Feels Like Home

Architect Sarah Susanka says creative uses of light, space and order can make a house feel more intimate

October 24, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | By Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

Contrary to popular belief, Sarah Susanka is not against big houses.

Susanka, an award-winning residential architect, is the author of a series of best-selling books that started with The Not So Big House (Taunton, 1998, $30). Fans would say that she has almost single-handedly led the charge against McMansions, great rooms and soulless houses in general.

She would say only that last is true.

"Honestly, it's not about scale," Susanka says. "It's about livability. I've done some very big houses. It's the dearth of personality that's the problem. How do you give vitality to the place you live?"

In her new book, Home by Design (Taunton, 2004, $35), Susanka gets specific about how to create a comfortable, nurturing home beyond square footage and ostentatious shelter.

"It's a different kind of 'moreness,' " she says, "that everyone wants but doesn't know how to get."

The concept sounds like reinventing the wheel: transforming your house into a home. (In fact, that's the subtitle of the book.) But many of us, Susanka believes, don't accomplish it because we have trouble communicating with the architects and interior designers we hire. We don't understand the professional jargon, and we don't have the words we need to be understood. In Home by Design, Susanka has created a common language to talk about the quality of space in our houses, not just the quantity. Her vocabulary is one you can use whether you're building, remodeling, or simply redecorating.

"What makes a great house?" she says. "People don't have the words to ask."

Pretty much anybody can look at a floor plan and understand square footage, but people who aren't professionals often have trouble thinking in three dimensions. For Susanka, it's that third dimension that affects us most. How do we shape space? How can we use daylight and artificial light to change it? How do we give an underlying order to a home? (No, not the organizer type of order, but the spatial order that acts as the spine of the house.)

Her new, non-jargony vocabulary of design, Susanka says, revolves around these three concepts: space, light and order. The book is organized around 30 key ideas that radiate from them.

Some, she says, are more key than others.

One of the most important and least frequently used by architects is what Susanka calls "ceiling height variety" to define one space from another. By varying the ceiling height you can have your spatial cake and eat it too. The area is more open than if you divided it up with walls, but the contrast creates private and public spaces.

"When a room has variations," Susanka says as an example, "you can look out into a higher-ceilinged space within the room and feel sheltered."

Sheltering instinct

Many of her principles involve an almost unconscious reaction to what makes us comfortable. Do you remember the pleasures of card-table houses as a child? Susanka labels the grown-up version of this as "shelter around activity." It's the reason we pick a table in a corner at a restaurant or snuggle into a booth.

"We are physiologically wired to appreciate certain situations," she explains. "You can build this into your house. Protection for your back is a good example."

An alcove or a window seat is a structural solution that creates a sense of shelter, but you can also do the same thing inexpensively by -- say -- putting a rug under a furniture grouping to define its boundaries, particularly if the room is large.

As solutions go, light is the easiest to use of the three (space, light and order) to make a house more homelike. One of Susanka's basic concepts is what she calls "light to walk toward." She compares it to descriptions of near-death experiences or a light at the end of a tunnel.

"If you can locate a lighted painting at the end of a hall, something to go toward," she says, "or even better, a window, the space will be uplifted instead of flattened."

Susanka also feels we don't make enough use of reflecting surfaces when we think about the light of a room. Whether it's positioning a window or a light fixture, the goal is to get the light to bounce off a wall or ceiling to fill the space with light.

"If you have a torchiere," she says, "you can bounce light off the ceiling, and the light comes from above, where we're used to it." Mirrors, of course, can be used both to reflect views and to add reflective light to a room.

Order in the house

Susanka's message is to be aware that all sorts of details affect us much more than we might think, and we often don't find out that they matter until it's too late. She describes walking through a new house she had designed and discovering that the smoke detectors had been placed with no thought to the alignment of the lights, so they stood out like a sore thumb.

"Alignments give a sense of order," she says. "Often it's a subliminal feeling that 'All's right with the world.' "

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