• Sarah Susanka
    Sarah Susanka
Dream homes designed by noted architect Sarah Susanka used to include grand foyers and formal dining rooms—spaces often vacant but for the dusting of the cleaning lady and the rush of air conditioning. But as the author of the Not So Big House book series, Susanka now advocates for “rightsizing” the American home.

“Oftentimes, when people hear the words ‘not so big,’ they assume I mean we should all be squeezed into little shoeboxes,” said Susanka during a webinar she recently conducted for the Journal of Light Construction, a sister publication of EcoHome. “Far from it.”

In her equation, homes built one-third smaller than the homeowner’s original design scheme routes square footage dollars into more purposeful space. For example, combining the dining room with the  kitchen omits an entire room, while installing proper lighting can  transform the space into an elegant dining area for entertaining.

Susanka shared several other simple tricks for building and remodeling a right-sized house:

Make it feel spacious. Walls make homes feel smaller but removing them  is not the only answer for creating a spacious feel. To avoid a large, amorphous area, differentiate ceiling and floor levels, and add a column, a beam, or an arch.

Ceilings are like commas in a sentence, she said. “The commas break up the phrases into segments so you can understand the meaning; a lot of times architects will use ceiling height in the same way.”

A lower ceiling over a bed adds charm and character and a heightened one in the center of a living room makes the space feel larger.  But don’t make it too high: “A 40-foot-high ceiling is wonderful for a state capital but it’s not exactly what you want in the evenings in which to watch television,” she notes.

Light it right. Adding a window at the end of a dark hallway or a lighted painting in a basement stairway transforms the experience for as little as it takes to install a recessed can.

Build to scale. A smaller room, designed to the scale of its occupants, is more comfortable and saves square footage, money, and wasted space.

Make it personal. Small touches such as beautiful tiles in a kitchen backsplash turn a generic space built for resale value into one that feels like home. And people stay in “homes” far longer than “houses,” the architect says. “If you don’t allow yourself to make your home personal, you’re actually going to want to move,” which isn’t as green of an option as staying put, says Susanka.

Remodel it small. Instead of adding a standard 20-foot-by-30-foot addition out back, “you may well be able to solve the problems of your existing house by staying within the footprint,” says Susanka. Look for places to redistribute space, remove a wall, or alter traffic flow.

If eliminating obstacles in the original design does not solve the problem, build a small bump-out to accommodate a necessary space, such as a shelf for shoes instead of entire mud room. And if there’s no way around it, build the smallest addition possible and make every square foot count.

Make it green. Green retrofits impact the environment more than most people assume, according to a study by the DOE’s Energy Information Administration. “A very little known fact is over 20% of all carbon emissions from all sources in this country come from existing housing stock,” Susanka quoted.

Evelyn Royer is assistant editor of Building Products magazine.