Friday, January 22, 2016

The Not So Big House

Recently I've been exploring the idea of building my next house. Ever since I completed a high school vocational training class that built a house, I've thought it was something that I wanted to do some day. And now, with a growing family, sometimes it feels like that "some day" may have arrived.

As a part of my study I've picked up "The Not So Big House" by Sarah Susanka. This is not a really new book (it was originally published in 1998) but in that time it's ideas have gained a great deal of traction. It was early to the sustainable building movement that is now alive and well, particularly in the pacific northwest.

I've come across many ideas in this book that I need to process, hopefully to help me be able to translate them into something I might be able to use. So, as I've said before, this blog is for me, but if you'd like to listen in on my inner monologue, have at. You've been warned.

Quality > Quantity
First off is the concept of quality over quantity. This resonates strongly with me. I value, well, value above all else. I can not bear to spend anything over what is necessary. For me the greatest satisfaction is in finding that sweet balance between cost and utility. This can apply to anything. It can be monetary cost, time spent, effort spent, etc. And utility can come in many forms as well. Is the solution useful, attractive, and functional? I often look to see if just a little extra effort or cost will produce a demonstrably superior result. When that little effort is worthwhile, I can not bear to not make the extra effort or expense. Often, when I'm shopping for something I'll do a good deal of research and determine the minimum quality I'm willing to accept and then wait for a price I can live with. I'd rather do without than live with less-than-ideal. Of course, this is the ideal. Sometimes I am pressed into a corner. It's life. It happens to all of us.

As applied to a house, this makes sense. This is the same idea that you find in those little setups at Ikea. Those help you to see that you might actually be able to live in 500 square feet if it was laid out cleverly.

Not with children, though. You can't live with children in 500 square feet. Can't be done.

Use Space Sparingly
All space in a home should be considered carefully. I've already looked at hundreds of stock floorplans and it is very apparent that they are not all created equal. I've seen a particular plan that is over 2400 square feet, and yet has only three bedrooms. Each room has it's own bathroom and expansive closet. The master closet is slightly small than my current master bedroom. At first I liked this plan, but after I looked at it for a while (and before this reading) I decided I would not be satisfied with it. There is an almost identical four bedroom plan, and even with four bedrooms, it was....gluttonous.

That sent me back looking carefully at my own home. I like what I have. Part of that is because I don't feel like there's a lot of extra stuff. Again, this comes down to that balance between cost and utility. I see space as a cost, since you have to spend to get it, and utility is how well that space fits your life. I like my house, but there are a few shortcomings. I won't go into them here, but I feel like they could be addressed by only adding a few hundred square feet to what I already have.

Formal Rooms
Formal rooms are a holdover from a past that no longer exists. Most people today will tell you they hardly ever use their formal dining room or living room. Sure Thanksgiving is there (if you're not at grandpa's house), and sometimes friends come over. But how many friends of yours sit in the formal living room? This idea was kind of a big deal in 1998, but now many homes are built with large great rooms that include the kitchen space. For me this is ideal. When you're family comes over you all end up in the kitchen anyway. This also reflects how most people live today. The family spends time together in the family room (or great room) and having the kitchen as a part of or appendage to that space is only natural.

Visual Connection
If you can see another area in the home, you feel connected to it, while at the same time long interior views make the home feel larger. One manifestation of this is the concept of the away room. This is an area that is acoustically isolated from the great room, while still being close enough to feel nearby and connected. Often it is separated from the great room by french doors with glass. This allows it to be visually connected, and still enjoy some separation.

Up until I read this, I was using the word "library" to express what I thought I needed. I wanted space for study, reading, & music that could be nearby but separated from the confusion of the great room. One of the things my current house lacks is space for books. Recently there has been some writings about how the necessity of a home library is greater than ever, and deliberately creating a space of good old-fashioned paper learning is critical, even given easy access to electronic information. I fully subscribe to this. I love Google Maps, but I miss pulling out that gigantic world atlas and leaning over it on the table.

The idea of connecting this space visually to the rest of the house was new to me, but it fits perfectly.

Ceiling Heights
Ceiling heights can dramatically impact the way a space feels. This turns out to be in relation to the dimensions of the room: larger rooms can tolerate having higher ceilings. I had never thought of this, but again, it fits perfectly. The ceiling should be lower in spaces that should be cozier. Think of places like that away room, the bedroom, or a window seat. If the volume of a space is smaller, it can actually feel more sheltered. Think about how children like to play in little nooks that are scaled to their size. Adults have that same involuntary draw toward safety, but we're better at denying it in favor of what we think we want.

This is manifest in many vacation homes. It's not unusual to see vacation homes with low ceilings in some areas, such as the dining nook, or the bathrooms. People feel cozy in these places and that's they are good retreats. More often though, applying this same kind of informality to a primary residence might make the home feel much more comfortable.

This may have broken me of the desire to build my house with nine or ten foot ceilings throughout. I would likely still put higher ceilings in the entry and great room, but I would probably bring down the ceiling in the bedrooms, the kitchen, and the away room.

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify
From the book: "To be surrounded by an environment that is both beautiful and personally enriching has far more appeal than the futile attempt to "keep up with the Joneses". When we have what the Joneses have, we experience firsthand the inadequacy of the dream. It's so easy for me to want something that someone else wants. It's a normal human impulse, and like most human impulses, it has to be deliberately curtailed.

The Not So Big House accepts the fact that "not so big" is very different depending on who is saying it. They have examples ranging from 800 square feet up to a few thousand. The idea is to put more thought into it rather than just throwing more square footage into the mix.

For me, having an architect-designed house would be be way too expensive to satisfy my cost/utility balance. I am glad I read this, though. It will help me to know better what to look for in existing floorplans as well as know how I can make small tweaks here and there to bring out some features that will make the home more satisfying to live in.

"Do not keep anything in your home
that you do not know be useful or
believe to be beautiful"
--William Morris