Since the late 1990s, architect Sarah Susanka, FAIA, has been championing a “build better, not bigger” approach to residential design under the “Not So Big” mantra. But can this philosophy grow beyond the single-family home? Will a focus on quality over quantity drive the size and shape of our homes, offices, and neighborhoods in the future? We sat down with Susanka before her keynote at the annual conference for the Congress of New Urbanism to discuss the potential synergies between Not So Big philosophies and the future of our cities.
You’re here to speak to an audience of urban planners who focus on neighborhoods and larger-scale developments. Can you scale the Not So Big concept up to a neighborhood or community level without losing the essence of it?
Susanka: I think there is a size at which point Not So Big would be irrelevant, but I often describe [Not So Big] as a sensibility. I often say that paradoxically, it’s not really about size, although it has manifestations in terms of making something not so big. It’s about looking at what satisfies without being ostentatious, without trying to prove anything to anybody. What makes you and your heart feel at home? That has absolutely as much to do with the community as it has to do with the house.
You can have that quality of place in a city very easily. It can be with six-story buildings around you or it can be in a little village with no building more than one story high. It’s the qualities of place and how and why they work, and it has everything to do with our opportunities to relate with one another.
So at its core, it is about a sense of home and how that translates to different spaces and scales. I was thinking about this earlier. How, for example, do you translate this sense of home to an office or a retail environment? You often hear of that goal in hospitals.
I’ve been watching how this is manifesting in hospitals. I hate to say this, but they make it worse by creating a fake-home feeling. I went into a birth center in a hospital and it was so phony, it felt like going to a cheap hotel. It was worse than a typical hospital environment. You’ve got to do it well. That buzzword of authenticity is so crucial.
Going back to the idea of scale, what about taking it in reverse and going even smaller with micro-dwellings? That seems to be the opposite end of scale to a city or master plan. Does it drill down the same way as it scales up?
I’ve always felt that in New York City, for example, the whole city is your house. So then a micro-dwelling has makes all the sense in the world because it’s your closet, in a way. It’s where you sleep, but you can buy anything you want to eat at any time of day. You might watch TV, but you can go out in the city and do whatever you like. The micro-dwelling in a city makes a lot of sense.
During the Great Recession, people were forced to scale back. Do you think this will influence things going forward?
Sept. 11th was the first massive crisis that shook people’s confidence, and then the various storms, hurricanes, and tsunamis came. We have a 24/7 newsfeed with the Internet and television and most of it is negative. You can see how this erodes people’s confidence in their ability to perform and survive. Is there going to be enough ? Are they safe?
What I think has happened with the recession is that all of those fears that were nibbling away at us over the prior years came home to us. I would not at all be surprised if the Great Recession doesn’t have a similar effect (but perhaps not as great) to what happened with the Great Depression. People are shell-shocked. They don’t know that it’s okay. Even though everything looks better, a large portion of the population has curtailed what they’re willing to spend … because they know they don’t need as much and what really matters isn’t on a list of purchases. I think that has shifted and it will take a couple of decades to come back.
It’s fascinating to watch. When anything big happens in a person’s life, you go through a period of denial, and then the anger, and that sort of thing. I think that there’s a denial factor [now] that things will just go back to normal. I don’t think so; I think it’s a new order of things. I don’t think we can know exactly what it will look like, but we’re going to grow into it …. At times like this, I think the simplicity [of something like the Not So Big philosophy] is a great solace to people because it’s almost as though the capacity to cope with complexity has eroded in a certain way.
If you can get more—more satisfaction or happiness, more fulfillment—from less, why can’t we get more people to buy into energy efficiency? It seems there is still a negative connotation that you have to sacrifice for efficiency. Is it as simple as turning that on its head and positioning efficiency as a positive rather than a negative?
Anything that looks like it’s a penalty system is not going to work.
You’ve recently been involved in the School Street development in Libertyville, Ill. These residences are different in that they were designed off of the question “How do you live?” not “What are you looking for?” How is the project doing? Is it succeeding?
The last two buildings will be built in the next few months. It’s amazing and it works. I had dinner with John McLinden [the project’s developer] last night and he was telling me about how a few months ago a woman came with her husband to visit. She was thinking of purchasing one of the lots. As she was walking around, people came out of their houses and off of their front porches and were telling her about the neighborhood. She asked, “Did you set this up?” And John said, “No, this always happens.” It’s that kind of place. The scale is just right.
Do you think it is something that can be replicated?
I do. I think a lot of why School Street works is because of its proximity to downtown…. The downtown is enhanced by the place and the place is enhanced by the downtown. It’s interwoven into the fabric of the town and I think there are a lot more potential projects like that.
John was telling me about the economic model he’s working with, and people need to know about it. Many of these cities have deals that have gone bad. The land is sometimes referred to as a red field and the city is more or less desperate to get someone to help them make it work. To find good designers and developers to make [those spaces] into a vibrant part of town turns a bad situation into a real asset, and the whole community starts to vibrate because it brings in new life if it’s done well. I think there’s a model for these infill projects that is very much needed in communities around the country, and it’s an incredible opportunity.