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Shrinking the American dream house

New trend fights against bigger is better mentality

Published: Monday, Nov. 28 2011 8:16 p.m. MST

Perry and Linda Cunningham remodeled a 1920s-era home in Salt Lake's Wasatch Hollow neighborhood. This is a view aross the kitchen, eating area and into the living space. Several walls were removed to make the space open. Rennovation Design Group designed the area. (Michael De Groote, Deseret News) Perry and Linda Cunningham remodeled a 1920s-era home in Salt Lake's Wasatch Hollow neighborhood. This is a view aross the kitchen, eating area and into the living space. Several walls were removed to make the space open. Rennovation Design Group designed the area. (Michael De Groote, Deseret News)

Whenever architect Sarah Susanka would visit a potential client's home, they would invite her into the formal living room. "We would stand until they would determine that I am a nice person and then they would say, 'Let's go visit in the kitchen, it is more comfortable there,'" she says. "It happened every single time. I don't think I ever sat in someone's formal living area. The joke is we build formal living areas for the people we would rather not have in our houses."

Today, however, many people would not hesitate to ask her to plop down at their kitchen tables. Susanka, is the author of the best selling "Not So Big House" series of books on how people can have a richer experience inhabiting their homes and lives. She found many people were not happy with the standard homes being produced. They all had traditional elements -- living rooms, dining rooms, family rooms, kitchens and so forth. But they didn't seem to match the reality of modern living.

An interior view of Perry and Linda Cunningham's 1920s-era home in Salt Lake's Wasatch Hollow neighborhood. This is looking from the kitchen toward the den/media room. A wall was taken out to open up this space. (Michael De Groote, Deseret News) An interior view of Perry and Linda Cunningham's 1920s-era home in Salt Lake's Wasatch Hollow neighborhood. This is looking from the kitchen toward the den/media room. A wall was taken out to open up this space. (Michael De Groote, Deseret News)

And part of that reality is a recovering economy. As people look to buy a new home -- or if their economic situation instead leads them to consider remodeling -- the new trend is to scale back in size and eliminate the expensive wasted space in homes.

"I had to take my clients through a thought process to help them see they were not looking for a quantity of home, but a quality of home," Susanka says.

QUANTITY IS QUEEN

The American way has been quantity is queen. And as the years have gone by, the size of homes has increased.

Around the 1960s people started adding on family rooms to their homes -- usually adjunct to the kitchen. Susanka says adding extractor fans and dishwashers in kitchens transformed them from smelly utility spaces into living spaces. The family room and kitchen became the places where people spent their time -- the place where they really lived. Less and less time was spent in formal spaces.

An exterior look at Perry and Linda Cunningham's 1920s-era home in Salt Lake's Wasatch Hollow neighborhood. (Michael De Groote, Deseret News) An exterior look at Perry and Linda Cunningham's 1920s-era home in Salt Lake's Wasatch Hollow neighborhood. (Michael De Groote, Deseret News)

Yet home builders kept building the rarely used dining rooms and living rooms -- many with furniture encased in clear plastic covers. "We have this notion about formal dining," Susanka says. "Then we have the reality of how we live."

NEIGHBORHOOD DOG

Perry and Linda Cunningham remodeled a 1920s-era home in Salt Lake's Wasatch Hollow neighborhood. Linda Cunningham says the home was at one time one of the "dogs of the neighborhood." But by the time the retired couple purchased it in 2007, it had already been renovated to a better condition. The Cunninghams then changed it even more. It began as a simple remodel of the kitchen to upgrade the kitchen cabinets and expanded from there. "Sarah Susanka's books were a major inspiration for us," Linda Cunningham says. "Build small but open ... and put the money into fine details that will make you happy every day of your life."

 (Illustration By Josh Ferrin, Deseret News) (Illustration By Josh Ferrin, Deseret News)

They took out walls to open up space to the kitchen. A bedroom was also changed to a media area and office and opened up to the larger living space. "We created a much more open feel," Perry Cunningham says.

"We spend a lot of time removing walls," says Ann Robinson of Renovation Design Group. "You don't have to necessarily add on a great room, you can take the space you have and open it up."

Robinson writes a column on renovation with Annie Schwemmer for the Deseret News and their firm worked on the Cunningham's home. Robinson says the main differences in homes from prior decades and new homes comes from the way people live. "Part of it is we have a lot more stuff and part of it is we don't have these individual boxes of rooms. Mainly it is the kitchen needs to be opened up so it is the center of the home."

OPEN SPACES

Architect Sarah Susanka, is the author of the best selling Architect Sarah Susanka, is the author of the best selling "Not So Big House" series of books. (Susanka.com)

For decades "open" meant "larger." Census Bureau data says that the average new single-family home in 1970 had 1,500 square feet. By 2007 new homes had burgeoned to 2,521 square feet. Government policies, tax incentives and a thirst for what seemed like bigger-is-better home investments encouraged larger living.

Then the housing bubble burst.

The latest 2010 figures have dropped slightly to 2,392, but that is still 892 square feet bigger than three decades ago.

Those extra square feet aren't cheap. One down-and-dirty way to see the cost is to simply multiply the 2010 average cost per square foot, $84.07, by house size. A 2010 home comes in at about $201 thousand. A 1971-sized home is about $132 thousand.

There are a lot more factors involved in home prices -- but the point is smaller homes can be less expensive -- a lot less expensive. And if Susanka is right, they can also feel larger and have a higher quality than more bloated domiciles.

SMALL IS THE NEW BIG

Susanka's clients used to come to her with photographs from home design magazines and tell her they had $200 thousand for a 3,000 square foot home. "And I'd have to be the bearer of bad tidings that with those pictures and that square footage they couldn't make that budget," she says with a laugh.

She would then show them how to get the quality they wanted by eliminating things they rarely used -- like the formal dining room and formal living room and a large three-story foyer. "I'd show them how to reapportion those dollars saved into the quality and character that make 'house' feel like home," she says. "That was the basic notion behind 'The Not So Big House.' Let's build less square footage but make it feel like more. ... I'm not trying to shoehorn people into tiny houses, I'm trying to get them to use their money more effectively."

And small is how a lot of people live anyway.

LIVING IN THE BIG HOUSE

"Most people have a third of their square footage that they never see, never walk through, and never really feel. They may have a 2,500 square foot house, but they are only experiencing on a daily basis maybe 1,600 square feet," Susanka says.

The key is to think of how you live. Closets used to be small because people had fewer clothes, for example. As times change, so does the way people use their homes. Usually, according to Susanka, when people add a function, they add a room to a house. On some higher-end homes this meant even adding a gift-wrapping room.

But in a tighter economy, Susanka encourages people to cut out the rooms they don't need, and create rooms that can serve dual purposes -- like a library alcove that can be used for formal dining, if the need arises, by taking the kitchen table into the room.

In older homes people end up living in their small utility-like kitchen areas -- regardless of how big the other rooms of house are. "They have the experience of living in a very cramped way," Susanka says. "People can live in quite big houses and have the experience of not having enough space. ... You don't need a lot of square footage to feel bigger. It's how you shape the space and how you connect views that makes a place feel bigger or smaller. And that is something most people are oblivious to -- they just look at the square footage of the house."

It is a matter of looking at how you really live, looking at the space you need and looking at your budget.

"Happiness is very much tied to how our house reflects us," Susanka says. "The type of space you live in shapes you immensely."

And in today's economy, smaller can make your life and your wallet seem bigger.

EMAIL: mdegroote@desnews.com

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