Tag Archives: Sarah Susanka

New Departures for the Airplane Bungalow

Now Arriving: the Libertyville Not So Big® Showhouse

OK. The term “airplane bungalow” could refer to an airborne dwelling, like Dorothy’s tornado-twisting home in the The Wizard of Oz, or to something more

literal (grounded, maybe?), like this crazy/wonderful example from Costa Rica (photo courtesy Youlivewhere.com). But the term is actually historical and refers Continue reading

Sarah Susanka, Hip Roofs, and Prairie Style DNA

Aloha Sarah — and Mahalo Frank

Let’s take a DNA strand out of Henry Louis Gates’ fascinating Finding Your Roots show on PBS, and apply it to residential architecture and our latest design by architect Sarah Susanka, Plan 454-11. It was  originally

conceived for a dramatic view-oriented meadow on the Big Island of Hawaii, as shown here. The plan is a new addition to our Signature Studio and one of the descendants, if you will, of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School houses (remember the recent film of the same name about a Hawaiian family, starring George Clooney — genealogy is everywhere at the moment!). I’m thinking of the

Ward Willits house in Highland Park,Illinois, of 1901, shown above (photo and plan, courtesy delmars.com). See how the hipped roofs and horizontal lines of the Willits house dominate, appearing to float over the deeply recessed eaves. Susanka’s roofs also float; her design resembles a series of interlocking pavilions shaped to capture views in every direction. In the Willits plan, below, the

rooms radiate from the hearth at the center of a pinwheel, further accentuating the horizontality of the design and thereby expressing the lines of the Prairie

itself, hence the style name. Sarah Susanka’s plan, above, does something similar but within the overall constraint of the rectangle. A generous central hearth also anchors her design while the island kitchen, living room, dining room, and bedroom wings reach toward terraces and the landscape beyond. A classic

Susanka touch is to craft a room-within-a room for a sense of intimacy in a larger space, as she does here in the breakfast alcove with its built in seating and

window walls. She uses dropped soffits — like abstract cornices — to support concealed lighting and vary ceiling heights, which is also something Wright did. Susanka’s use of wood to articulate structure also recalls Japanesque design and this resonates with Wright and his lifelong interest in Japanese prints, not to mention his design of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo from the early 1920s. It turns out he traveled to Japan for the first time in 1905, with guess who — Mr. and Mrs. Willits.

But you may ask, how does Prairie style relate to Hawaii? Well actually, there’s a logical connection, and it has to do with the hipped roof. The Hawaiian architect Charles Dickey is credited with developing a regional Hawaiian style of architecture through his use of the broadly sheltering hip roof — as shown

on his own house of 1926 at Waikiki (photo courtesy Wikipedia). Bertram

Goodhue’s more elongated hip roof for the Honolulu Academy of Art of 1927 developed the form on a monumental scale (photo by Burl Burlingame courtesy Honolulu Star Bulletin). Though the Wrightian and Susankan roofs read more as separate geometric units that seem to levitate over their structures than the Hawaiian hips, I think you can see the visual DNA connection. I’d just call them calabash cousins — i.e. extended family — no saliva test required.

Fireplace Focal Points and House Plans

Architectural Warmth

Here are some images of fireplaces to help you take a breather — or just plain zone out — during the holiday shopping rush. The flames, not to mention the surround, can be mesmerizing.  The Pasadena architects Greene and Greene designed one of the most famous fireplaces  for their Gamble house of 1908.

It’s an inglenook in the living room — rather like a very elegant compartment on a train that just happens to have a large fireplace between the bench seats where the window would be (photo courtesy The Gamble House). Frank Lloyd Wright was famous for his fireplaces and an almost ritualistic attitude toward the hearth as the very center and soul of a home.

At Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, of 1937,  he created an organic inglenook from boulders on site (photo courtesy About.com). In the late 1940s, ranch house popularizer Cliff May took the fireplace

outside and added a rotisserie/barbecue. The architectural possibilities are vast and have grown substantially with today’s prefab gas units, like these examples from Ortal Heating Solutions. One can extend across an entire wall

or become a minimalist room divider

that doubles as a display space for artifacts. A frameless glass front can turn the

corner in a minimalist modern way (these three photos courtesy Ortal).

So how do the architects and designers at Houseplans.com treat the fireplace? For Sarah Susanka in Plan 454-6, the fireplace becomes part of a multifunctional wall

with space for storage and display as well as a flat screen television. In Plan 491-7 Braxton

Werner and Paul Field treat it more abstractly as part of a stone wall. Lorenzo Spano echoes Cliff May by going outside with it in Plan 473-3,

only now making it a freestanding piece of sculpture. There are many ways to spark your architectural imagination.

Lessons from Sarah Susanka

Not So Big Ways To Personalize Your Home

Rope rail, window seat, stairway shelf: they sound like an architectural version of Rock, Scissors, Paper, but actually these Sarah Susanka-designed details help personalize a home.

454-3p3-2440 rope banister

The hefty nautical rope, for example (Plan 454-3), works well as a short and tactile banister with an eye-catching ornamental coil at its base. Or consider the window seat:  it’s a simple way to make a room feel less cluttered while accentuating the view.

454-7p5-2979 window seat

It’s a natural place (Plan 454-7) to curl up with a good book. Add to the usefulness by storing reading material or blankets below a lift-up bench seat. Or think about a stairway as a multi-tasker that can include space for sitting and display.

454-7alt3-2979 stair detail

The design (also Plan 454-7) makes transitions gracious and welcoming instead of abrupt.

These ideas are just part of what makes the home designs of award-winning architect and Not So Big House series author Sarah Susanka so appealing. They demonstrate that, as Sarah says, “a house doesn’t have to be bigger to be better.” In other words, details count more than square footage. So as you browse for house plans or simply ponder how to improve your existing home, think about how Sarah shapes her spaces. The layout of the house she designed for herself, Plan 454-3,  is worth analyzing:


See how open and spacious it seems, with kitchen, dining area, and living room all overlapping — and yet each of the three zones feels distinct.


The built-in corner banquette helps in this regard but mostly it’s all about the soffits. These soffits — some solid, some slatted — are lower than the ceiling and span the transitions between each zone, visually constricting the thresholds to wrap — and define —  each room without enclosing it.

Sarah is adapting ideas perfected by Frank Lloyd Wright. Look at his Prairie School style  Little house at Wayzata, Minnesota of 1914, on permanent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in New York (and not to be missed!)

hb_1972.60.1 Met museum Little house by FLW

where the soffit rings the room to create more intimate window seating and a dramatic entry. Or consider his more geometric modern Hanna Honeycomb house at Stanford University of 1937 (which you can tour by appointment)

3681886011_e3c6d8e964 Hanna house national register photo

where the ceiling descends over the edges of the living room and rises above open beams by the fireplace (photo from National Register via Flickr).

We’re excited to be the exclusive hosts of Sarah’s expanding architectural Not So Big House plan collection,

454-8p5-3062 elevation

and I encourage you to explore all eight of her designs (the one above is Plan 454-8), as well as her many books.