Monthly Archives: April 2009

Sarah Susanka’s NOT SO BIG Home Plans

Now More Than Ever: NOT SO BIG


Ten years ago architect Sarah Susanka began showing how to “build better, not bigger” — as an antidote to McMansion mania — and launched her hugely successful (and ongoing) series of books about the Not So Big house. Well, now that the “not so big economy” (perhaps we should trademark that phrase) has arrived, we need her ideas more than ever. Here’s the house she designed for herself, incorporating many of her principles, Plan 454-3.

 no input profile appliedSo I am enormously pleased to announce that is now the exclusive host for her Not So Big architectural plans. With her wonderful  best-selling books, including The Not So Big House (Taunton, 1999), Home By Design (Taunton, 2004), The Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really  Matters (Random House, 2007), and Not So Big Remodeling (Taunton, 2009),

Sarah has become the J. K. Rowling of home design. Harry Potter, meet your architect!


Sarah brings a brand of practical magic to the way she explains how to make the most out of limitations in resources, space, and time to create plans that are practical, innovative, and personal. Here’s a sampling of her designs. (All photographs courtesy Sarah Susanka.)

Showhouse 2004 (454-5) embodies warmth and generosity.


The wide encompassing roof is a graceful multi-tasker; it shelters terraces and a courtyard while projecting personality in the upward sweep of the eave over the sun room at the center.

A Good Neighbor (454-1) is designed to blend into older neighborhoods, as this images shows.


Inside there is a sort of choreography of craft, with welcoming details like the breakfast banquette near the kitchen,


and the elegant stained glass pattern for the window in the foyer, shown below.


It is a Not So Small delight to delight for us to know and work with Sarah. Click on Sarah’s profile page here.

Outdoor Living

In-Between Spaces and Overhangs

According to San Antonio architects David Lake and Ted Flato (Lake/Flato): “Spaces between buildings are as important as the buildings themselves.” I couldn’t agree more. Compelling outdoor rooms — like the one Lake/Flato conjured out of exterior wall, overhang, pipe, and wire (below) — are signature features of their work.


(Photo courtesy the Lake/Flato website.) And I’d  go a little farther and say that the space adjacent to the house is as important as the house itself. This “space between” is the architectural lever that allows you to connect house and lot in a memorable way.

There is something utterly compelling about a well proportioned outdoor living room — whether it’s a generous patio or a simple terrace or balcony — especially in warm weather. It’s where we want to be for breakfast, a noonday meal, or to watch the setting sun over a frosty margarita. As a famous early 20th century maxim from the Hillside Club of Berkeley, California put it: “Hillside architecture is landscape gardening around a few rooms for use in case of rain.” This very quotation inspired the design of a house by San Francisco architects Mary Griffin and William Turnbull, which is organized around a grass courtyard and the breezeway dining room shown below:


(Photo courtesy TGH Architects.)

An example by San Francisco landscape architect Andrea Cochran illustrates how an outdoor room can be both a journey and  a destination: paving and low walls define walkways leading to and becoming sitting areas.


(Photo from Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture.) It’s at the rear of a row house and in its linear geometry recalls the influential zig-zaggy Jerd Sullivan garden from the 1930s by San Francisco landscape architect Thomas Church, below:


(Photo from Gardens Are For People, New York, Reinhold, 1955)

As you browse plans, think about ways to connect house and site. Extending the roof is one way to accomplish this. Architect Harwell Hamilton Harris used an inverted gable to provide shade for balconies and frame vistas in his iconic modern Weston Havens house in the Berkeley hills of 1941:


The justly famous black and white photograph by surrealist Man Ray (above) vividly captures the dynamism of the design, how the roofs soar over the balconies like a bi-plane’s wings and seem to lift the house aloft. (Photo courtesy CED Archives.) It connects not just to the downsloping site but to the entire Bay Area!

Here are some other overhang strategies to prompt your own thinking about how to shape outdoor space.


In this design by Balance Associates of Seattle, the shed roof extends well beyond the house proper.


And, with the  V-shaped support, artfully brackets the meadow view. (Both photos courtesy BalanceAssociates.)

A well-proportioned flat roof is equally eloquent as a frame, as in the so-called “glorietta” or roofdeck at the Edgar Kaufmann residence in Palm Springs of 1947, designed by Richard Neutra and meticulously restored by more recent owners (photo by Joe Fletcher for Ranch Houses: Living The California Dream.)


Sheltering balconies and porches with an open gable is another way to go, as Austin, Texas architect Heather McKinney (now McKinney/York Architects) shows in this handsome example.


In short, there are many ways to design for living outside the box.

Traditional and Contemporary

Comfort and Le Corbusier

I was in Savannah last week, serving on the Chrysalis Remodel Awards Jury, where we reviewed 500 entries from across the country — whole-house remodels, kitchen and bath redos etc., etc. It struck me that the overall level of design in both traditional and contemporary modes seems to be improving, a trend confirmed by Chrysalis founder Ken Kanline, who said that people are looking at the home more as a lifetime commitment and less as another stock to trade. (The awards were announced in June.)


Several new communities north of Savannah, in historic Beaufort, on the South Carolina coast, (pronounced Buford), where The Prince of Tides was filmed, also seem to bear this out. Cooter Ramsey, of Allison Ramsey Architects, gave me a quick tour. We drove by one of his most popular designs — “Bermuda Bluff Cottage” (shown above), which draws inspiration from the region’s rich architectural history. Eight-foot deep porches — with ceilings always painted sky blue — elegant classical proportions for doors and windows, and simple roof outlines combine with modern layouts to produce memorable designs that seamlessly connect past and present. This is fine design rooted in context and a sense of place.


One of the most successful recent New Urbanist developments near Beaufort is Habersham, master-planned by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who began the return to pedestrian-oriented communities thirty years ago with their innovative plan for Seaside, Florida. I drove through Habersham and was impressed: the community is not gated; porch-wrapped houses in a range of sizes and classical styles face meadowland, forest, and shoreline views. Garages are on alleys at the side or rear. A small town center contains storefronts and row house-like condominiums.


Habersham recently received a “Best Neighborhood Design in America” award from the National Association of Home Builders. It’s worth a visit to see traditional design that is very well done. Some of’s New Urbanist plans would be right at home here, such as Plan 453-16 below:


or Plan 443-6, below:


At the same time I have been reading Nicholas Fox Weber’s excellent and exhaustive new book Le Corbusier: A Life (Knopf, 2008), about the Swiss-born architect who reinvented the house as a “machine for living.”


What a brilliant and impossibly self-involved individual he was! Constantly writing  his mother in Switzerland to tell her how to live, while she did the same to him. He designed a house for his parents that nearly bankrupted them and which they had to sell upon completion. He infuriated his friend Eileen Gray by blithely painting murals (he was a great abstract painter) on the walls of her villa in the south of France without permission. Sounds like Frank Lloyd Wright, who re-arranged his clients furniture if left alone in their houses for too long. If the 800 plus-page tome is too much, read Martin Filler’s marvelous and witty assessment of it and the man in the New York Review of Books. Here’s a perfect Filler riff: “Although Le Corbusier was determined to be well-known, he was also determined not to be known well.”


Corbu was extraordinary in his ability to re-conceive the house and city, for better or worse. His Villa Savoye of 1929, shown above in a recent and very clever Lego model (Legorbusier??!) from SocialisBetter on Flickr’s Creative Commons, celebrates movement and light — with ramps instead of  stairs (hard to do in Legos), presaging Wright’s Guggenheim Museum by thirty years — and puts the backyard in a courtyard on the roof. A brilliant, brilliant design that still inspires architects and designers today. It doesn’t seem to matter that rain poured down the inside walls, though it is riveting to read the increasingly desperate letters from Mrs. Savoye (on view at the house when I visited some years ago) demanding that Le Corbusier come out and fix the roof before finally suing him for shoddy work.

Corbusian design and Habersham would seem to be opposite poles: one about cool geometric abstraction and the other about comfort and a sense of history. But  maybe not: Corbu’s later designs, like his Maisons Jaoul near Paris used barrel vaults, masonry, and concrete in a reinterpretation of vernacular French building traditions. He reinvented his approach many times over, like Picasso. And when it mattered to him, he analyzed and rethought every detail, as in the wonderful, tiny, spare but warm cabin, or “Cabanon” he built for himself and his wife in the south of France. A life-size model of it was recently on view at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London. Here’s an image of it from Icon Magazine:


Love that box seat! Perhaps he had a sense of humor after all…To me the interior deftly expresses the stripping away of care and clutter for summertime escape. In any case we need both the Corbusian and more traditional design approaches — embodying change and continuity — to enrich the world around us.


A Taste for the Contemporary

Vampires aren’t my usual subject, but when they become interested in modern design, it’s time to look over their shoulders. The hugely successful film Twilight, is a case in point. When my daughter took me to see it I forgot about the plot as soon as the vampires’ home appeared on screen: it’s a dazzling modern sculpture in concrete, wood, and glass by the architecture firm Skylab. Here it is in an alluring photograph by Stephen Cridland from Skylab.


Clearly these vampires — their name is Cullen — have evolved. They must subscribe to Wallpaper, Metropolis, or Dwell. And they turn out to be a very nice family, too. Ironically this vividly foreshortened view gives the house  a more “supernatural” look than it has in the film; nevertheless, all the glass and jutting cantilevers make it an unusually open and bright — not to say scene-stealing — design for folks who enjoy the dark and are somewhat reclusive.

The house is now owned by an executive with Nike. I just wanted the movie to show a little more of it. So here are two other views by from Skylab.

Hoke house kitchen

The kitchen shows how the island and sink counter draw your eye toward the view and the porch beyond, giving the space compelling indoor-outdoor character. Dense foliage outside the window becomes a natural curtain.

Hoke house porch

A screen made of finely scaled horizontal wood slats turns part of the porch into an elegant and private outdoor dining area. Walls and floor of wood continue the horizontal theme  and add a warm counterpoint to the cool abstraction of the design.

Clearly you don’t need to be a celebrity vampire to yearn for a sleek contemporary house. Our Contemporary House Plans Collection contains many plans to satisfy your thirst for modernity. in the News

It has been a busy press week for, with Design Editor Pilar Viladas vividly explaining the Flexahouse in the New York Times Magazine The Moment Blog on March 24. In addition, several hot and extremely popular design blogs have reported on recently.  Remodelista’s Julie Carlson covered Nick Noyes and the Flexahouse in detail;  Materialicious explored both the Flexahouse and the Turnbull plans. Onward and upward.