August 8, 2011
Nation's Building News

The Official Online Newspaper of NAHB

Professional Women in Building
A House ‘Built for Me’ — Consumers Beginning to Drive Right-Sizing Trend
Sarah Susanka’s Not So Big Showhouse was built near Orlando for the 2005 NAHB International Builders’ Show. Photos by Eric Camden, courtesy of Susanka Studios


By Anne Viricel

The current economy and housing recession have made it clearer than ever that a bigger house isn’t necessarily better. In fact, bigger can be downright problematic.

As a result, more home buyers are trading in their dreams of mega-mansions for cozier, more livable cottages.

Scaling back to a smaller home can mean a lower mortgage, lower property taxes and utility bills and spending less on decorating. Further, home owners can spend less time on housekeeping, yard work and other household chores — and reduce some of the stress that comes with maintaining a larger home.

But a smaller home can also mean less room for guests, fewer parking spaces and having to discard furniture and items with emotional attachments. The shift may even require giving up family pets.

Then there’s the potential loss of a sense of prestige and success, which many home owners define by the size of their home and property. So, they may require that their new, downsized home have a highly desirable ZIP code.

Just as buyers have specific downsizing considerations, so do the home builders and developers working to win their business. Many builders have benefited significantly by associating with firms that have adapted their services to meet the trend toward smaller homes.

Focusing on Function

Deryl Patterson, owner of the Jacksonville, Fla.-based architecture and planning firm BSB Design, helps builders adapt their plans to meet changing market demands. While Patterson didn’t set out to provide downsizing services, she has been providing them for the past two years.

“We can either re-tool their existing plans or design new plans for them,” Patterson said. “We typically show them how to eliminate redundant rooms —a living room, dining room, study or guest bedrooms — in their floor plans so the remaining rooms can, in some cases, grow.”

Patterson eschews cookie-cutter design, opting instead for a more individualized approach.

“We help clients target their plans to a specific buyer profile instead of trying to create a one-size-fits-all plan that may end up being too big and expensive,” she said.

Further, Patterson stresses that builders need to understand the lifestyles of their home buyers and focus on the rooms where they will spend most time of their time — entertaining in a great living area because they enjoy entertaining company, for instance, or escaping to the privacy of their larger master suite sanctuary.

Patterson’s designs also take into consideration light, ventilation and sound control.

“To effectively downsize,” Patterson said, “you must furnish the floor plan so the buyer can understand how it lives and performs. Women often get this better than men. Women also understand what not to downsize — like kitchens and storage.”

Varied ceiling heights create a sense of shelter over the bed and the window seat — details that make a house more personal.

Thinking ‘Not So Big’

Sarah Susanka, FAIA, owner of Susanka Studios of Raleigh, N.C., and author of “The Not So Big House” book series and “The Not So Big Life,” has built her business around the concept of successful downsizing.

“I actually like to use the word right-sizing rather than downsizing because people often see downsizing as a negative attribute, while a lot of people today are recognizing that they don’t need as much space as they actually have,” Susanka said. “In a not-so-big house, every space is in use every day.”

For 15 years, Susanka was the principal of a residential architecture firm in Minneapolis. Although her designs were always geared toward efficiency, she quickly discovered that most people spend too much of their budget on square footage — leaving very little for the details that could make their house personal.

That led her to begin her series of “Not So Big House” books and a Web-based company that has evolved into a network of architects, designers, builders and remodelers who can help home owners right-size their homes.

“‘Not So Big’ means designing and building based on quality rather than quantity,” and encouraging consumers to think in terms of character and the details that turn a house into home rather than square footage, Susanka said.

“Everyone is searching for home, but they’re searching with the wrong tool. They’re searching with square footage, assuming that more must be better, when, in fact, the feeling of home has almost nothing to do with size,” she said.

According to Susanka, the optimally sized home is “about a third smaller than you thought you needed, eliminating rarely used rooms and making the rooms and spaces we use every day really beautiful, inspiring and functional.”

She recommends layering visual elements in home design, using window treatments, rugs, dynamic paint colors and focal points. She also suggests designing with varying ceiling heights to enhance the feel of airiness and space in smaller homes.

To achieve the overall quality aesthetic, Susanka suggests adding touches like “beautiful stair railing, well-crafted moldings around windows and doors and useful, finely tailored built-ins.”

Susanka’s right-sizing approach to house design is as applicable to remodeling as it is to new construction, and it can be applied to homes of any price and size. Her goal is to help people in all economic brackets make better use of their money by providing a set of tools to evaluate the appropriate size and character for them — and to make the resulting space really livable.

“A not-so-big house is also a sustainably and energy efficiently designed home,” Susanka said. “That is one of the core principles behind ‘Not So Big.’ I often say that building not so big should be the first step in sustainability.”

Industry Obstacles

Consumers, builders and remodelers trying to right-size their homes face a number of challenges. She considers the appraisal process the biggest challenge facing builders implementing right-sized design principles. Appraisers still look for rooms that most home owners rarely use, she said.

“This process was changing prior to the recession, and banks were lending more readily on smaller but better designed homes,” Susanka said. “Today, they have become more conservative and are requiring that those rarely used rooms be included because that is what a house is supposed to include.”

Patterson said her biggest challenge is builders who are resistant to change. “Some builders want to build the same old plans they’ve always built and can’t break from tradition,” she said.

Patterson and Susanka believe consumers will drive the right-sizing trend, but that it will take some time to fully emerge.

Susanka recommends that consumers pursue the kind of house they really want, regardless of the obstacles, and that they pay attention to how effectively the house can improve their lives — rather than build it for future resale.

“It’s only through asking for what we really want that anything will change,” Susanka said. "In the long run, that somewhat smaller but better designed house of your dreams will become the best investment for the future.”

Anne Viricel, Ph.D., teaches business strategy and decision-making courses for several universities. She is the immediate past president of the California Building Industry Association chapter of Professional Women in Building and served two years as president of the Southern California chapter. For more information, email Viricel.

This article was originally published in Building Women magazine.

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