Heroes of Sustainability: Sarah Susanka

In a country that values McMansions, architect Sarah Susanka has a different idea: build better, not bigger.

The England native moved to the U.S. in the early ’70s and has remained in the States since. She was baffled when she first arrived as a teenager at the fact that American homes had the same formal living rooms and dining rooms that the English homes had, yet no one used them. “Every time I went over to my friends’ houses, they all ate every meal in the kitchen — at the kitchen table,” she said in an interview with Chris O’Leary. “And I kept looking into those rooms that in my life had always been the heavily used ones and thought, ‘Well what do they do with those?’”

After getting a bachelor’s degree at the University of Oregon, Susanka earned her master’s in architecture at University of Minnesota, all the while working at different architecture firms. Her first book, The Not So Big House, was published in 1998 and laid out her philosophy: quality is better than quantity. Instead of striving for huge and expansive rooms that never get used, building something comfortable, warm, and personalized makes a lot more sense for you — and the environment.

In addition to her first book, Susanka has written eight bestsellers (with more than 1.2 million copies sold), all of which support the idea that to truly be “at home,” we have to create spaces and lives that reflect who we are, not the Joneses we’re trying to keep up with.

Sustainability Values    
“I always say that the first step in sustainability should be not so big. If you’re doing something that is right-sized for you as opposed to overly large, it’s going to be something that people will want to look after for the long haul,” Susanka said in an interview with Around the House with KPLU.  “It’s also more sustainable in terms of its energy use and its consumption of natural materials. And perhaps most important of all, from an architect’s standpoint, the structure needs also to be beautiful. When something is beautiful, it tends to be looked after for generations to come. Just look back at the bungalows of a hundred years ago, and you’ll see that they’ve kept their value and their character, because people look after them. That’s a big step in sustainability, even though we don’t normally think of it that way.”

Getting Creative
To see a prime example of Susanka’s design principles, look no further than the Not So Big Showhouse at SchoolStreet in Libertyville, Illinois, which demonstrates the ideas that better (not bigger) design in a well-thought-out neighborhood result in successful housing. Design elements such as light to walk toward, ceiling height variety, wall thickness, differentiation of parts, and making less feel like more all come together to create the kind of home that fits our lifestyles – without being mega-sized.

Learn more about Susanka at www.susanka.com.

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