Devotees of the "Not So Big" school of architecture now have a brick-and-mortar place of their own — at least for awhile.

Architect Sarah Susanka, who has developed something of an anti-McMansion cult following with her popular series of eight "Not So Big House" coffee table books, recently opened a showcase home in Libertyville, Ill., that will function as what she calls her 3-D thesis.

"I think of it as a walk-in book," the North Carolina architect said as she walked through the 2,450-square-foot structure before it opened for a six-month run of public tours on Nov. 19. "I want people to feel what I’ve been writing about."

What she has been writing about, with 1.2 million "Not So Big" volumes sold, is the idea that you can live large in less space, so long as the house is smartly designed.

In Susanka’s designs, rooms do double-duty. Ceiling heights are varied and manipulated to define living spaces without having to erect walls that cut up the space. And importantly, in Susanka’s view, even in a house that celebrates an open floor plan, there needs to be an "away space" that serves as a collect-your-thoughts retreat.


Library nook. Photo/Barry Rustin

Although she has been designing homes with these principles for years, they’ve all been private residences. Now she has partnered with developer John McLinden at his SchoolStreet infill subdivision in the northern Chicago suburb of Libertyville, to build the showcase house.

The development, built on the new urbanist design principles of easy walking access to parks, shopping and businesses, already has sold 21 of its 26 traditionally styled homes. The Susanka plan is a recent addition to the floor plan offerings.

Susanka said she agrees with the new urbanist philosophy that favors the front porch architecture that makes it easier for neighbors to see and know one another, but she contends it’s harder to pull off than it looks.

"One of my beefs with the new urbanist community is that they would have a front porch, but the living space is within, often behind a staircase," she said. As a result, she said, such a rearward orientation means the front porch goes unused.

Her solution in the show house: put the main entry to the house at the side, and place the kitchen smack in the front, adjoining the porch through French doors. The porch, she presumes, would then become an oft-used extension of the living space (though the northern Illinois climate might put a cap on the number of porch visits).

There’s no separate dining room — merely a large table and built-in banquette adjoining the open kitchen, which Susanka said probably would suffice for both daily family dining and most social events.

The "Not So Big" show house features an open kitchen. Photo/Barry Rustin

"Really, the people you have over are Joe and Kathy from next door, you don’t need some formal space," she said.

But for those big holiday dinners, the architect anticipates the homeowner being able to move the table into the main living room and library area, and adding table leaves to accommodate more diners.

That main living area — at the entrance to the home — contains a lighted wall niche with a tall vase of flowers, exemplifying Susanka’s idea that having a "light to walk toward" that expands a space and makes it more welcoming.

The long view toward the back of the show house is similarly illuminated by a two-story "daylight shaft" that’s designed to achieve the same effect.

Toward the back of the house is Susanka’s signature "away room," which in this instance is set up as a home office with TV and kids’ gaming space (though it also has a cleverly designed Murphy-type fold-down bed for guests). She anticipates that an owner might one day convert that space to a full-time, main-floor bedroom to accommodate aging in place.

The same long-term need is reflected in the powder room across the hall, which squeezes in a shower, though Susanka designed it so that an uncomplicated remodel also could make it accessible to someone in a wheelchair.

At the very back of the house, the mudroom serves as a mail-sorting space and contains lockers, pegs and rods for storing backpacks, coats, etc.

Up the stairs is a laundry and craft room, alongside a curiosity-provoking ladder that’s a guaranteed kid magnet: It leads to a small loft getaway area, which Susanka calls a "POYO," short for "Place of Your Own."

Laundry and craft room. Photo/Barry Rustin

"Having lived in Minnesota (where she began her career), I realize that kids can go stir-crazy if they can’t do something because of the weather," Susanka said.

Upstairs there are two other bedrooms, a full bath, and a master suite that contains a full bath and a sizable walk-in closet.

Because the house fills up most of its lot, there’s no backyard, per se, but Susanka has designed a landscaped, second-floor deck, accessible from inside, to fill the barbecuing and socializing quotient.

Susanka and SchoolStreet haven’t set a purchase price for the show house, which won’t be released for sale until it finishes its weekends-only run in May. (Details are at However, other homes in the development, by other designers, are priced from $525,000 to $800,000, she said.

In hindsight, the architect said, she might have tweaked a few things in the house, but overall she’s very satisfied with the place, and said it fulfills a long-held wish for a three-dimensional laboratory.

"I’ve always had to point to photographs" to show people her ideas, she said. "This has exceeded my wildest expectations."

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