Most of us spend a fair amount of time picking apart the fabric of our everyday life. We talk endlessly about movies, clothes, fashion, food, televisions shows, sports and cars. Author and architect Sarah Susanka wants us to take this pick-apart impulse and pick apart something we experience intimately everyday but never think about — the spaces in our houses.

When you sit in your own living room, which you may never have paid attention to, or when you visit friends’ and relatives’ houses and share a meal in their dining rooms, why do you feel comfortable or get the heebie-jeebies?

As Susanka carefully explains in her two latest books, “Home by Design” and “Inside the Not So Big House,” the answer can be complicated.

With “Inside the Not So Big House,” Susanka zeroes in on details and how they affect our perceptions and enjoyment of a space. What the average person considers a detail — artwork, rugs and the upholstery on the living room furniture, for example — she calls “accessories.” Details, Susanka says, are built into the house and would still be there if “you could turn the house upside down and shake it.”

These details add character. They can also be playful. In Susanka’s own house that she described in her first book, “The Not So Big House,” the details can include a tree trunk that does double duty as a structural column and newel post for the stairs and a thick rope that serves as a stair railing. Some of her descriptions in “Inside the Not So Big House” can also be refreshingly disarming — a dish rack across a kitchen window is an inspired way to provide privacy when “the neighbors are so close you could ask them to pass the salt.”

The memorable details in the 23 houses Susanka describes in “Inside the Not So Big House” generally fall into three broad categories: They enhance the space itself, they affect the quality of light in it, and/or they create a sense of continuity and underlying order as you go from room to room.

Space, light and order are the focus of Susanka’s other book, “Home by Design.” These are the basic ingredients of architecture, she says, and they can be endlessly manipulated to produce a stunning variety of houses. Although this sounds pretty straightforward, she tells us that architects define these terms more broadly than most people. Learn how architects use them and you will look at the spaces that you live in with a different eye.

How wide is the gap in outlook between architects and the rest of us? Here’s a good example. Most people think of space as something static and fixed that can be succinctly described in terms of square footage and ceiling height. For architects, space is malleable with no fixed points. Everything that you see in a room, including its shape and ceiling height, the materials, the detailing and the location of doors and windows could be done five or six or 10 different ways. That’s why most architects, on entering any house, immediately start to redesign it.

Though Susanka writes clearly, some readers may have trouble with her general explanations because they require that you think about the basics differently. But her numerous examples of the different aspects of space, light and order that are found in houses are easy to follow, and they amply demonstrate the many shades of meaning for each term. The chapters on domestic space, for example, include the entry, alcoves and window seats, interior views, ceiling height variety, changes in level and stairs as sculpture.

Susanka discusses both the practical and the magical aspects of these basic ingredients. For example, light can lead us to spend hours in a room or cook up any excuse to leave because we are so uncomfortable. When a window is located in the middle of a wall, the sunlight streaming through it can produce glare that makes it impossible to appreciate the view or read a book. When the same window is moved to a corner, the sunlight steaming through it floods the adjacent wall, bathing the entire room in a soft, reflected glow. The view can be enjoyed and reading a book is a pleasure.

Light can also be manipulated to create illusions. A great example shown in the other book is a dining room designed by a former theater set designer. The bright pendant over his dining table creates a great focal point in the room, but in fact it throws off very little light; the table is actually lit with four recessed fixtures in the ceiling.

For Susanka, order means simple design devices that convey a sense of connectedness as you pass from one room to another. Every house has some of these, because in most cases, the style of the windows, doors, and interior trim is the same in every room. When the doors, windows, and trim are painted in something besides white, the ordering starts to get more interesting, as Susanka demonstrates in numerous examples in both books. She also explains that an ordering device can appear in different guises within the same house. In her details book, she describes a small house with curves. First we see a dramatic double archway over a peninsula in the kitchen. Then we note some playful curves in the same space-the brackets that support the peninsula countertop are downright sassy. Moving to the living room, built-in bookshelves have curved openings at the top and many pieces of furniture have curves as well. 

Susanka tackles big subjects in these books, and your ability to pick apart a space won’t come overnight. Most readers will need to study actual spaces before her explanations sink in. To make this fun, I would mix the reading with “field work observation.” After reading some of both books, analyze your own house. If you have a friend or two whose houses you admire, ask if you can come over and literally stare at the walls for awhile (they’ll be flattered). When you’re ready to go farther a field, visit several home builders’ furnished models in your area and spend some more time staring at those walls. You’ll find that some of the models are forgettable, but many are not. In today’s competitive housing markets, many builders know that good design sells and they routinely hire architects. Then go back and read the books again. As you go back and forth between real houses and Susanka’s books, your understanding of what you’re looking at will rapidly ratchet up. 

If you never build or remodel anything, these books will widen your world. If you decide to build a new house or remodel the one you live in now, they will be even more helpful because you will have the skills to tell your architect and builder exactly what you want.

Questions or queries? Katherine Salant can be contacted at


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