Americans’ love affair with the McMansion is over. What’s in now is smaller, highly detailed, long-lasting dwellings, all tenets of architect Sarah Susanka’s vision of “right-sized” homes.

Susanka, who has advocated for smaller, more personalized homes for the past 12 years through her Not So Big House series of books, said she sees more interest in the movement than ever before.

“I feel like what I’ve been writing about for the past 12 years is really perfectly suited to this point in time,” she said during a recent GreenExpo365 webinar. “With people’s budgets being tight I think there is more of an interest in approaching building and remodeling in a Not So Big way.”

Before the economic downturn, consumers craved large houses because of their supposed resale value, Susanka said. “Now we know that’s not the case—bigger does not mean better resale. People are rethinking a house that’s the right size for them, and it’s looked at more as a home than an investment.”

The main elements of Susanka’s design approach--build better, not bigger; build to last; and build to inspire—are catching on with recession-weary Americans looking to build or remodel their homes with resource conservation and financial considerations in mind.

“People are realizing that the feeling of home has almost nothing to do with size,” she said. “It’s about quality, not quantity.”

Susanka detailed some ways for builders and architects to help their clients personalize smaller homes:

--Use varied ceiling heights to make spaces look bigger and to differentiate areas.
--Build for the way the owners live. For example, Susanka, who designs many houses in the Minneapolis area, said she  emphasizes a range of lighting choices for clients who leave the house in the morning and arrive home in the evening during the dark winter months.
--Encourage customers to show their individuality in simple but eye-catching ways, such as unique backsplash tiles or recessed alcoves for special pieces of artwork. “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to who have been talked out of making a personal statement in their home design because it might be bad for resale value,” she said. “But buyers are actually looking for homes that are interesting.”
--Build in proportion to human scale. Enormous ceiling volumes are good for state capitol buildings but not for homes or energy efficiency, she said.
--To ensure longevity, make the house beautiful. Well-crafted homes from the turn of the last century are viewed as treasures. “They will be well looked after for generations to come,” she pointed out.

The architect urged those in the online audience to discuss energy retrofits with their remodeling clients, citing the fact that 21% of all U.S. carbon emissions come from existing housing stock. She often refers customers to an energy auditor to help break down costs and paybacks of upgrading leaky, outdated homes.

Lately, Susanka is following the growth in popularity of community-oriented pocket neighborhoods such as the Third Street Cottages in Washington state.

“The market right now is really ready for it,” she said, only half joking that her next book will most likely be The Not So Big Community.

Jennifer Goodman is Senior Editor Online for EcoHome.