Sarah Susanka may have written the “Not So Big” series of architecture books, but she’s a woman of big, bold ideas. On May 16, the architect and author shared her wisdom with a Winter Park audience of 250 at Casa Feliz’s 9th Annual James Gamble Rogers Colloquium on Historic Preservation. Susanka’s nine books, which revolve around the theme of quality over quantity in home design, have sold well over a million copies. Her ideas have the potential to change not only how we design our homes, but how we plan our cities, and even prioritize our lives.
Susanka squeezed an amazing amount of wisdom into her 90 minute lecture, but we’ve excerpted some particularly memorable gems here:
On Winter Park’s College Quarter and historic neighborhoods:
“It’s the quality of the scale of each of these (houses) in relation to each other is what gives these places their charm…the older houses have a ‘come and meet me at my porch’ feeling that is largely absent in new houses today.”
On Historic Preservation:
“Preservation is about allowing your community to have a sense of history that you can feel palpably every day…We all know the cities that we love the most and it’s because of that. And your community has that.”
On a (formerly) historic neighborhood in Illinois, and tear-downs:
“This is what happens when people don’t understand about the proportions and the character of the neighborhood being the point. What’s sad is that people moved there because they loved it. But then they didn’t understand what it was that they were loving…the property value was very high, so every professional said to the homeowner ‘you need to build at least this much square footage…because of the land value’…What happened? The very fabric of the community, which is why people wanted to live there, disappeared. This is my fear in communities around the country, and I know this is something that (Winter Park) is grappling with.”
On New Home Design:
“You can’t always say ‘no tear downs.’ So when there is a tear-down, (it’s important to focus on) how to make that new house fit into the neighborhood.”
“We are building our living rooms for people we’d rather not have in our houses. We are told by all the professionals who are supposed to be guiding us that we have to have these big rooms that we really don’t use anymore.”
“A ‘Not So Big’ house is 1/3 smaller than the house you thought you needed, with the dollars reapportioned to quality over size.”
“The core values of what people are hunting for – beauty and balance, harmony, home as sanctuary, sustainability and well-being—are totally absent in most of the new houses being built today.”
On the importance of architects:
“We are very attuned to space but we have no language for it. So just like having a musical ear, we can all appreciate music to one degree or another, but most of us don’t know how to write a piece of music. Architects are like musicians of space. We use the space to create particular qualities, and that’s what people fall in love with. All these beautiful old bungalows were designed originally by architects…what you’re loving is actually good design. That’s why they work and why they have worked for such a long time.”
On the “trap” of being taken in by a floor plan:
“A floor plan tells you zero about how a house will feel. For the feeling, you need information about the 3rd dimension, the heights of everything, and that’s where the feeling starts to come in. No wonder people are building house after house and are frustrated.”
“Ceiling height and the shift in ceiling height makes all the difference in the world. And I’m not talking about ‘tall, taller and tallest.’ I’m talking about a shift in articulation from 7 feet to 8 feet.”
On “too big” spaces and building to a human scale:
“The other piece of this that is so critical is that we have to build to our human scale…you can look at a photograph of a massive space and it can look pretty..but if you were trying to live in that room, you’d be in an echo chamber.”
“One of the challenges with these big houses is that we don’t have any of that feeling (of occupying the space). We feel tiny…An 18 foot ceiling is wonderful for a state capitol but not for your family room. Because you can’t feel like you occupy that space. You can be in awe, but do you want to be in awe in your family room?”
“People want a house that fits them more like a suit than a sack.”
On the importance of beauty in architecture:
“Beauty matters! We can build the greenest house there is, but I can tell you right now that if it’s not beautiful, it’s not sustainable, because we won’t want to look after it. Never underestimate the value of making something beautiful.”
On Infill Design in Neighborhoods
“There are going to be situations where someone’s living in a beautiful neighborhood like Winter Park and they want double the space. There is still a way to do it so it fits with the existing neighborhood…this is what I call being a good neighbor, where you’re recognizing what is needed to fit in. It’s letting people know that you’re aware of the beauty of the neighborhood and you want to fit in. It doesn’t have to look identical but the proportioning, being in scale with your neighbors, is so, so important.”
On why many planned communities fail:
“Doing it from scratch is a real challenge. It needs to have a flavor of organic growth. That’s what makes it come alive. There are many new urban communities that do that, often by having saved particular trees or a particular anomaly in the landscape that then becomes the focal point and allows other organic idiosyncrasies to happen all around it.”
“Life is much simpler than we think. Life is just the experience of what’s happening right now…we don’t have to argue with it, we can just be here. And that’s where the joy is. Ask yourself, “what inspires me?” And it doesn’t have to be something enormous—it can be gardening…and give yourself permission to do just that. Believe it or not, that is the bridge to a sustainable future. Extraordinary things happen by paying attention to what your heart loves to do.”
You can watch Susanka’s entire Colloquium lecture by clicking here: https://vimeo.com/129314854
PLUS! Winter Park Awards First Ever Historic Preservation Awards
At the 2015 Colloquium, four property owners were honored with the city’s first annual Historic Preservation Awards. Genean McKinnon, a member of the Winter Park Historic Preservation Board, presented awards to the following:
Excellence in Residential Renovation – The Annie B. Johnston, 834 Antonette Avenue
Recipients: current owners Rick and Wendy Hosto
The house was built in 1926 for Annie B. Johnston. The bungalow is a historic
resource in the College Quarter Historic District. Over almost 80 years of occupancy, the bungalow suffered from an application of inappropriate siding and a poorly built addition. Suzanne Fisher acquired the house in 2005. She removed the siding and improved the front porch access, restored the interior of the house and replaced the failing add-on in keeping with the historic Craftsman architecture. The historic house was fully renovated in character and prepared for decades of enjoyment. Ms. Fisher opened the house for the 2014 Colloquium tour which focused on restored homes. The current owners, Rick and Wendy Hosto, recently purchased the house from Ms. Fisher.
Excellence in Commercial Renovation – The COOP by John Rivers, 610 Morse Boulevard
Brad Watson, 4Rivers Director of Real Estate & Construction, received the award on behalf of John Rivers
“It’s never too late to mend” (mural on The COOP’s patio wall) expresses the philosophy that guided the sensitive renovation of 610 West Morse Boulevard. The building had been Mike Hage’s Market in the middle of the last century. First renovated by John Spang for the East India Market after standing empty for a time, it would later be occupied by a series of tenants who were not always so considerate of the vernacular commercial building. John River had the foresight to reimagine the building as the perfect place for his new southern style restaurant, The COOP. He brought the building up to current code standards added a lively vintage inspired sign. The COOP’s adaptive reuse and renovation preserve the building’s unpretentious character and honors Hannibal Square history.
Excellence in Adaptive Reuse –Kummer- Kilbourne House by Allen Keen, Keewin Properties, 121 Garfield Avenue
Parkland International Realty President Hal George, contractor, received the award on behalf of Allen Keen
In the early 1900s, Kummer Lumber was located behind the 1916 house which faces Central Park. It served as the home of owner Gotthilf “George” Kummer and his descendants for almost 100 years. Kummer’s grandchildren spurned many offers to sell the only house in the upscale Park Avenue Corridor after their mother’s passing until they found a buyer they trusted in Allan Keen. A space in a big glass box office in the suburbs isn’t for everyone. The house and the detached garage were meticulously restored for Keewin Properties’ business offices. The house was placed on the Winter Park Register of Historic Places in 2004 and is included in the Downtown Winter Park National Register Historic District.
Lifetime Achievement –In Remembrance of John Spang
Mrs. John “Cissy” Spang, owner operator of the Park Plaza Hotel, received the award given in remembrance of her husband John Spang.
A dynamic visionary and Winter Park advocate, John Spang contributed to the revitalization of downtown and Hannibal Square at a time when businesses were moving to new suburbs and shopping malls. John Spang had a different vision. He and his wife Cissy arrived in Winter Park in the 1970s. Recognizing the intrinsic charm of historic but faded downtown, he opened the East India Clothing Store on Park Avenue followed by the East India Ice Cream Parlor. He acquired the former Hamilton Hotel and Grill and revitalized it as the stylish Park Plaza Hotel and Park Plaza Gardens restaurant. When the 1920s Alabama Hotel closed, John Spang had the vision to reimagine the once grand winter escape as condominiums. He pioneered revitalization in Hannibal Square by opening the East India Market and Coffee Emporium in the former Mike Hage’s Market building where he became a master coffee roaster before coffee shops were “cool”. John Spang will be remembered for infusing new life into Winter Park’s historic buildings so residents and visitors can enjoy them today.