Coffee Table Architecture: Sarah Susanka’s “The Not So Big House” and Tolpin’s “The New Cottage Home”

The lavish illustrations and glossy photographs in both of these books render them more coffee table books than practical blueprints even in the palmier days of construction when they were first published; they’re much more so these days and likely to remain so until the housing market and economy recover much more in the U.S. Neither are for anyone who’s looking to remodel or renovate an existing structure while they’re living in it, much less make a few cosmetic upgrades.

The basic precept of The Not So Big House and its companion, Creating the Not So Big House, isn’t a bad one at all: we don’t need big houses with lots of floor space, we need houses which we use. Anyone who’s purchased a house with separate entertaining space–living room apart from the family room plus a formal dining room–only to find all their guests cramming into the kitchen just the same will understand the need for, not a larger house, but a better laid out home. A house with a flexible design allowing for acoustic or visual separation when required will suit many people better than a house twice the size incorporating spaces rarely used, and as such the book will serve as a useful prompt for anyone building a home to stop and ask themselves how they really use the spaces.

How often would they use a formal dining room or a guest bathroom or for how long a children’s playroom…or even if they’re sure they’ll remain single and childless, what if they’re transferred to another job? Few purchasers would more than glance at that bachelor pad with a whirlpool hot tub in the bedroom. A family room with a futon and easy access to a half bath might do as a guest room if people don’t stay the night often. Separating the kitchen from the dining area with a raised ledge along the counter high enough to conceal cooking detritus and dirty dishes might eliminate the need for a dining room, and a ninety degree angle between the two areas would help even further.

The New Cottage Home is, as the subtitle suggests, another coffee table book; these are unique dwellings individually designed by an architect for a specific customer, not “off the rack” designs available cheaply, either in terms of initial purchase price or construction costs. That said, the fact that these are genuine cottages might serve to prompt people to reconsider the size of what they want. One couple, having lived on a boat for years, asked their architect to design a cottage which was, to them, luxurious in size: 600 square feet. Another architect took a single room cottage with a loft and tucked a kitchen ell under the stairs sufficient for the owner to start a catering business. Property by the sea is out of reach for most of us, and many of the cottages pictured herein ARE seaside cottages, but there are tidbits to be picked up in this book as well. Assuming we can afford as much as I paid for my current house for a renovation. Sigh.

To take away from both these books, I’d say: Size isn’t everything, it’s how you use it.

That said, boy are they ever BOTH lovely to pore and dream over!


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