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Sarah Susanka

Making a Place of Your Own
by Sarah Susanka

In my experience, once a couple starts living together, all the rooms in the house become shared property. While the two people may have different tastes, necessary decorating compromises are made. The resulting decor becomes either an amalgam of their sensibilities, or one personís tastes dominate and the other makes do.

On the other hand, itís common today for each child to have his or her own bedroom, with personalized decoration. For some reason, however, we havenít extended this luxury to adults, although the idea appeals to many. The concept of a place of oneís own seems almost taboo, with the implication that if you need a space for yourself, then maybe there are marital problems.

Not So Big Solutions for Your Home by Sarah Susanka

As an architect, Iíve observed the opposite. When each adult has a small place within the house to make entirely his or her own, the marriage is often healthier. Itís human nature that we need places to be together and places to be apart.

We can design our homes to allow this need to be realized in more hospitable ways. Whether itís a place to engage in a hobby, to listen to music or simply to be quiet and away from the hubbub of family life for a while, such a spot can offer the opportunity to nurture individual delights and passions. The following anecdotes illustrate the variety of places of oneís own that are possible, with ideas to meet every budget.

Sarah's Sacred Space

A divided office conquers two needs.

Several years ago, I was hired by a newly married couple. Their house had been owned by Richard for more than a decade, and Joyce was the newcomer to the residence. His tastes leaned toward darker finishes and color schemes with a distinctly masculine flavor, while she preferred a light, soft, contemporary look. Theyíd succeeded in redoing the decor of the house more or less to satisfy both of them, but it was not a complete expression of either of their sensibilities. Joyce suggested that perhaps there was a way they could also have a small place where each could decorate the way they wanted. Richard could put up his sporting prints and model-car collection, and she could display some of her favorite artwork, dried flowers and assorted treasures from her past.

The house was not large, so they werenít sure how to accomplish their goal. There were four bedrooms on the second floor: a small one that served as a guest room, Richardís 5-year-old daughterís room, their bedroom and a shared office. Theyíd been considering adding on, but the construction costs deterred them. I suggested that we take the office and divide it into two smaller rooms, one for each of them. These small spaces would be adequate as "places of their own." And if the house were ever put on the market, it would be easy to remove the wall between the two spaces and to return the room to its original size and function.

The remodeling to make the room into two spaces was minor, leaving more dollars for adding character to the resulting rooms. Both Richard and Joyce ended up using their spaces for offices as well as sitting places. Richard kept his wood shutters closed and created a denlike area, with dark oak wainscoting, a TV and a recliner.

Joyce, by contrast, had sheer drapes over the windows, light-colored carpeting and a pastel-colored couch. Her walls were covered with old photographs of relatives. Although she hadnít been planning this touch, a place of her own afforded her the opportunity to indulge her love of genealogy; she surrounded herself with images of those she was researching. After a few months with the arrangement, they both reported that they were happier, not only with the house but also with each other. All it had taken was a little creativity in rethinking what purpose each bedroom in the house might be put to.

Adding inward to create a window seat.

Another client came to me with a deep longing for a window seat, something she had wanted since childhood. She envisioned a space with a beautiful view where she could curl up with a book and read in the afternoons before her children returned from school. Her husband had a woodshop in the basement that satisfied his need for a place of his own, but she had no equivalent. They considered adding a bay window and called me to help determine where it should go.

I pointed out that although a bay window can be beautiful, it might not be their best solution. A bay is not a good place to sit because itís not comfortable to lean against a window. A better solution is to have a solid wall perpendicular to a window that you can lean on while looking out. Because the master bedroom had ample floor area, a window seat could be added without building out by build-ing closets on both sides of an existing window, creating an alcove.

Flanking the window with 28-in. deep closets and lowering the ceiling over the window created a passable window seat. The seat has drawers below for extra bedding and a 4-in. thick upholstered cushion made precisely for the kind of cozy, curl-up spot my client had been seeking. The total price of the remodel was reasonable, and the clients added some much-needed closet space to boot. Once again, adding on was avoided, and the available dollars could be spent instead on making the "place of oneís own" really beautiful and comfortable.

The simplest approach.

The final example of a place of oneís own is the most economical of all and, in fact, is not really an architectural solution. It takes advantage of a spatial characteristic present in every room: the corner. My client was a meditator who wanted a place to accommodate his zafu (meditation cushion) and a low table for a few small objects that had meaning to him. But he didnít want to have this area in the middle of a room used for other purposes. Rather, he wanted it to have a little privacy and separation from the other activities of the house. Unfortunately, the dollars available for this project were limited and wouldnít allow any moving of walls. So we came up with a creative solution using furniture rather than studs and drywall. With the addition of a folding screen from a local imports store, we transformed a corner of the formal living room into a secluded place for meditation. The shape of the corner created a sense of shelter, and the screen provided a sense of enclosure.

Over the years, Iíve designed places of oneís own for all kinds of longings, from a location to practice calligraphy, to a writerís attic retreat, to an alcove for a friend to indulge her love of collage-making. None of these places required a lot of space. In almost every case, if you are creative, you can find a small area thatís rarely used in the house to make the place, without incurring the expense of adding on. Although these gestures seem small and perhaps insignificant, the effect such a space can have on your life is enormous.

Excerpted from Not So Big Solutions for Your Home by Sarah Susanka (Taunton Press, 2002). All Rights Reserved.


Creating The Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka The Not So Big House Collection by Sarah Susanka The Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka

Sarah Susanka
Sarah Susanka,
award-winning architect and best-selling Taunton Press author. A cultural visionary, Sarah Susanka has emerged as a leader of a movement that is redefining the American home. Today her "build better, not bigger" approach to residential architecture has been embraced by homeowners, architects and builders across the country and her Not So Big philosophy is part of a national dialogue.

Susanka, a leading advocate for the re-popularization of residential architecture, has improved the quality of home design and is countering the elitist image of architects so commonly held by the public.

Because of her revolutionary vision, Susanka is a sought-after resource by industry groups and members of the media. Professional organizations, including the American Institute of Architects and the National Association of Home Builders, continually request her to speak at local and national conferences. She has shared her insights on big ideas for small spaces with The Oprah Winfrey Show, USA Today, the Boston Globe Magazine and Charlie Rose. In February, Fast Company named her to their debut list of "Fast 50" innovators whose achievements have helped to change society, an honor preceded by her selection as a Newsweek top newsmaker for 2000 and a U.S. News & World Report innovator in American culture in 1998.

Susanka has earned similar accolades for her books. Her first, The Not So Big House (Taunton Press, 1998), spent two years among the top five best-sellers on Amazon.comís Home and Garden list. Creating The Not So Big House was released by the Taunton Press across the country in October 2000, and both books combined have now sold more than 500,000 copies.

Susanka is also a highly popular contributing editor for Fine Homebuilding magazine, where she explores issues commonly encountered in new home design and remodeling in her "Drawing Board" column. Her latest book, Not So Big Solutions for Your Home (2002), a compilation of the best columns, provides people of all skill levels and budgets 30 everyday design solutions for turning a house into a home in response to the demand for answers to a range of household challenges.

Prior to her work as an author and public speaker, Susanka was a principal and founding partner of Mulfinger, Susanka, Mahady & Partners, Inc., a firm specializing in residential architecture in Minneapolis, Minn. She spent 16 years at the company (now known as SALA Architects), which was selected to design the 1999 Life Dream House. Susanka is a registered architect, a member of the American Institute of Architects and is a certified interior designer. For more information about Susanka and her work, visit www.taunton.com or www.notsobighouse.com.


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