02/16/2004: "Not So Big Is Huge"
|AMP|#160;|AMP|#160;On the surface, I am a long-term planner. On even very cursory inspection, it becomes obvious that I don't' really do much long-term planning, except when it comes to ideas, notions, or plans I have that are still a ways off. Generally I'm a realist, but I suppose when it comes to the far-flung future I allow myself to go a bit crazy and plan way ahead of time. This manifested itself quite a lot during my unemployment period, when I would check housing prices for places where I had an upcoming or recent interview. That's just one example, but a relevant one. As it turns out, one area that I'm chronically planning/dreaming about is my next home.
I've written about alternative housing materials, and even revisited other construction methods. As I correctly predicted back then, my brain would not be content with what I had thus discovered. While I continue to research various construction methods for my next home, the curve that I threw myself next had virtually nothing to do with how the home is actually built, but everything to do with how it's designed. Now I will never again be content with a standard builder house, and will likely simply not allow myself to have full control over the design of my next home. Why? I'm starting to firmly believe I'm not qualified.
A good friend of mine mentioned many moons back a series of books called The Not So Big House. "Not So Big" has become an architectural philosophy since the first book came out, and has apparently started a new movement in house design, which I've caught myself up in. I put the first three books of this series on my wish list, and promptly received them. I have digested the first and second book, and am well on my way through the third book. Their effect on my thinking has been nothing short of astounding and profound. It is as if the blinders have been taken off, and at the same time scores of ideas about house design and interior design have been dumped into my head. It's a darned good thing I don't have a lot of money kicking about, because I could quite easily blow it all improving my home.
Allow me to explain the alluring principles behind Not So Big. First, we must realize that houses are becoming oversized for their occupants. That's not to say that specific rooms are too big, although that can be the case, but that house designs still contain relics from the Victorian era, when formal dining rooms, formal sitting rooms, parlors, and the like were the norm. Many houses today still have formal dining rooms, but instead of being the hub of mealtime activity they sit unused in favour of an eat-in kitchen or breakfast nook. So, what we are asked to do is evaluate how we actually live our lives, and delete the space that isn't necessary. If you use a formal dining room, by all means keep one. But if it's about as useful as a D-cup on Calista Flockhart, by all means ditch it.
Why should you ditch unused space? Floor space costs money, and unless money simply isn't an issue for you, the money you save by not building space you don't use can be put to better use throughout the rest of your home. This is the second principle for Not So Big: we've reduced quantity, so now we can put that money back in and increase the quality instead. Having been exposed to the new home market in my area, I know all too well that quantity is typically lauded over quality. I can't tell you the number of huge homes I've seen that have been poorly designed and finished to "builder standard" quality: typically, whatever the builder can get away with.
So, what does adding quality really mean? It depends on who you are and what you want out of a house. Perhaps it's wall-to-wall 16-ounce wool carpet instead of the low-pile nylon that's typical. Maybe instead of settling for $5 light fixtures in the middle of every room's ceiling you can install thoughtfully placed lighting that suits both the room and its use. Or maybe you simply want to invest in pure craftsmanship; get some kitchen cupboards that are truly works of wooden art, or replace the Home Depot bargain-bin trim with some nice, wide window trim that reeks of heritage. It's really up to you. After all, it's your house.
But Not So Big doesn't stop there. I'm big on practical examples, and the Not So Big books deliver in spades. The entire second book is devoted to 25 examples of homes that typify the Not So Big principles. Where the first and third books give you examples throughout the book, the second book is all examples. What is even more thrilling than seeing how Not So Big can be implemented, is how diverse the end results can be. Everything from new homes to remodeling, cottages for one to a home for a large family, large open homes to tiny New York apartments.
Now, at this point you're probably thinking that Not So Big sounds great, but you're not made of money so how on earth can you afford this? Having read 2 1/2 of the books it is abundantly clear that going with an architect might be the only way to truly get a Not So Big experience, unless you yourself are an architect, interior designer, or a Not So Big savant. With architectural fees ranging between 5-15% of the cost of a home, this might be too big a pill for most to swallow. That is why I was tickled pink to see that part of the Not So Big books are how to take cost OUT of a home without sacrificing quality, utility, feel, or anything. Practical examples are again given, along with clearly spelled-out reasons as to how these costs can be removed, or even how cost can accidentally be added back in as well!
Thus far, I have only two issues with the Not So Big book series. First is that there is a Not So Subtle subtext throughout all the books that really plugs architects and their skills and services. It's almost as if the author were hovering over my shoulder whispering, "Only a certified architect can do this for you - use one!" As someone that longs to be a self-sufficient do-it-myselfer, this grates on me to some extent. The second issue I have is that the author is probably right - I'm simply not qualified to design my own house. Not So Big encompasses so many diverse aspect of home design that I would have a very hard time implementing Not So Big without it missing something, or simply coming off as heavy-handed. I'm qualified to say what I want, just not how that translates into a floor plan.
Of course, even if I decide to stick to my instincts and design something myself, I am at least armed with new knowledge that will undoubtedly improve the livability of my next home. Of course, I dislike doing something half-assed, and thereby may yet talk myself into at least consulting with an architect before I do anything rash. As I likely have years to go before this becomes an issue, I have a long time to stew about it. Whichever path I take, it's going to lead to Not So Big.