Sarah Susanka is wildly popular as architects go. Her several books touting "Not So Big" houses have sold more than 1 million copies.
But that doesn't make it easy for her to break into the mainstream of home design.
In fact, she has given up convincing "big" builders that they should adopt her ideas for their tract homes. Instead she is working with a semi-custom builder in Libertyville to produce her first "development" model home.
Susanka's theme sounds relatively simple -- rather than "big box" space, put your money into details and features that make the rooms you really use homey. But most mass market builders are too frightened in this economy to take them on, said Susanka during a recent visit to Libertyville.
For example, they won't give up the living room, she said.
"They're trying to shrink down their existing plans. These are dull. There's no 'there' there. You've got to have a level of quality of space in order for them to be appealing," she said.
It turns out John McLinden of StreetScape Development is not only brave enough, he also is persistent enough to get Susanka's attention and convince her to design one home for SchoolStreet, a small development just east of downtown Libertyville.
"A dozen years ago or 10 years ago I read her first book, and I've been a fan ever since. I thought, gosh would it be awesome to get Sarah to design a home for us. It would fit very comfortably along this street. It took about 25 e-mails to get through Sarah's business affairs manager."
SchoolStreet will have 26 homes in a "new urban" design, plus condominiums in the historic Central School. The single-family homes range from $500,000 to $700,000 and 17 homes have already been sold.
Susanka is designing one floor plan of about 2,200 to 2,400 square feet with four fronts, so four could be built in the community. McLinden says the bungalow-style model or showcase home will be completed and open to the public next fall. It will stay open for six months because the architect thinks the only way for most people to really understand her principles is to walk through the spaces. McLinden hopes to build homes like it in future communities, too.
"This is just the beginning," said Susanka. "We both are doing this as a test drive to see if there really is a market here."
Susanka's homes will cost about $600,000, but that's much less than a custom home in this area, the architect and builder both insist. In fact, buying the land in foreclosure allows him to sell houses for $250,000 less than market, said McLinden.
Susanka's SchoolStreet home will have a kitchen and informal eating area right next to the front porch, the space with the most light when a home is built on a narrow lot. The entrance will be at the side. The living area is open to the kitchen and dining area, but ceiling height changes throughout the house.
"The variation in ceiling height is used instead of walls," she said. "Say the living room is 9 feet and the kitchen 8. Just by the countertop it's 7-foot-6 inches."
The plans for the Libertyville home will be made public later in the month, said McLinden. Here are some of Susanka's principles that will be incorporated:
•Vary the ceiling heights. This provides the intimacy and feeling of personal space that some say is missing in big-box McMansions with all tall ceilings. Builders might try this with tray ceilings -- at an extra charge, said Susanka.
•Create sheltered spaces. Frank Lloyd Wright had his inglenooks or seating areas around fireplaces. Susanka puts a library alcove off the living room.
•Make spaces do double duty. The library alcove works as a formal dining area.
•Light to walk toward. This means put a lighted something, such as a window or lighted painting at the end of a hallway or other vista. "It provides a sense of extension. It feels like it's longer than it actually is, and people experience more space."
•Don't forget the "away" room. This can be an office or first-floor bedroom, of course, or a room for adults to read, do crafts or entertain friends. Or maybe the messy little children can use the away room, leaving the main living areas in better shape.
•Speaking of messy youngsters, the home will have a laundry room that's about 11-by-12 feet. "It can be a craft room for the kids -- let the paint fly," said the architect.
The author-architect is willing to explain and describe her homes, but she believes nothing compares with seeing them in real life.
"I'm trying to make as simple as possible a set of ideas that in a way are complex," she said. "We are used to thinking about design in two dimensions. The quality of the space has to do with the third dimension, the heights and shapes of the space."
Hers is not a movement about making small houses--especially not ones that feel small, she said.
"My houses are about one-third smaller than you thought you needed," said Susanka. "A family with five kids needs a whole different thing than a couple. It's the anti-McMansion. If you don't use it, don't build it. Take the spaces that we really use every day and make them accommodate what we do once in a blue moon. In my homes you are really living in more square footage."
Libertyville Mayor Terry Weppler is excited about his community's hosting Susanka's design. "It's the wave of the future," he said. "We don't need McMansions as big as we've had them. Use space for more than one use, and you don't need as much square footage. And she fell in love with the community."
"I hadn't realized how valuable it would be to have such a wonderful community to place this in. There's a story beyond just the house, and I love that."