Sarah Susanka: Beauty on the Inside

Small, careful changes can make a home much more livable, says architect and author Sarah Susanka.

February 1, 2010

Forget the backhoe. Architect Sarah Susanka, author of Not So Big Remodeling, discusses how less invasive, thoughtful home improvements can have a huge impact.

How has the housing downturn affected people’s interest in remodeling?

SUSANKA: People are staying put in their homes, so they want to make their current house into a place that fits their needs. They don’t automatically see it as a stepping stone to their next purchase. There’s no longer the predominant notion of onward and upward and that a bigger house is necessarily better.

But what stops people from pursuing remodeling?

SUSANKA: Many people think they’ll need a huge addition or have to practically rebuild their whole house, when in fact the house of their dreams is right under their feet. The point is to determine where there is existing space they may not have recognized. Where there are obstacles, they’re probably not insurmountable. Ideally you want to stay within the footprint of the house.

So there is such a thing as over remodeling?

SUSANKA: Yes. My “lightbulb moment” came in 1986 after a remodel I did of a Victorian home in which we effectively added a new house to a perfectly good old house. In creating a new kitchen, family room, and dining room in the back of the house, the family all but abandoned their use of the front of the house. They even entered the house through a new doorway in the back. It was the beginning of my learning process about how to work within existing spaces.

What keeps home owners and architects from working together as effectively as they should?

SUSANKA: Home owners often erroneously assume that architects expect them to know what they want done in their homes before they’ve had their first meeting. And most architects assume people don’t want to pursue a smaller job. My latest book, Not So Big Remodeling (The Taunton Press, 2009), provides a common language for professionals and home owners. Home owners can bring the book to their meetings and use it in the same way people bring photos from a magazine to their hair stylist when they want a new look. Architects can help by asking people to discuss what about their house isn’t working and what they think they want.

How else do people mistakenly limit their options when they think about remodeling?

SUSANKA: People see doors and walls as permanent things. They don’t realize that walls can be moved or openings can be made.

We’ve published new data about the financial value of improving a home. It shows the entryway is where you get the biggest bang for the buck. Do you agree?

SUSANKA: Definitely. If you walk into a house that doesn’t welcome you, that’s unfortunate. I’m talking about having a gracious entry, ideally with natural light. You don’t need a three-story, gargantuan palatial thing.

How do you balance the desire for high-quality design with people’s need to save money?

SUSANKA: I believe in using products and materials that are well designed, but that doesn’t mean they’re expensive. You can use plastic laminate for countertops instead of granite. As long as it’s installed so that you don’t see the edge, you can’t tell that it’s not a solid piece. And if you’d like a wood ceiling but don’t have the money, you can paint it a wood color and it will have a similar effect.

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