Big Ideas for Small Spaces

Architect and best-selling author of The Not So Big House series Sarah Susanka shares tips on how to better utilize space within the home.

By Jaci Conry

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Architect and author Sarah Susanka is an expert on small space design.

We’ve all fantasized about having more space in our homes. We think about a bigger, better-equipped kitchen, ample area to entertain, another bedroom to accommodate guests, closets galore. But are all those elements really necessary?

Perhaps not, says architect Sarah Susanka, author of the influential “Not So Big House” series of books that emphasizes less can be more when it comes to architecture. She created something of a revolution with the release of her first book The Not So Big House in 1998—a time in which the majority of Americans believed big was definitely better when it came to residential architecture.

The Not So Big House and the eight other books Susanka penned following its success— including Not So Big Remodeling—encourages homeowners to build better not bigger, to focus on quality not quantity, and to make sure every space in the home is in use every day.

Susanka says homeowners tend to jump into putting additions on to their homes too quickly. “People start at the wrong end of the spectrum. They set about putting on a 20 x 30 addition, which is really way more space than you need.”

The key, says Susanka, is to tailor your home for how you really live: “I tell people the house that works best for them will be about one-third less than what you thought you needed but lives larger than the one you imagined because your are using every square foot every day.” After considering this approach, homeowners typically discover that adding a ton of square footage isn’t necessary.

Look at how often you use the spaces in your house

Before moving toward an addition, Susanka encourages homeowners to walk through their entire home, room by room. “They usually come to the revelation that ‘I do have space, but I don’t like how it’s used,’” she says. “Most people can only see the rooms that they have as full because they have stuff in them. Often, people have a room—a formal living room, for example—filled with furniture but they never use it.” Maybe the furniture isn’t comfortable and swapping out a few pieces with more comfortable items will make the room more appealing.

Consider repurposing rooms entirely, suggests Susanka. While lots of us feel that we have to have a separate dining room, that’s not really the case. “Dining rooms typically become a repository for things we don’t know what to do with. Most houses have dining room tables covered with stuff,” says Susanka, who points out that homes need a place for dining: a space where you enjoy dining on a regular basis that will also accommodate guests and holiday meals. In many instances this area can be created in the kitchen, by reconfiguring space or adding on a small bump out. The result is a dining room that can be repurposed for another use entirely. In Susanka’s own home, the dining room was converted into part of her husband’s office.

kitchen and dining room makeover

The wall between the kitchen and the dining room was replaced with a half wall and columns, resulting in a more spacious-looking, light-filled home. (Photo by Harriet Christina Chu)

Work within the existing footprint

There are tons of small alterations that you can do to your home without having to change the footprint at all. Removing or opening up a wall, adding some storage, or rearranging how you move through a room can solve all sorts of spatial problems without resorting to added square footage. “Most older homes feel so small because rooms are closed off from one another,” says Susanka. “If you can open up a connecting view between rooms so you can see more than one space from any one spot, the house will feel significantly larger—that’s why there is so much focus on open floor plans because you can see more area. When a space is divided into discreet but visible areas, our senses tell us there’s more there.”

Create a Small Bump Out

If you still feel your home needs more space, Susanka says you’ll notice a big difference by creating a small bump out, which is an extension of a room or building that creates a projection in a wall. Bump outs tend to extend a house from two to eight feet, and typically don’t require additional heating or cooling or work to the foundation, which cuts costs considerably. “Enlarging a space by just a couple of feet can make a big difference to the utility and aesthetics of a room,” says Susanka. “Kitchens are often tiny in older houses, and they tend to benefit a lot from bump outs. A bump out can make space for more cabinetry or an eating area.”

 Add on just a little

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Before photo: By raising the roof, lengthening the rear dormer and adding on three new dormers, the homeowners gained more space, yielding a more elegant exterior in the process.

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After photo courtesy of Sharyl Stropkay.

Adding on a small amount of square footage is overlooked as an option by homeowners who are planning to modify their houses to fit them better. “The usual approach is to start with a big addition,” says Susanka. “However, if you add on in a not so big way, even a small addition can a be cost-effective strategy when compared with the alternatives: a substantial renovation, moving or building new. “

When adding on to a house, it’s important to do it in a graceful way that is similar to the scale of the rest of the house. “A house has certain proportions and if you add too much square footage it won’t look like the same house any more,” says Susanka. The new elements must emulate the character of the neighborhood and the style of the house. “It’s not hard to do, it just requires attention to detail.”

Not-So-Big-Remodeling-CoverFor more information on Sarah Susanka and The Not So Big House book series, visit www.notsobighouse.com.

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