Fewer rooms with a view

September 12, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

When it comes to custom building, bigger doesn't necessarily mean better houses. And it's all about the view, experts say.

Custom building is on the rise - and people aren't waiting until they retire to build their dream homes, said national building trends expert Tony Green of Massachusetts, who holds a master's degree in planning from Harvard University's Kennedy School and served as chairman of the Neighborhood Development Council at the Urban Land Institute. Green said 50 is the average age of people buying custom-built homes.

"Most people aren't retiring," he said. "Instead of waiting until retirement age, they're saying, 'Why not build now?'"

North Carolina-based architect and interior designer Sarah Susanka's mantra is "build better, not bigger." She preaches quality-built, smaller houses that complement residents' lifestyles.

Susanka said an increasing number of people buying custom homes are turned off by what she calls "starter castles."

"The current pattern of building big to allow for quantities of furniture with still more room to spare is more akin to wearing a sack than a tailored suit," she wrote in her groundbreaking book, "The Not So Big House" (Taunton Press, 1998). "It may offer capacity, but at the cost of comfort and charm."


"The Not So Big House" proposed a new way of thinking about what makes a place feel like home. A house should be designed to support its inhabitants, Susanka said.

"It is the expression of you in the house form," she said. "We are really sculptors. We shape the space. And it's the shape of the space that makes you feel certain ways. The shape of the insides of our house, particularly, affect us deeply."

The secret to designing a "not so big house," Susanka has written, is "the ability to think creatively, responding to needs and wishes, not to preconceived notions of what a house should be."

For example, instead of asking an architect to design a four-bedroom Colonial, present the architect with a list of the rooms you will need and the activities you engage in throughout the day, in linear order. That way the architect can design a home that is highly functional and beautiful at the same time, Susanka said.

"Sometimes when I look at the linear pattern of events, I can see there may be a better way," she said.

Susanka said she developed her "not so big" design concepts through practice at her former architectural firm in Minneapolis, where client after client wanted at least 3,000 square feet of living space for a mere $100 per square foot - although the building materials and amenities they desired averaged about $250 per square foot.

"It's really about effective use of funds," she said. "When we typically build a small house in this culture, we typically build it cheap. I'm trying to pry the two apart. Just because it's smaller doesn't mean it has to be cheaper. It can be stunningly beautiful."

More view, less work

Today's custom-home buyers also want great views from their new pads, Green said.

"That might be of golf, it might be of a pond, it might be of a horizon, or it might be of a woods - anything except another house," he said. As managing partner of The Pinehills ( upscale housing community in Massachusetts, Green has helped design a development in which all homes boast a "feeling of view and space without the maintenance," he said. "A lot of yard means a lot of upkeep."

At The Pinehills, where houses start at $300,000, building lots are situated according to view rather than road frontage - the traditional method, Green said.

"It's a way of getting people what they want rather than by happenstance," he said. "Roads become a way of accessing a view."

Many buyers want such informal interior spaces as breakfast rooms and family rooms to capture outside views, Green said. And the most popular custom-built room these days is the enclosed four-season porch, he said. Green said the amenity was so requested among The Pinehills' clients that architects started making it a standard part of house plans.

In addition to fabulous views, many of today's custom-home buyers desire on-site accessibility to such amenities as golf and hiking.

"But the concept of community is even broader than golf and trails," Green said. People want to be able to walk to the grocery store, the office supply company and other service centers, he said.

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