Ever since the beginning of what it now “officially” referred to as the Great Recession, many people have also begun to question the truthfulness behind the concept of the American Dream. While it has been a joke amongst dissident circles that you “get one house and pay for three,” what almost no one addresses is, what exactly are you getting for in such a house? Have such cookie-cutter McMansions really been designed for contemporary human living, or are they simply an artificial excuse for corporations to manufacture carbon copy buildings that American workers would be willing to get a 30-year mortgage for?
The author begins her book by giving an anecdote about Paul and Laura, a married couple who had invested $500,000 in building a house they ended up hating. Turns out that not only did they despise the layout, but also the prolific square footage that made their newly built “home” feel decidedly, well, unwelcome. From then on, Susanka chose to incorporate an architectural philosophy reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts movement towards designing real homes that value quality over quantity for clients just like Paul and Laura.
Susanka argues throughout this book that commercial architecture should reflect the way people live their lives today. The necessity for parlor rooms and formal dining rooms is long past, and the fact that the mainstream construction industry regularly insists on making these types of rooms as staples of their many layouts is at odds with how their clients actually live. For instance, virtually no one eats in the dining room, because everybody eats in the kitchen. Parlor rooms are redundant because there is already a living room, which many times also doubles as a playroom for younger families. More efficient use and better aesthetic tastes could be built into the house if a higher quality design were to be implemented.
All sorts of design techniques can be utilized to create a real home. Built in alcoves, dissimilar ceiling heights, and sweeping diagonal views can all be used to generate a house with true character. Some of my favorite designs included creative lighting schemes, built-in bookshelves on stairwells, and a stone hearth with a raised platform in front of it. Particularly of interest to me was a meditation space Susanka made in her own attic where a square window gives her a wonderful view of the forest outside her home.
Despite many of the aesthetic and utilitarian concepts and techniques presented in this book, there are several critiques I’d like to offer. First, there is the issue of affordability; Susanka herself admits that:
“Building a house, more than any other undertaking, pits our dreams against our realities. When we think about dollars we tend to be very practical. Dreams, by their very nature, are often impractical. The reconciliation of the two is never an easy thing – and yet, in building a house, it’s essential that the two come together. People’s dreams are frequently two to three times more expensive than the realities of their pocketbook. The challenge is to find a way to bring dreams and realities in line with one another, without making people feel as though they’ve given up on their dreams.”
Right there, her statement seems to contrast strongly with the very glossy photos located on nearly every page of this book. How does one resolve this conflict? It seems to me that what Susanka was trying to get across is that she thinks the trade-off is quantity for quality; in other words, you’d still be paying just about the same as you would be for a McMansion, but at least you’d be slaving away 30 years of your life for what would in the end be a higher quality product, albeit with noticeably less square footage. Another issue deals with its adaptability, that is, how well does it adjust to a growing family, or an elderly adult who is slowing declining in health? Only one house I noticed in the entire lineup ever had an addition, and Susanka described it as “very expensive.” As she put it:
“Architect Joseph Metzler created the high-style Prairie kitchen addition…for an Arts and Crafts aficionado. It is an example of a small addition that was very expensive to complete. While the original house features simpler Arts and Crafts detailing, the addition is highly decorated with trim, stained glass, and built-in cabinetry. Every material used is custom-crafted and top of the line, from the green-slave countertops to the custom light fixtures. Even the copper sinks were specially made. The walls are hand-glazed; stereo speakers are hidden in the corner behind a grill. The cost for this kind of detail begins with an architect’s fees – this kind of precision required more preplanning than a less detailed home, a computer model, and a very specific set of plans for construction. Everyone who works on such a project has to be top-notch, and you’ll pay for their skills. In this addition, instead of using expensive furnishings and wallpaper, the architecture itself has been created to become the area’s decoration. The cost, which came in close to $500 per square foot in 1997 dollars, almost doubled the appraised value of the house. In the right location, if you have the money available, such an expenditure on architecture can be a rewarding investment. ”
Yeah, maybe, but only if you have the sufficient number of Federal Reserve Notes to make that investment. So, unless you build the house to accommodate several children, or the most used parts of the house are found on the first floor, then there isn’t much adaptability should your personal circumstances drastically change, which brings me to my final critique. The issue of resale is assumed to be non-existent, which was good for an older couple, Fred and Marvel, who planned to die there, but not so good for an unidentified client who had a sudden alteration to his life. Susanka explains that:
“Several years ago, I designed a house for a single man who wanted only one bedroom because he never had visitors. He had enough disposable income so that resale value wasn’t a concern. He went ahead and planned for a single bedroom, complete with a whirlpool tub actually in the room. He saw no need for doors and, thus, the master bedroom (and its tub) was open to the living area below. A year after the house was finished, he fell in love. Unfortunately, his new partner did not have the same affection for his new house. The house went on the market, and stayed there for quite some time until an appropriate buyer came along, who was willing to remove the tub and add some doors, walls, and a guest bedroom.”
In her defense, Susanka then explains to her readers that a house should be designed for at least two individuals, and ideally the aesthetics should be flexible enough to allow both personalities to be expressed (of course, in the aforementioned case, the woman wasn’t around yet, so the possibility of her being comfortable with the affluent man’s love of Japanese aesthetics would have been literally miraculous). What this suggests to me is that, unless you are ready to settle down and have a family, or peacefully live out your golden years, it’s best to not bother with a custom made smaller house, simply because of the issues with affordability, adaptability, and especially resale.
There are various grey box segments scattered throughout this book that were unusually helpful. Everything from measuring proportions of a room to making contrasting wish and “reality” lists were easy ways to get an idea for what it would actually take to construct a smaller yet more enjoyable home. It challenged my ideas about what was possible and greatly increased my appreciation of what the responsibility of home ownership would actually entail.
I couldn’t help but contrast the exquisitely designed homes gracing this book with what Brian Kelling and Robert Williams did with their respective homes. The former plopped down a travel-trailer onto a plot of relatively cheap land he bought, homesteading it right away so as to not give himself an excuse to not move quickly out of suburbia; the latter built his own two-story log home with a chain saw. Both of them did not take out mortgages, and owned their respective homes free and clear. Although I am aware of some dissidents recommending buying small houses as a way of sidestepping the McMansion-mortgage trap, I somehow doubt Susanka’s professional style was meant to be included, even though it was this very book that is commonly recognized as kicking off the entire so-called small house movement (I sincerely doubt Susanka would’ve recommended designing a really small house on a trailer platform).
Sarah Susanka’s The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live is an intriguing examination into another vision for what could constitute a reinvention of the so-called American Dream. Personally, I am more inclined to agree with Niall Ferguson that the expression “as safe as houses” is complete bollocks, and that something resembling the truth in this regard would instead be a self-generating stablized source of income, if not also of multiple and diversified kinds. If I were to stay in one place for awhile, presumably as a countryside refuge or homesteading retreat, then I think it would be best to do so as affordable, as adaptable, and yes, as re-sellable as possible, because if circumstances later changed so badly enough that it would be too dangerous to remain even in rural America, then I’d like to at least retain the option of expatriating with as much of my wealth in as timely a manner as possible, instead of losing it all to a totalitarian government run amuck, like those who burn down people’s homes and scorch their fields, just as American troops have done against Vietnamese, Afghan, and Iraqi citizens in recent history.