The Home By Design Concept

An interview with Sarah Susanka

Famous for the fusion of space, light, and order in her home designs, inspiring architect and author Sarah Susanka recently unleashed her latest creation, the Home by Design Showhouse, at the 2004 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. The demonstration provided a unique opportunity to see how you can seamlessly integrate today's technology into a home.

Like many of Sarah's designs, the Home by Design Showhouse is a "Not So Big House," employing her now-famous design principles that emphasize usable living spaces. And unlike so-called "home of the future" designs you might have seen, the Home by Design Showhouse proves that you can use technology in a way that's affordable, accessible, and user friendly—and you can do it today. Sarah recently took the time to discuss the Home by Design Showhouse, as well as her unique approach to design.

Connected Home (CH): Can you tell us a bit about your background?

Sarah: I started in 1983 at a residential architecture firm in Minneapolis. I was convinced that a large percentage of the middle-class population wanted better home design but couldn't get it. Most people don't even realize that architects are an option. When I started out, a business partner and I taught classes, explaining to people what a home really is. It's not just a house. We have to make new cultural understandings that a home can be a more inspiring place to live. You should spend your money on quality, not quantity.

CH: So how does a house become a home?

Sarah: You can't achieve it with square footage. It has to do with quality. In a nutshell, to build a better house for yourself, plan on building one-third less square footage than you can afford. Then take the money you save and spend it tailoring the space in that house so that it fits into your daily life. Why do we build rooms we use only twice a year?

CH: Can you tell us a bit about your new book?

Sarah: The new book is called Home by Design: Transforming a House into Your Home. It's due in March. In the book, I reveal the architect's toolbox, how we work with space and light and order to imbue a house with a feeling of home. Most people don't know how to get it, but they know when they feel it. A lot of it is incredibly simple stuff. But our society just doesn't have names for it.

CH: How does the Home by Design Showhouse exemplify these ideals?

Sarah: First, we built the precursor to this house in Vermont. It's similar, but it has a different character on the inside. But both houses capture the basic essence of the Home by Design themes. The house has a fairly open floor plan that uses a lot of variations in ceiling heights. I call these areas "views," or "alignments." As you move through the house, it's like a piece of music that's composed, and not just someone \[randomly\] hitting keys on a keyboard. Everything is thought through, and every place in the home has something to look at. It gives you a sense of shelter, and it has activity areas. These are the principles I describe in the book: Interior views, compositions, shelter around activities, ceiling-height variety. It's all built into the house.

So the floor plan looks open, but the sculpting of the third dimension is key. We're not taking everything up as high as it can go. We bring some ceiling heights down, and differentiate not with walls but with sculpted ceilings. Actually, none of it is very tall. Instead, we focus on the shaping of space. Huge areas are no good. Big and tall areas are intimidating. But it's fascinating to see how, without labels, we can't get at the thing we want. If you read a real estate ad, the word "cozy" really means "small." And there's nothing between cozy and "gigantic." My hope is that this book will introduce new language into our culture. I want rooms to have a sense of shelter, for example, when the family is gathered around the dining table.

CH: Can you tell us about the technology aspects of the Home by Design Showhouse?

Sarah: In houses of the past, technology and design didn't mix very well. It's incredibly important that technology doesn't shriek technology, but is instead integrated seamlessly. It should be user-friendly, not frustrating. A lighting-control system is no good if only one person in the family can figure it out. I am an advocate for the technology-challenged. I love to have the gizmos, but I want them to be integrated so that everyone can use them, make them less intimidating, and more invisible doing their job.

CH: Most people probably aren't aware of what they can do cheaply and easily right now.

Sarah: We have to light the way. Integrating technology into a home is not so much an end point as an attitude. We have to help people see that you don't have to spend $50,000 to integrate the best of the best. You can get the most of out the technology that's available now. It all depends on your budget. Most people don't know what's here now and how they can use it. They want to see how they can integrate it to really enhance their lives.

CH: Your designs are pretty inspiring. How do we get people away from "McMansions" and moving more toward better-designed living spaces?

Sarah: The key issue is sensibility, finding what works best for you. Rather than feeling that if you can't buy everything you've lost, go for user friendliness. There's a populist attitude right now that lots of people don't want to involve an architect at all. They look at house plans and approve the one they like best. But they're ignoring that third dimension, the one that makes a house sing. There's so much more that can be added by shaping that space.

CH: What has been the reaction to the Not So Big House ideals so far?

Sarah: Certainly we have a huge following of architects who are delighted I'm out there. And we have our Web site, where we list 200 to 300 architects who wish to be listed as designers of "not so big" homes. And the American Institute of Architects (AIA) is really excited. We know that if architects would design good buildings instead of trying to make a statement, we'd have more clients. But most people don't know about these architects because they don't get a lot of press. The emphasis is on the unique, not on the practical. But we've steadily grown over the last few years, and we've got builders, craftspeople, designers, and others on board now as well, people who can help the "not to big house" ideals become a reality in your own homes.

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