Sarah Susanka’s Not So Big Plenary: A Summary of the Friday Morning Plenary at The Congress for the New Urbanism’s CNU21
She agreed to design a showhouse for John McLinden of StreetScape, in the SchoolStreet development of Libertyville, IL in 2011. His development was a red field, or land that was the left by a previous developer who halted development for whatever reason. The home was open for tours for six months and was not overtly advertised. 9,000 people from all over came to see the Not So Big Showhouse.
Susanka said that the home tries to connect to people’s values. “Everyone is searching for a sense of home,” she said, but most people don’t actually know what that means. Most people have this fictional idea of how they live when really they require much less than they initially demand, explained Susanka.
“We all look for something big because we think that it will make us feel better… When do we know when we have enough?” she asked. Susanka finds that more shelter, food, or sense of security doesn’t add to quality of life past a certain point. “The feeling of home is a quality, not a quantity.” This is why “Not So Big” homes come in all shapes and sizes, because each family has different needs and will use the space in their own way.
She started out co-founding a firm with her master’s thesis advisor with a mission to design intelligent single family homes for the middle class. Though the firm saw success, she found herself always saying she was too busy, and her love for writing fell by the wayside. She realized that she had put herself into that cage and was single-handedly creating that world of “too busy” for herself. Susanka was inspired by the Paul Hawken quote, “Follow your heart… speak what you know.” So, she scheduled herself into her own calendar to focus on writing. She assumed she’d be met with negativity, but found only support. Eventually, everything moved to allow her writing to blossom.
Her writing style is meant to be accessible to anyone, and it’s full of obvious observations. Her example was that your friends coming over for a dinner party are not royalty- they truly want to spend time with you and to be in your kitchen with you.
“We long for a sense of shelter, but also vista,” she said, referencing the importance to feel differentiation in space, but also the ability to see throughout the home from a central location. She explained that differences in ceiling height is a great way to divide space without using walls and maintain this philosophy.
Susanka told the audience that a map or floorplan will never be able to tell us anything about the character of a development or home. You can’t tell how comfortable that living room is just by knowing where the walls stand.
She suggested to create a sort of catalog of new urbanist neighborhoods in the country. She said that people get excited about her books and say that they’d love to live in a new urbanist area, but they don’t realize they already exist.
Susanka emphasized the need to simplify in all aspects of life. She argued that not all homes need to be replicates of each other: not every home needs its own lawn mower, power drill, or even a guest bedroom. She encouraged tool sharing and other methods of developing community resources for lend, like a small guest house in a central location. “All of our stuff is ruining us, and most of us are overwhelmed and too busy.”
She finished with some inspiring words and a call to action for everyone to do what they love:
“When you look with the eyes of a student, everything can teach you.”
“What inspires you?” she asked, and told us to place our focus there.
“Look at what’s coming to you without your looking for it.”
“The only way to change the world is to change yourself.”
“As you change, the world changes with you!”
“Right now is the time. You can feel it, post-recession, everyone is ready for something new.”
If you could schedule yourself an hour a day to do something you’ve been longing to do guilt-free, what would it be and why?
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