design in from scratch. And yet its that charm that grows up, sort of like a patina with age, that gives a place it's soul, it's character, it's idiosyncrasies, that are the parts that really make it work. And so when you peel back all the layers and try to understand, "What is it that doesn't work here?" you start to then compare it with something with which you are very intimately familiar and then you can see where the problem is. I credit my having left England at such an early age but having a fairly concrete understanding of how things worked in England with giving me that comparison so that I could see what was missing or why things weren't working the way I knew they were originally intended to.

CHRIS: So then what happened? You came over to the States in 1971. How did you get into the architecture stuff? At what point did you start the process that became the book? What was the sequence? What opened your eyes to this new way?

SARAH: Well, it was two different things, actually. One was that I started lecturing around the Midwest about energy-efficient design and I guess because of my English upbringing I also talked about smaller spaces because one of the things that makes things energy efficient is making them smaller and work better. So after almost every lecture I'd have people lining up to ask me if the firm I was working with designed houses. Those energy efficiency lectures weren't necessarily just about houses. They were about how do you build energy efficiently. But of course everybody in that audience lives in a house and they were all taking the message and converting it to their own environment of living and working and then thinking, "Gee I love these ideas, so I how do I apply them to my life?"
     One of those days a lightbulb went on and I realized all these people who were wanting somebody to help them could become my clients. And so I hung out my own shingle and started working with a number of people in the Twin Cities market to whom that message had appealed.

CHRIS: Now, when was this?

SARAH: That was 1983. Actually, what happened was that the very first addition I did was to a friend's house in Minneapolis and it got front page coverage in the Shelter section of the paper. And it spelled out literally all these ideas about energy efficiency, making it smaller, more tailored. It's exactly the same message that I now call "Not So Big" but at the time I didn't have a word for it. It grew out of understanding and having grown up on A Pattern Language. That was the way I had been trained to think, basically. There's a lot of stuff that we physiologically respond to through our senses that we can learn from and design for rather than letting this template sort of dictate what we need and how many square feet it should be. It's a very different approach.
     So I went into business with the faculty member who had been my thesis advisor at the University of Minnesota when I was getting my Master's degree and we started this practice just the two of us and we kept going and, when I left in 1999, were -- and I think they still are -- the largest residential architecture firm in the country. We just found a niche in the marketplace that literally nobody was serving.
     And so the way that that happened was that we kept lecturing. We went to home and garden shows which, up until we started doing it was just anathema. No architect in their right mind would be caught dead at a home and garden show for heaven's sake. But I had this really strong sense that that's where our audience was. That there were a lot of people who wanted a great house. Going back to my experience of the audiences at the energy efficiency lectures I knew that everybody wants to know how to make their house better. And if you can explain it and explain how to do that you've got a ready-made, captive audience and you're the expert. So not only did that help to grow our firm, but it actually spawned the largest and I suspect the healthiest residential architecture market in the country. There are probably 40 or 50 residential architecture firms in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. That's unlike any place else in the country.
     So what had happened was that by our being very open about what we had discovered to our colleagues and to the community, suddenly people said, "Hey, there's a market here. Let's go fill it."

CHRIS: Now what exactly was your message? Were you saying "We've figured out or we've got a sense of what makes a better living space?" That kind of stuff?

SARAH: We didn’t ever put it in those terms. We said, "Here's how you make your house better." We never did this as a hard sell. We more did it as a sort of -- I hate to use the word "education" but in many ways it was -- just sort of opening people's eyes to this sort of whole other dimension of home that you don’t know is there but if we just show you how to see it, you'll find it.
     That's basically what we were doing.
     And what I've written about since is there in A Pattern Language but you have to hunt for it. What really turns me on is understanding that we are creatures that are extremely sensitive to space and light. And that if we can understand that medium we can start to paint with it. That is something we have not done to date.

CHRIS: At what point were you doing the speaking?

SARAH: That was from 1983… Actually, when I started speaking about energy efficiency was probably 1979 through 1981, I would guess. And then my firm started in 1983 and very quickly because of the message we were sending out in our public speaking engagements -- which is basically "Architecture is for everybody and it doesn't have to be the exclusive territory of the super wealthy." -- we were attracting people who wanted a great house but didn’t have enormous amounts of money to spend on it. And so we were from the get go trying to figure out how to reconcile people's dreams with their more limited budgets. And so from literally the first meeting we were looking at "What spaces do you use every day? Which ones do you use only once or twice a year? Is there a way we can take those spaces that you use rarely and put the function into the space that you use every day so that we can eliminate the part that doesn't really get used very much."
     That's the logic of The Not So Big House. If you only use it once or twice a year, do you want to spend $60,000 on a dining room that you are only going to get to use very occasionally or can you put those dollars into the making the space you use every day really great.
     And once you get that message across to people, 90 percent of them will say, "Hey, that's a great idea. As long as it meets these criteria, I can live with that." The confusion comes when people who have a lot of money feel like I'm telling them to not build those spaces that they use only occasionally. Sure, if you have the money and you want it, do it. But most people don't have that luxury, so let's reapportion the dollars into the things that you really use and love.
     So it came out of a necessity. Out of having all of these people coming in saying, "We want a better house but we can’t figure out how to do it because we have to have so many square feet based on the standard template and that doesn’t leave us any money to build with the kind of character we are looking for."
     The mechanism we developed was rendering down the square footage based on what they told us and taking the extra dollars and putting them into making it beautiful and having character and quality and the things they really longed for.

CHRIS: When did you end up redoing your house? You tell that story in the book.

SARAH: There are two pieces two it. In 1993 or 1994 I had an older house in St. Paul that was actually built in 1904 and I designed an addition for it and as I designed it I realized that what I had done was basically designed -- and I didn't build it -- but I had designed a new house on the back of the old one. It had a kitchen. It had a living space. It had a dining area. In the old house there was the formal living room and the formal dining room and a very funky kitchen that really didn’t work because it was too small and too separated from the other two rooms. I got this epiphany as I looked at it that basically I had then two houses attached in the middle by the kitchen. And that once I built that new house part I was never going to go back into the old part.
     And then I suddenly saw that I had been doing this for client after client. They want a new family room -- that's what we call it -- but as soon as we build it the old formal living room and formal dining room never get used again. Even though we think they will, they don't. They get decorated and we walk through them on the way to the part of the house in which we live. So that was when I suddenly realized, "You know, this is stupid!" What I really needed to do was built a house that illustrated the new template of what I have seen a lot of people asking for but being afraid to invest in because the whole structure of how we value houses is dependent upon the old model.
     The crux of the issue is that -- I learned a lot from my wealthy clients -- those people who don’t have to worry about the resale market don't build the formal living room and formal dining room.

CHRIS: Because they can afford to be "quirky."

SARAH: They can afford to be quirky and it doesn't matter if they get their money out. But for people who wanted to build and be safe that they could sell it were told by every real estate agent and appraiser that you need first and foremost the formal living room and formal dining room for resale. So everybody did that, and also the two-story foyer. Those three rooms and the least used rooms in the whole country, yet those are the ones that were at the top of the list of real estate agents.

CHRIS: I've got number of friends who have done well and they've got the big houses with the formal dining rooms and living rooms and what they do is -- and for one thing they don't have the money to decorate the rooms -- they throw toys around them. They turn them into a play room for the kids. It's kind of absurd.

SARAH: It's very commonplace. Even if they had the money to decorate them oftentimes they don't care. It doesn't make any sense to them. They don't use it, so they decorate it for that reason. So anyway that was what I was aware of. It was another epiphany that we've got all of these professionals in the marketplace telling Joe Q. Public what he needs for resale and no mechanism for Joe Q. Public to say, "Yeah, but I don't use those any more." It does not exist, that connection. And so I realized what we were doing in our lecturing around the Twin Cities was giving people the courage of their convictions. They realized, "Hey, I'm not alone. There's a lot of other people that feel this." And that changed the market in the Twin Cities. So I figured if it changed the market in the Twin Cities that must be also a possibility nationally.
     How do you change a system? You change it from the inside out. By having Joe Q. Public's all over the country -- the "Yeah but"s -- endorsing a message that's put out in a book or in a radio program or in a a TV program and saying "Yeah, that's right. I've always thought that." And that's what my books did. They basically got people out of the woodwork confirming each other's firmly-held belief that there's something missing here.
     That something missing is actually too much money put into things we don’t use that much.

CHRIS: Can you tell me the story of your books?

SARAH: Actually the first one, The Not So Big House, took off like wildfire. And this is an amazing piece of information that I still to this day do not understand how it happened. My first book was a best seller in the home and garden section of Amazon.com before it was in anybody's hands. The name sold it. That was fascinating to me. So actually it streaked up to being a best seller on Amazon.com in the first couple of weeks that it was released.

CHRIS: Now did you do anything to get the word out or was there just kind of latent demand from all of these people you had been talking to over 15 years?

SARAH: It was latent demand. The funny side story is that the publisher who was wonderful about promoting the book gradually, initially had a P.R. company working with us who totally missed the point of the book. They didn't get it. And so this woman actually called me one day -- because Oprah of course is the place where everybody wants to be -- and said, "Oprah's doing this great show on luxury houses." And I said, "No! That's the opposite of what I'm talking about." It completely missed her. She didn't get it. So, in spite of that. In spite of the promoting going on behind the scenes that was actually the opposite of the message that I was sending, it just took off. It took off most, honestly, in the public broadcasting and National Public Radio world and the Christian Science Monitor. There's a certain kind of culture of attitude at least that people who tune into those various kinds of media share. And it spreads quickly when people see it and understand it and say, "Yeah. That's what I agree with."

CHRIS: Now, is there any story to the book? Did it take a while to write? Did you have any prototypes that you were showing people? How did you write the first book?

SARAH: I have kind of a subplot to you’re The Power of Pain story. I wrote the book initially and had it as far as I thought complete. It was really written for an audience that already understood what architects did and what architects were. It was really written for a more elite audience, in a certain way. "Elite" meaning already got the picture. Not technical so much as not nearly as mass market as the first book proved to be. And right at that time Taunton press had a new publisher come on board who read the manuscript and called and said, "I think this is a great book but I think you've written it for just a minute portion of who would be attracted to it. If you did it at a level that more people could grok. Nothing can describe how desolate I felt when he said that. I'm not the type that gets depressed, but that was as close as I've ever gotten. And I resisted it. I felt like he was going to eviscerate the message and I was just really upset. And then a friend of mine said, "Why don’t you just do what they ask without all of this resistance and frustration and just see what happens? What's to lose?" Initially I felt, "Aaargh, I don’t want to do that." And then I succumbed and said, "Okay." Of course, the book in its rewritten form became so much more read than my first version ever would have been. It was a real lesson in discovering that the message will out at whatever message you write it at. But if you make it more accessible to a larger population it has still its original message but it's written so that more people can get the message. So to The Power of Pain, that was my pain. So I learned a lot from that. They kept saying, "You need to really write this for an 8th grade audience." I was resisting that with every cell in my body. I am someone who likes to write like Henry James. And so I just sort of swallowed hard and did it and it proved to be a really smart move.

CHRIS: Do you have any idea how many copies you have sold?

SARAH: Both together have sold more than a half million at this point. I don’t know how many more than that. That was the last number I heard.

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