Page D3.2 . 01 November 2000                     
ArchitectureWeek - Design Department
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  • Detailing the Not So Big House

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    Detailing the Not So Big House


    If you've ever been in a bungalow where the archways have been removed between the dining and living areas to make the space seem more open, you know that the effect is exactly the opposite. The combined room suddenly seems small, not big enough for the two functions that it previously housed quite adequately. The framed opening gives each space its own personality.

    In general, the wider the moldings, the more prominent the perception of differentiation will be. One of the most regrettable trends in home design over the past few decades has been the decrease in the size of trim moldings used around windows and doors.

    Although it is possible to make a big impact with narrow trim, the standard ranch-style casings on the interior and minimal brick-mold casings on the exterior typically make it look as though each window and door has been unceremoniously and gracelessly shoved into the wall. It's analogous to hanging a picture on the wall without a frame. It'll do in a pinch, but it doesn't look good.

    In many of the houses in Creating the Not So Big House, the exterior trim has been used to give the house a face of sorts and a noticeable personality that defies stylistic designation.

    Visual Weight

    Massachusetts House by Ross Chapin

    Another technique architects use to manipulate the sense of scale in a space is called "visual weight." If a room has a smooth, flat ceiling that's painted a light color, it will feel taller than if it were textured in some way (with exposed beams, for example) and a darker color.

    The darker and more textured the surface, the heavier it will appear. And heaviness feels lower, because it is more present in our peripheral vision, even when we're not looking directly at it.

    In a house in Amherst, Massachusetts, architect Ross Chapin added a little extra detailing to the ceiling to great effect. He had been studying traditional Japanese architecture and was inspired in the creation of this design by the ceiling support system of beams and purlins in the famous temple at Ise. Its open structure allows light to play over the tops of the beams, giving the whole ceiling a floating, latticed quality.

    The beams and purlins (the crosspieces) provide the support for the upper level and are made of construction-grade wood, complete with knots and other blemishes. This provided an opportunity to use a lower grade of trim around the windows and doors, to echo that look and save money at the same time. It's very different from the refinement of the cabinetry, yet it works well in this eclectic space.

    The trimwork in a house can be a significant expense, so if you can make a less expensive product work for you, it can add up to substantial savings. It's a common fear that choosing a lower grade for one material will ruin the whole effect of the house, but this is seldom the case. By spending more of your budget on highly visible features like the cabinetry and doing some creative compromising elsewhere, the quality of the whole house increases.

    Theme and Variations

    Minnesota House by Sarah Susanka

    [Another] concept you should keep in mind as you create your own Not So Big House is developing a theme and variations throughout the design. Every house in the book employs this concept, and it's what gives each its integrity and at least some of its personality.

    If you want a house to have unique characteristics that make it more than just an assemblage of spaces, you can adopt a few special shapes or materials that are repeated throughout the house.

    If this is done heavy handedly, it will look clunky or will make you think "Enough already." If you've ever seen a house with an octagonal window in almost every room, you'll know what I mean.

    But when used thoughtfully, a house with a theme and variations is like a well-composed piece of music. From one movement to the next, you know it's the same piece because themes will return as it proceeds, though never repeated exactly as before.

    In my own house I used two themes one a shape (a circle) and the other a material (glass block) to tie the design together. Looking at the house from the street, the first thing that strikes you is the big round window in the gable end above the garage roof.

    As you step up to the front door, you notice that the door is framed by large glass blocks that seem to highlight the shape of the door. Once you cross the threshold and look into the house, to the left is a curved wall that extends up the stairs to form the handrail for the upper flight, creating a perfect semicircle as it goes.

    At the upper landing, the circle theme continues with a barrel-vaulted ceiling above. And if you're observant, you'll notice that the barrel vault continues into the bathroom, where it frames the round window that you saw on the front of the house. As a finishing touch, the circle form is continued on the wall with a mirror cut to the same radius.

    From the backyard, you can see the final expression of the theme. The same curve that was present on the front of the house and that ran though the bathroom and second-floor ceilings extends out to the south wall, where it provides the perimeter trim between the stucco and the shingle patterning.

    On this rear elevation, you can also see the repetition of the glass block pattern, which now fully frames a perfectly square window that aligns with the front door on the other side of the house.

    These are not themes and variations that hit you over the head. They're there, but they play their integrating function quietly, so that most people won't even be consciously aware of them.

    That's where the art of the concept lies. You've probably heard the expression, "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts." A Not So Big House is always more than the ingredients that went into it, and it's this weaving of themes, variations, personal touches, and lifestyle patterns that creates a whole that's profoundly satisfying.

    Architects often hear from their clients that once they move into their own Not So Big House, they don't want to leave, because they've finally found out what home is all about. It's a perfect reflection of who they are and how they live, and it's just big enough to be a perfect fit.

    Sarah Susanka, AIA is a well known architect and best-selling author. A popular lecturer, she is a leading advocate for the idea that spatial quality is more important than spatial quantity.

    Photographs and text have been exerpted from Creating the Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka, copyright 2000, by permission of the publisher, The Taunton Press. You can order the book from the publisher online or by phone at 1-800-888-8286. It is also available at



    ArchWeek Photo

    The main rooms of the New Mexico house are separated not by doors but by wide openings with heavy timber frames or adobe arches.
    Image: Daniel Hoffmann

    ArchWeek Photo

    An affordable house in a sylvan Amherst, Massachusetts setting by architect Ross Chapin.
    Photo: Grey Crawford

    ArchWeek Photo

    The principle of visual weight is demonstrated in the kitchen's ceiling beams and purlins.
    Photo: Grey Crawford

    ArchWeek Photo

    The Massachusetts house has a simple form and plan and only 1750 square feet (163 square meters).
    Image: Ross Chapin

    ArchWeek Photo

    The house that architect and author Sarah Susanka designed for herself illustrates themes of circles and glass block that continue on the inside.
    Photo: Grey Crawford

    ArchWeek Photo

    The circular motif continues inside in the partial wall near the stairway.
    Photo: Grey Crawford

    ArchWeek Photo

    Upstairs, the circle theme continues with the mirror and the barrel-vaulted ceiling above.
    Photo: Grey Crawford

    ArchWeek Photo

    In the author's house, a central "pod" separates activity areas within the otherwise open space of the entire ground floor.
    Image: Sarah Susanka


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