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on July 5, 2000
We are just completing the construction of our new home. While this book was certainly not the only source of ideas, it was certainly critical in giving us the courage to abandon the "starter castle" mentality of soaring ceilings and the attendent wasted space. The reaction we are getting certainly bears out the strength of these design concepts.
Given the content of the other reviews, I have to be clear about the intentions of this book. It is not a book about building inexpensive houses. It is written by an architect, and architects are generally not consulted when price is the ultimate consideration. It is not a book of house plans, nor a how-to book on house design. It is a book about a design philosophy which considers the house as a place to live rather than as a monument to impress ones neighbors. The philosophy is not terribly original; why does it have to be? It is a return to basic principles of good design.
We began this project with a very clear idea of the style we wanted, and someone concerned with style alone might not recognize this book's influence on our home. On the other hand, anyone who compared our home to the starter castles on our block would see the difference immediately. Every room is comfortable and constructed on a human scale. I would recommend this book to anyone in the process of constructing a new home. If I had the money, I would send anonymous copies to a number of builders and designers in the area. This book deserves a wider reading.
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on June 5, 2003
[This review of the 2-book collection is a shorter summary of my two longer reviews of each book. For more detail, look at each book review separately. The collection is a good buy, at only about 1/3 more than the "Not So Big House" book alone.]
"The Not So Big House" is an excellent book on efficient use of
space and attention to detail to achieve comfort from a house design. The graphics, layout, and text are all uniformly excellent. The book only disappoints at the end, where Susanka throws together too-brief treatments on solar design, environmental concerns, and ways you might save money on your "Not So Big House". You'll notice a pronounced emphasis on Craftsman-type design in the houses depicted -- lots of natural, exposed wood. There are lots of very useful ideas (including double-duty spaces, built-in storage near the point of use, an "away room", and acoustical privacy) that most architectural books present poorly or not at all.
"Creating the Not So Big House" is a good book, but in comparison to the first book it's rather a let-down. In the first book most photos were much larger and clearer; in this book some are too small to be very useful. Also, Susanka is not a professional writer, and could have used help here like she got from Kira Obolensky in "The Not So Big House". More architectural styles are represented in this book than in the original, but there aren't many new architectural ideas if you've read the first book (although spatial layering, and themes and variations are both new and useful concepts from this book).
Summary: This is a pretty good collection at a decent price. The first book is clearly superior to the second; however, the collection price makes it a reasonable bargain. Get this if you're planning a new house design AND you can afford more attention to detail than standard builder options allow. You'll end up with a personalized, comfortable, Not So Big house with a Not So Small pricetag.
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on December 6, 2000
Although the concept of 'The Not So Big House' is not a revelation to many people, sometimes we need reminding that 'more' is not always 'more, and this book is a wonderful source for inspiration, both philosophicaly and practically. The book begins by showing some examples of when people put their money into building a small home with character, and others that put their money into square footage. The second of the two is only too familiar in my area (Colorado). Here there has been a trend for the last ten or so years of developments being built with large (4000+sq.ft) homes that have absolutely NO design qualities what-so-ever. Even the paint jobs are identical on literally thousands of homes. These developments are not communities. Personally I see them more as the large scale slums of the future. Really ugly. The majority of the book however shows examples, home by home, of how people have built with minimal square footage, using well thought out floor plans, and delicious design details, to create a feeling of comfort, coziness, spaciousness and drama without pretence. Some of the homes were clearly built by people who had quite a bit of money to spend on custom cabinetry, stonework and refined plaster molding. Probably not within the budget of many people even if they do choose quality over quantity. Others are very simple, light filled, and within the budget of pretty much anyone who has it in their budget to build thier own home in the first place. Just a note that this is not an interior design book. This is a book for those seeking a different way of living 'in space' and creating an environment for family life and enjoyable pasttimes. Much of the interior decorating is really quite boring. But the homes themselves are very inspirational. The use of wood work reminds me of older homes, built up to and including the Arts and Crafts movement. The authors are pining for homes to be built the way that they used to be, and by the time you have finished this book, you will be too. I do believe that beauty, and quality of life, is in the details, and a properly designed home makes use of the square footage it has and requires much less 'room' than is commonly thought necessary these days. If you feel this way, or think you might like to, this book is for you.
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on July 8, 2005
It's not about that. If you're looking for information on building a smaller, lower cost home, these books won't help much. In general, the author's message is to spend MORE per square foot, and learning to get more use out of a smaller space. On the other hand, if you like your neighborhood, but feel you need a bigger house, these books may give you some ideas on remodeling (instead of moving) - which could save you a lot of money by not buying a bigger home that you hate just as much as your old one.

I think these are fantastic books. Excellent photos and floor plans illustrate each point in a crystal clear fashion. The author starts with a few basic concepts and shows their execution in various ways in different houses. A great tool for anyone planning to buy, build or remodel.

In the editions I received, both books have 10" x 10" pages. Excluding the Introductions, Afterward, etc... First book: 187 pages; probably more photos than text; medium-large, easy-to-read print. This covers the basic concepts with dozens of examples. Second book: 250 pages; probably more photos than text; medium print (a bit smaller than the first book, but still easy to read). This book focuses on 25 different homes, highlighting the key features of each.
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on May 25, 2003
"The Not So Big House" is the best treatment I know of on efficient use of available space in a house design. Sarah Susanka favors built-in storage near the points of use, which is efficient in both use of square footage and on time spent getting things out of storage to where they're needed. Of course built-ins raise the cost of a house, which leads to Susanka's central thesis: a small, well-designed house with attention to detail will be costly -- but, in her opinion, worth it. She suggests toting up the square footage vs. time spent in various home spaces, and finds that typically formal living and dining rooms are budget busters that are used only rarely. Skipping these formal rooms will free up money for higher quality in the remaining spaces.
Susanka falls down on the job with her limited treatment of ways a prospective home owner can save money on their dream house. Specifically, she mentions only
- smaller size
- less attention to detail (lower quality)
- a cheaper lot
but not, for example
- changing the number of stories (2-story homes save on foundation costs over ranch homes)
- owner labor
- owner functioning as general contractor
The book, filled with excellent color photographs (many by the author) is extraordinarily well laid out. The text continually refers to "the photo above" rather than something like "Fig. 8-3b". Accompanying floor plans show the point and angle of the associated photos, making it easy to build up a mental picture of the overall space from a few choice shots. The lighting, contrast, color balance, and composition of the photos is outstanding.
I must mention that the book is basically a paen to houses heavy on natural interior wood detail. In American homes this is exemplified by the Craftsman style; the feature also applies to traditional Japanese houses. It's a style that I personally like so that's not a detriment for me. If instead your taste runs to French country homes, where every scrap of wood must be painted, you'll probably have some qualms at the author's architectural bias.
Unlike most architecture books which feature carefully decorated rooms you couldn't possibly be comfortable living in, the spaces depicted in Susanka's opus are refreshingly naturalistic. That's not to say that there are photos with kids' fingerprints around the light switches (as in real life). But this book is a rarity in showing bookshelves loaded with paperback books instead of the usual sets of matching leather-bound volumes, each shelf having three books stacked sideways to hold some Object d'Art. And there are actual kids' toys on actual floors!
A final, fairly significant drawback is Susanka's short shrift when it comes to non-design topics. For instance, energy efficiency only gets a couple of pages. There are even shorter treatments of recycled materials, sustainability, and alternate (other than stick-built) construction styles. All of these "peripheral" subjects are crammed into the last (and shortest) chapter.
Summary: This book is a rich resource of ideas on how to design a house that's efficient for your actual lifestyle. You'll need to look elsewhere to figure out how to build it and pay for it. But because design is the spearhead of the architectural process, this is an excellent starting point.
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on April 22, 2004
Building a home: GET ALL YOUR DETAILS IN THE CONTRACT PRIOR TO STARTING, (INCLUDING PRICING OUT YOUR ALLOWANCES TO ENSURE THE BUILDER HAS PUT ENOUGH ALLOWANCE IN CONTRACT), MAKE A BUDGET-Detailed, and get these books: These books have been the cornerstone of our building project. True, she has advice that is for both large and small budgets (some of the details are pricey) BUT..the point of the book is spend same money on smaller scale and you will be happier. If you are building a 5,000+ sqft house, you will find these books amusing. But if you want to build a more reasonable size home, these books are great. We built a 4,000 sqft home (includes basement and above garage) and used several tips (lighting, mail area, etc.).
My advice:
1. Use a builder with design services (our architects were living too large for our budget and they build homes that are not pratical (waste material in sizing).
2. GET EVERY LITTLE DETAIL UP FRONT IN CONTRACT. This was painful for the builder--he did not want to do it. But we are only 1% over budget and only overbudget b/c we could not nail him down on kitchen allowance and he underestimated our taste.
3. Make lists/clip pictures/and dream everyday.
4. Build for expansion...maybe you cannot afford to get it all now. Set it up for easy adding later.
Good Luck!
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on December 10, 1999
We are on the last stages of building our first(last?) house, and this book showed us the way. Most homes built today try to stretch square footage at the expense of quality ("starter castles" is the term the author uses). We've all been in these big, soulless homes:a marble foyer that feels like a mausoleum, rooms that reach to the roof and waste all the space overhead; and usually in a few years the cracks are beginning to show in the drywall seams, floors are squeaking, and there are still a few rooms that don't have any furniture in them yet...or people. The author makes a great argument for building a smaller home that is higher in quality and more space efficient. Better to fill a smaller space with things of quality and beauty than build big and empty places. We read this book, threw out our floor plans, and started over with a new philosophy. In one month we'll be moving into a better, more energy and space efficient home for having done this--at about $90/SQFT.
Read this book before you build.
(You can also read the author's columns in Fine Homebuilding magazine; many are also on the FH website. The column on "designing an entryway" is a logical place to start!)
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on March 17, 2004
Susan Susanka presents her ideas on how to build a better home. Half way through the book she presents her trinity of compromises that the architect, builder & home-owner have to make...price, quanity & quality of the proposed home. I think this is the gem in the book. As many have noted, this is definitely not a book for a "small" or "cheap" home; and this should be obvious as nobody who is limited to building a "small" or "cheap" home would hire an architect to design it! Though she never states it, I estimate that the houses she designs cost over $500,000 to build so consider that when you read this book.
I value this book for the ideas it presents; however, it is definitely a coffee-table book rather than a reference for an architect or home-builder. Not until the last two super-homes does Susan even mention a number. Nowhere in the book does it actually talk about the square feet, total price, price for materials, cost/square foot, material trade-off possibilities, building codes, or anything that is actually needed to design or build a house (or even remodel). The lack of details and thoroughness was disappointing and the reason I only gave her three stars. I suppose this book can be considered a "theory" book rather than a "practical" book, but it seems to me that a well-written book could contain both.
On the plus side, the pictures were very nice; there were floor-plans for each of the houses and Susan has a very nice and clear writing style.
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on March 1, 2004
I agree that this book isn't as useful as I'd like for those of us who are on a budget when building a house -- we're limited to off-the-rack home designs, and can't afford to have a builder put in all the options available to those who can afford to hire an architect. However, since my spouse and I are pretty handy when it comes to woodworking etc., we will be putting some of the book's principles to use when it comes to building our next house. We've also put some of its ideas into action in our present house, putting in built-ins and other storage spaces that allow us to use the space we have more efficiently. Builders are often happy to make small changes, like moving a wall to enlarge a pantry, at little or no cost. Knowing to look for those sorts of solutions and ask for them have really made our home more user friendly.
The houses on either side of ours are the stereotypical "McMansions" that the book is aimed at counteracting, and I see more of them going into developments every day. I never see my neighbors in their three-story great rooms (which have so many windows it's practically a goldfish bowl). The neighbors love our house, which we chose specifically because it had a big kitchen which looks directly onto the living room -- the space is warm, inviting, and definitely used. If more people read and absorbed Sarah Susanka's ideas, they could make informed choices when shopping for a new home, and maybe we'd see fewer of these huge, unfriendly mini-mansions being built.
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on October 24, 1999
After reading this book, I would have to disagree with those who don't think it's a good book for someone building a house on a budget. Although that's not the point of Susanka's work, she wants her reader to change the way they think about homes, and to review their choices in a custom home. Trading square footage for higher quality craftsmanship is the way to go--but you can also cut out the excess square feet and use standard materials and labor and cut your cost. It's up to the builder--that's the beauty of it. She shows you how to choose and some of the possibilities, whether you're on a tight budget or have half a million to spend. I learned a lot from this book, and would recommend it to anyone who is thinking of building a home, or takes a fancy to architecture. There are wonderful pictures in here, many of which have given me ideas for my own home. Definitely worth the cost.
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