Sarah Susanka's latest book, "The Not So Big Life" (Random House, $19.95), the follow-up to "The Not So Big House," is about decluttering life.
Susanka is famous for saying that new houses are too big, waste resources needlessly and that we, as a society, have the smarts to be able to do things better.
Her point is that just because the house is smaller, you don't have to give anything up. In fact, if you carry the thinking along, smaller, simpler and better designed houses will cost less and probably open up homeownership to more people.
Building smaller, simpler and thus more affordable houses could put prices within reach of the marginal buyers who have now painted themselves into corners by signing up for exotic mortgages that are adjusting them into delinquency and foreclosure.
As Boyce Thompson, editorial director of Builder magazine, showed us with his "Reality House” at the 2006 Builders Show in Orlando, design is more important than size, and a well-designed smaller house can be, in effect, much larger than a McMansion four or five times its size.
Thompson's point was that bigger houses were not better when it came to finding places for the “stuff” of which modern America is made. He sent his staff to new home recently purchased, and found the buyers covering their countertops with packages from the bulk stores and piling dishes on the kitchen tables because there was no place to put them.
New-home buyers want storage; builders say they are providing it. Perhaps the two of them should talk.
Every week, strewn along the sides of the streets in every community are the remains of impulse buying, otherwise known as junk. The presence of these unwanted items is evidence of a need to make room for new junk, not of decluttering but of re-cluttering.
Susanka is not the only advocate of smaller equals better. Marianne Cusato's Katrina Cottage, now available at Lowe's outlets in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, is one architect's brilliant effort to get thousands of displaced Gulf Coast residence into small, but attractive housing designed in the architectural vernacular of the region.
Cusato's cottage is one of several designed as alternatives to expensive, ugly and unsafe-in-any-storm FEMA trailers. The cottage can be temporary housing toward the back of a lot that will let the homeowners live pleasantly and comfortably, and, once the new house is built, become an in-law apartment, home office or guest house.
What surprised Cusato when she unveiled her cottage design was the wider interest, especially from developers of resorts. The resort developers' interest represents a 180-degree turn from the trend of the last several years to bulldoze the simpler vacation cottages in favor of giant houses with all the bells and whistles.
Another small-house book worth a look is Shay Salomon's "Little House on a Small Planet" ($19.95, Lyons Press), which emphasizes both simplicity and energy-efficiency.
From the start, Salomon urges the American homeowner to forget trying to keep up with the Joneses and start building smarter. While some of the examples in the book are, to say the least, unusual and probably won't do all that well as resales, unless America undergoes a radical change in mindset, it shows that a lot of people other than architects and planners are thinking about alternatives.
Remember, it is not only small that needs to be seriously considered, but green and energy-efficient and affordable upfront and long-term.
It's encouraging to see that we are finally talking seriously about it.