The Not So Big House in the Chicago suburbs

Architect Sarah Susanka has made a name for herself by writing about the Not-So-Big House. In this, Susanka advocates for smaller homes with custom features that fit the personality of the inhabitants. Instead of buying a cookie-cutter McMansion or tract home, Susanka would have you design a slightly smaller home that better fits your needs.

A new development in Libertyville, a northern suburb of Chicago (about 40 miles north of the Loop), will feature four of Susanka’s homes. Here is a description of the price and size of these homes:

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.”

It is interesting to note that these homes are not cheap (though they may be slightly smaller). The money in these homes will go to certain features that mark Susanka’s designs:

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.”

Multiple times in this article, Susanka and the developer suggest these homes must be experienced in order to understand how all of these pieces come together. I would be curious to tour one of these houses myself to see if it really does feel different to a typical home, even in a quick walk-through. I have looked through a number of her books and have most enjoyed seeing pictures of cozy reading spaces.
I would also be interested to know who is attracted to these homes rather than typical new homes. People with greater appreciation for aesthetics and design? People with higher levels of education (Bourdieu’s theory of distinction)? People looking for the “hot” yet suburban neighborhood?

6 thoughts on “The Not So Big House in the Chicago suburbs

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