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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Not So Big
distributed 8/2/13 - ©2013

If we tell people that they have to give up the things that they treasure as "the good life", they will rightly see our description of a just and sustainable society as deprivation. No matter how noble the cause, they won't join in. So what do we do?

Do we continue to browbeat folk with an ethical and pragmatic mandate that is unattractive and ineffective? Do we give in to the inevitable cultural trends, and settle for a pseudo-sustainable veneer on an inherently unsustainable culture? Or, can we provide a different vision of the good life that will allow us to move in a new direction?

A decade ago, I wrote, "Broad-based, lasting change happens, not from a commitment to a dismal but ethically pure option, but from the joyous acceptance of a choice that is more fulfilling." That's a wonderful theory, but how does that work?

A series of books by a thoughtful architect provide hopeful and helpful lessons about how to change deeply-embedded cultural assumptions. It really is possible to entice folk toward a very different description of the good life.

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Sarah Susanka wrote "The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live" in 1998. The US housing boom was in full swing. "Starter Castles" and "McMansions" were hyped as the dream for aspiring families. Square footage and ostentatious spaces topped the list of desirable details. That's the setting in which Ms. Susanka put forth the almost heretical idea that "more rooms, bigger spaces, and vaulted ceilings do not necessarily give us what we need in a home."

The bursting of the housing bubble, and the trauma of foreclosures and "upside-down" mortgages have moderated the huge-house syndrome (although I certainly see a resurgence of it in some Denver neighborhoods). But even today, the "not so big" theme is surprising and refreshing option. Susanka's books became a best sellers, helped define a different architectural language, and are providing a welcome option for people who recognize that size isn't the only quality to look for in a house.

I see four aspects to the "not so big" series of books that have created a viable, even beloved, option in housing design. We can learn from Ms. Susanka's success by drawing on similar aspects in other work for social change toward a just and sustainable future.

  1. She named a real problem. The median square feet of floor area for new privately owned, single-family homes jumped from 1,560 in 1974 to 2,248 in 2006. The typical McMansion is 3,000 square feet or larger. Not only that, many of those big houses were uncomfortable and poorly used. She can tell stories like that of a man who admitted that, "in 25 years his family had never sat in the living room." Another family said, "All we've got is square footage with no soul." It is not just that the houses were big. They also didn't meet the real needs of the people who lived in them. She makes her case about bad houses, not with a list of statistics, but with stories about people who are not happy.

    The parallels to other current issues should be self-evident: a consumer culture that does not bring us either joy or satisfaction; an oil-dependant society that is fracking suburban neighborhoods and warping the climate; processed foods that are bad for us and that taste bad, too. There are plenty of facts and an abundance of stories to show the flaws of what we have been told is an ideal way of life. If we tell the stories well, people will feel the problem in their hearts, not just in their heads.

  2. She provided a reasonable and attractive option. "Not so big" is a far cry from "little", and the homes she describes are lovely and comfortable. She's able to tell her readers that the real deprivation is found in a huge, sterile and echoing house. A smaller and carefully designed dwelling is what meets our needs and makes us feel comfortable.

    The "not so big" vision is quite different from the "tiny house" challenge where enthusiastic visionaries try to find how small they can go and still have a livable space. One designer has "tiny" cottages ranging from 261 square feet up (that is small!) to 874 square feet (which is larger than my family's modest, but not tiny, house!) "How little do I need" is not the driving question for most people.

    Susanka hit a sweet spot by avoiding an extreme diatribe against "big" or an insistence on "tiny". She shifted the focus from the number of rooms or square feet to the question of what is really desirable in a home. Some of the parallels? There are times to shift the conversation from what is "wasteful" or "sustainable". Highlight the joys of local and organic food. Celebrate the community of a walkable neighborhood with shared spaces.

  3. The "not so big" book series defined a new language that allows architects and homeowners to talk about what they want and need. The books throws away a traditional list of typical spaces (living room, dining room, TV room) and offers instead a list of functions -- public spaces that combines kitchen and entertaining, a "place of your own" for privacy, a spot to sort mail that didn't exist in older houses. She clarified language about room size, sight lines, ceiling height and lighting that allow people to describe what feels appropriate and comfortable to them.

    For social change, there are outmoded and inappropriate concepts that we have to stop using. The "Gross Domestic Product" as a measure of economic health is as stupid as a formal living room that is never used. We can cast aside "affluence" and start to claim "sufficiency" as a description of what is personally and socially satisfying. A shift from "I" to "we", from individualism toward community and the common good, gives us the language to define a different way of living. Whether in home design or social systems, the old concepts and language will ties us to old ways of understanding the world.

  4. The most compelling part of Susanka's work is found in the stunning photos of houses that embody the "not so big" principles. We're not asked to believe in an abstract principle. The pictures show us spaces were we'd love to have dinner with friends, or curl up with a good book, or share time with the family. There is no doubt that these beautiful and welcoming spaces are a better option than the over-sized and inappropriately purposed rooms offered by so many upscale housing developers.

    Whether we do so with actual photos, or with detailed and heart-warming stories, the most challenging part of envisioning a different future is to show that it really is possible, joyous and beautiful. Rather than looking to "the rich and famous" for models of the ideal life, we can celebrate the folk who volunteer in their kids' schools, who find delight in bird watching instead of shopping, and who have found well-centered happiness with "enough" instead of constantly seeking "more." We can lift up many urban neighborhoods where people are choosing to live precisely because they are walkable, diverse, modest and efficient.

Sarah Susanka has had a dramatic impact on architecture and housing by providing a careful and comprehensive set of alternatives to the dominant ideal. She didn't only show that "starter castles" were stupid, inefficient and unsatisfying. She also provided the concepts, language and vivid images so that we could see that "not so big" is a far better option than the big-for-the-sake-of-big, and so that we can talk about what we really desire. (And, yes, her "not so big" homes are still elegant and expensive dwellings that are a far cry from affordable housing.)

We will do well if our work toward a just and sustainable future draws on the same comprehensive approach. It is essential, but not enough, to point out the urgent problems. We also have to show that there are real alternatives, rooted in strong principles, with clear language to describe what we're trying to do. And we need compelling stories images and that allow feel the emotional tug toward that way of living.

We won't attract many people to our vision if it feels like suffering. Luckily, we don't have to take that route. We can point toward a new and different notion of the good life that is delightful and fulfilling, just and sustainable.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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