People who are downsizing out of concern for the earth’s welfare or a desire for a simpler and perhaps happier lifestyle often wonder how they can do this and still live in a home that offers the amenities they want and makes them feel comfortable, sheltered, and cozy–or free and unfettered. The current trend in most areas of the country toward McMansions, or “starter castles,” as architect Sarah Susanka calls them, is unfortunate for a number of reasons: these houses use space and resources inefficiently and often fail to deliver what their owners want most in a home: security, comfort, and graciousness. In her series of books from The Taunton Press, The Not So Big House (1998), Creating the Not So Big House (2000), and Not So Big Solutions for Your Home (forthcoming this fall), Susanka looks at homes that do provide what their owners want, both new and old, and examines why they succeed where so many fail.

Susanka’s books are works of art in themselves. Photos of homes, inside and out, demonstrate that a house need not be conventional or follow accepted “rules” to serve its owners well. Few people entertain formally any more, yet a formal living room and dining room takes up a large portion of the modern house just as it did in our grandparents’ day. These rooms sit unused most of the time, except for perhaps holidays, and when guests come quite often they congregate in the kitchen or the family room. Home offices have proliferated, yet there is no one place in the home that is designed just for them, causing the home worker to compete for space and quiet with TVs, children, video games, or foot traffic. The homes in Susanka’s books enfold their residents, welcoming them into ideal spaces for entertaining or working, relaxing or simply enjoying their surroundings.

Surprisingly, Susanka feels that such homes are within reach of everyone, regardless of income level–once the basic mindset about what constitutes a house is changed. Homes can be designed to accommodate unusual settings, work more efficiently to keep out summer heat and winter cold, and be built with design touches and materials that add character, delight, and individuality. With smaller footprints, better building materials, and better design, these homes are ecologically more sound and environmentally more efficient. And they are beautiful. What’s more, towns and communities designed around houses such as these have more life and offer more opportunities to their residents.

If you have clients looking for ways to simplify their lifestyle that begin literally at home, steer them toward these books. They will thank you for it.

For more information on Sarah Susanka and The Not So Big House, go to her Web site at www.notsobighouse.com. For information about the successes and failures of an experimental community of housing designed to serve a variety of incomes and needs, you might want to read Celebratio,n U.S.A.: Living in Disney’s Brave New Town, by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins (Henry Holt, 2000).