Sarah Susanka, architect and author of the Not So Big series of books that began with The Not So Big House, had two key messages for this audience of planners, urbanists, architects - and me (as none of the above) - at the CNU 21 this morning:

1. How do we make these ideas simple enough for people who aren't trained in this - that is architecture, planning or urban design - to understand and recognise that this is what they want; that this is the way to connect to their values.

2. What do I know (as a practitioner) and how do I bring that out into the mainstream?

Susanka, argues that everyone is searching for a sense of home. Emerging from architecture school, she tapped into that need - and a middle class America desperate for design help and built a thriving practice of 45 architects. For a time, that work was fulfilling; working with people who didn't realise that architects could help them and educating clients that 'more' can't fill that void inside.

"People are looking for home," she saw, "but they're looking with the wrong tool; it's quality not quantity...You don't need all this square footage; you just need a place that feels like home."

At some point, though, this work wasn't enough, and Susanka went on to give expression to another great love; this time, writing. She began to write a series of books for people who are almost universally looking for a different experience in their homes and places; people who see their home as a sanctuary, not the place to knock the socks off their neighbours.

"It's a sensibility," she says. "It's not about size - which is probably about a third smaller than you thought you needed. We have this notion of how we live but we don't really live that way; your home needs to be an expression of who you are."

She's talking to me here, I know it. And I'm reminded of our visit to the home of Walkable City author Jeff Speck earlier in the week, as part of the 2013 Great Places Tour with client RobertsDay and their clients.

Speck treated us not only to lunch, but also a wonderful tour of his unusual home - and the story of its birth and design, and the way they live in it today. It's a home about the same size as mine, filled with compact, well-used spaces - there didn't appear to be one that wouldn't be used every day; as well as some lovely features that were a kind of architectural art, like the three-level steel staircase and triangular windows cantilevered out over the base of the lower storey.

I chatted to some of my fellow tourers afterwards, and what was common among some (is it telling that they were largely from the institutional investors? Or is that unfair, and is it more that they have children and I just have to accommodate Michael, me and the dogs?) is that while they admired it, they couldn't live in it, in a fit. Whereas I would be right at home...

But back to Susanka.

She points out that we all long for both shelter and vista; she describes the fact that just as we all have a 'musical ear' (some more developed than others), so too do we have a sense of space. The difference is that we have no language to describe it - which sounds somewhat similar to my visits to the art gallery; I am, I fear, among those heathens who can really only say 'I liked it' or 'I didn't'.

Our job, she says - meaning the practitioners in the audience - is to try and connect people to their spatial sense. When we show people a floorplan, it's just like looking at the map of a city; neither give you a sense of what the place will be like, and that's because the information you need to understand is in the 3rd dimension. There's some little idea that makes the difference and it's in the 3rd dimension, like in some of the pictures below: the light to walk toward and the arch; both change the entire experience.

The not so big show home

For a long time. Susanka had been trying to get a major builder interested in building a show home that could display - for 6 months at a stretch - some of the things she's been talking about in her books. She finally got her chance with a smaller production builder, in the new town of Libertyville Illinois.

There, they created a show home just off the Main Street; while it's 2450 square feet which is apparently average size, it displays "everything I know" built in, she says.

Recognising that in Libertyville the developer was trying to create a 'porch community', she also recognised that the typical design of a home wasn't conducive to those porches being used. The question is, how do we distribute rooms if we're going to have a front porch community? To get people there, it must be a natural flow in the house, she says.

As a result, in this show home, the kitchen and dining area bleed out to the front porch and the stairway has been moved to the back of the a house so it doesn't interrupt the living area. Here it not only serves as a thermal chimney but in its screening, as a piece of art too. (Susanka says that sustainability is "woven right into the fabric of the design and the home.")

The garden space has been put on the roof of the garage and there are also other typical Susanka details, much discussed in her books: variety in ceiling heights, spaces that do 'double duty', like dining rooms that are both formal and informal - and can accommodate Thanksgiving lunch with a simple switch of furniture, for that important one day of the year.

Not so big living

Finally, Susanka gets around to the idea of 'not so big living' which she acknowledges sounds touchy feely and in some ways is. "It's a different type of moreness," she says. And in advice to the planners and the urbanists in the room, she suggests that language is something to consider when tapping into people's desire for what we're building; describe things in language they can connect with. It could mean that mixed use becomes an activity pocket and live-work units might become house above.

She picks up on the trend towards sharing - amplified as never before but not new, really. (Which is all the more interesting as I've just stepped out of the Sharing Economy session; post on that to come.)

Once again demographics are important: boomers are fearful of being isolated and want great places to age in place. Pocket neighbourhoods teach important lessons: built around a green area not the street with a community gathering spot and for example, maybe one lawnmower for eight houses, sharing is built right into the infrastructure of the community.

Susanka makes a link though to the series of crises that have swamped - in some cases literally - America, and says that "in crisis, people forget their worries about their own turf, and become more connected."

And here, now, she exhorts us (and others as I assume, judging from the copy of the Not So Big Life book that I have just bought) to make room for what really matters; to take back the part of our lives that nurtures us.

"Find what inspires you, and place your focus there," she says. "As you focus on it, you'll find more of it, because our thoughts are the architecture of our world."


AuthorAmanda Falconer