Does “smaller” always have to mean “lesser”?

This is a question a lot of builders that have been coming up with more compact house plans are probably asking themselves. It’s also something downsizing buyers must wonder about. Two leading designers are convinced that with some relatively minor tweaks to those plans, builders can create the perception of size in smaller spaces without sacrificing quality or blowing up their costs.

Sarah Susanka, the best-selling author of “The Not So Big House” and other books, has long insisted that size has very little to do with the “sense” of a home that many buyers are seeking. She also thinks that the market for smaller houses with personalized touches might be significantly larger than some builders think.

During BUILDER’s Housing Leadership Summit in Chicago on Tuesday, Susanka showed examples of six new house designs she and her architect-partner, Joseph Stein, have come up with specifically for production builders. The designs—named after six famous poets such as The Whitman and The Emerson—aim at creating a house that “lives larger than its square footage.”

These designs, which range from 1,500 to 2,400 square feet, follow four “not-so-big” principles, says Susanka. The first is that while “we live in a 3-D world,” too many builders are building houses on a two-dimensional plane. What’s lacking, she says, is “character,” which can be attained simply by varying the ceiling heights in different rooms. Susanka made her point with an animation of one of her designs, The Nin, which showed the interior of the house with and without soffits, trim bands and trellises. The inclusion or exclusion of each element noticeably altered the spatial feeling of the rooms. (Susanka also notes that the soffits can be “free-floating components” that don’t affect the trimming out of doors and windows.)

The second principle is “light to walk towards,” which, for example, is achieved by placing a window at the end of a vista or hallway to give the impression of greater depth. Light also plays a role in the third principle, “reflecting surfaces,” which advocates positioning outside light sources such as windows adjacent or near surfaces like countertops so that the light itself reflects off the surface.

Susanka also talked about lending “visual weight” to the appearance of the house by, for example, using different colors for exterior siding.

Based on conversations she had with builders at the last IBS convention, Susanka said that more builders seem to be coming around to the idea that smaller doesn’t have to reduce house plans to their lowest common design denominators. “I think the downturn is going to dramatically improve the American home.”

During the same session at the Summit, designer Michael Woodley tried to impress on his audience how home buyers (at least in the United States) are demanding a “new aesthetic” that breaks away from conventional house designs that have become too static, nostalgic, or predictable. “There’s still a market for McMansions and Old World and Tuscan and Spanish. But it’s also time to look forward,” he said.

Woodley was instrumental in helping Shea Homes devise its Spaces series of affordable, energy-efficient homes. This concept works for a number of reasons, he explained, starting with standardization: Spaces only has two window types, two kitchen designs, all of the bathrooms are the same, and they only have stalled showers.

In coming up with Spaces, Woodley said he talked with lots of people about how they live. Using that input, a key element of Spaces became its flexible living areas, which Woodley dubbed “Watch,” “Work,” “Eat” and “Play,” for the activities they can accommodate. (Indeed, this is what gave Spaces—which was originally called the Shea Smart Series—its name, he said.)

Woodley and his team thought of Spaces as “if you were living in a nice hotel.” And the concept has certainly attracted attention: the opening of a model in Arizona drew 1,500 people on the first day. Another 350 turned out—and 19 bought a house—when Spaces debuted in the Denver market on April 15, 2009.

While Woodley conceded that Spaces isn’t for everyone, he reinforced Susanka’s main point that more builders should be exploiting the sizable market for smaller, well-designed and well–built homes. To illustrate his point about this trend, he ended his presentation with images of an 800-square-foot house in Oregon that his firm had designed for D.R. Horton.

John Caulfield is senior editor for BUILDER magazine.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Chicago, IL.