building a not so big house mindset shifts

Building a Not So Big House: Five Crucial Mindset Shifts to Make First

My first foray into interior design was as an assistant in the kitchen and bath department at the Great Indoors in Chandler, Arizona. I worked weekday evenings, and it could be quite slow. The Great Indoors was ahead of its time, and it had a Starbucks right inside and right next to the desk where I sat. The Starbucks had a little book section, mostly on home improvement and design, and I spent many of those slow evenings sipping a coffee and reading them over and over.

Two of those books were The Not So Big House and Creating the Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka. It was 2004, and the first book was only about 6 years old and not yet dated. I became instantly obsessed with the ideas in those books and haven’t stopped thinking about them and referencing them for over 15 years.

I’ve referenced Not So Big before in other blog posts and on my about page. In summary, Not So Big challenges the idea of the McMansion (something I was surrounded by in early 2000s Phoenix) and asks its readers to consider a different way.

What if we built smaller houses but built them better?

What does better mean in this context? It means building less square footage so that you have more room in your budget to spend on architectural detailing, materials, millwork, hardware, and plumbing, and all of the other little details that infuse personality, character, and sense of timeless quality into a home.

Recently, I’ve had several inquiries from clients interested in building or renovating based on Not So Big House principles, which truly delights me. If you’re curious about getting started down the Not So Big path as well, then there are several mindset shifts you’ll want to make before you start.d

Mindset Shift #1

Every space in your home will be used on a regular, if not daily, basis.

building a Not So Big House mindset shifts

 The quickest and easiest way to shrink your square footage is reduce the number of single function spaces. In other words, we’re going to eliminate or reduce the number of one-function spaces like formal dining rooms.

This exercise may be uncomfortable for you.  For example, you may think you have to have a separate guest bedroom. We actually have two guest bedrooms, and one of them only gets used a few times a year. With our new normal, I don’t envision anyone coming to visit for months, maybe a year.

So, I have a large room with beautiful natural light and a pretty view that no one will enter for the foreseeable future. It also has a totally empty closet and adjacent bathroom no one uses.

How can you make spaces like this do double duty in your new home or even in your current home? I could buy a sleeper sofa and convert this guest room into my office as my current space is busting at the seams. Would that be less attractive for my guests? Sure, but there are ways to make guests comfortable even in a double duty room

Mindset Shift #2

You’ll be living with less stuff.

In order to build or renovate Not So Big, you need to be honest with yourself about what you really need in your home, both for daily life, seasonal activities or events, and for sentimental reasons.

I am a first-hand offender though I’m working on getting better. For years, I carted around ten plus boxes of books than I never read a second time or even looked at. Before the last time we moved, I gave away, sold or donated more than half of them. I could get rid of even more and probably will.

In our basement, I have Rubbermaid containers filled with craft supplies I haven’t touched in twelve years. How do I know? They are still taped shut from three moves ago.

Our pantry is full of food we will never eat, including empty canisters. It also houses small appliances we never use, extra canning jars and who knows what else.

If you really want to build a Not So Big House, then you may want to Marie Kondo your current possessions first. You must commit to doing the mental work so you can let go of the stuff you really don’t need. Your closet will be smaller, and your overflow storage space will be limited.

This is a huge topic, and I can’t begin to do it justice in one post. But, it is something you will want to think about seriously and discuss with your partner and family before embarking on a Not So Big journey.

Mindset Shift #3

You will spend nearly the same amount on your Not So Big Home as you would have on a larger home.

This mindset shift is critical. Let go of the idea that Not So Big House = Not So Big Budget. That’s not the point. Susanka wrote in the original book that you should be prepared to build a house 30% smaller for the same budget if you want it to be Not So Big. You could also translate that to a dollar per square foot amount. It’s going to go up substantially.

If you’re not familiar with Not So Big, the premise is that the extra dollars you free up by building smaller are then used to add architectural character and special features. These details allow the house to live bigger than it actually is.

Are there ways to get creative to mitigate the increase in dollar per square foot? Of course! Susanka highlights some creative ideas in her second book Creating the Not So Big House.

One of my biggest takeaways: plan for future upgrades if the budget doesn’t allow for them during the build or initial renovation. This requires careful planning with your designer, architect, and builder, but it’s definitely possible.

Mindset Shift #4

Less space requires more creativity & innovative solutions.

building a Not So Big House mindset shifts

As I mentioned earlier, part of that increased budget will go towards making the most of the space you have through built-ins, integrated storage, and improved functionality in your cabinetry, closets, and other storage areas.

For example, by upgrading your kitchen cabinetry to a frameless European style you can increase your usable storage over a framed or inset style cabinet.

Designing all of your base cabinets with drawers instead of doors, incorporating pantry pullouts, and building to the ceiling will increase cost but also maximize your kitchen storage. You will need less cabinetry and less square feet for your kitchen overall.

In your closets, you can also build up to the ceiling and add pull down hanging racks. Built-in drawers eliminate the need for dressers, so your bedroom can be smaller. Custom built closets are more expensive, but they will help you use every single bit of space.

Other ideas that are Not So Big include window seat storage, built-ins or closets under staircases, recessed niches with shelves in unused pockets of space, and medicine cabinets in the bathroom.

In other words, we want to look at the plan with a critical eye and think about every place we can build in storage opportunities. But, the key is to have a strategy for what will be stored in each spot and not use this as an opportunity to squirrel away more unneeded stuff and clutter.

Mindset Shift #5

Challenge the norms we’ve become accustomed to through television, magazines, Pinterest, our friends, family, & neighbors.

Some examples…enormous kitchen islands, extra large appliances, double bathroom vanities, huge walk-in showers with separate tubs, individual rooms for each child, and dedicated offices, guest rooms, and dining rooms.

Yes, this will also be uncomfortable, but does your grown child who moved out years ago need their own bedroom in your new home? If you want to build Not So Big, this might not be possible. It’s not wrong if this is one of your goals, but you have to be realistic about what you’re trying to achieve.

Another big budget buster I often see: the finished basement that is almost as much square footage as the main level of the home. It may have a separate family room with a fireplace and television, bar that functions as a second kitchen, multiple bathrooms, a workout room, and more.

I grew up in a decent size home with a living room that was probably around 13’ square. Our family of five watched TV there together every night. One or more of us had to sit on the floor to see the TV, and guess what? We all survived.

One goal of the Not So Big House is the ability to be together but apart. The floor plan should accommodate family members’ preferred activities and give them areas to gather together and also options to retreat while still being in close proximity to each other.

If your Not So Big house is designed properly, you should find your family spending more time together and less time in separate rooms pursuing individual activities alone.

After we purchased our current home, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that it was a Not So Big House in disguise. Built in 1986 and designed by an architect, it’s almost half the size of most new construction homes that I’m designing these days.

The layout of the house is classic Not So Big. None of the spaces, except maybe the master bedroom, are any larger than they need to be. There are no single use rooms. I’m sitting at our only dining table as we type this, but we also eat here and paint and do crafts and fold laundry. Aside from the guest room and closet I mentioned, we’re using every room in this house on a daily basis.

Because it was so well planned, the house feels much larger than it is. We’ve even thought about downsizing because sometimes it feels even too big.

If you’re thinking about building or renovating, I highly encourage you to pick up copies of the original Not So Big House and Creating the Not So Big House books. Even though the photos are dated, they are packed full of gems and ideas to make a slightly smaller house live large and feel special – like a home should.

In closing, I want to say that Not So Big is not an indictment of large homes in general. It is not necessarily about building small homes. It is decidedly not the tiny house movement. It’s simply about building a slightly smaller home for the same amount of money so your budget goes farther.

I’m very passionate about building and renovating based on Not So Big and am excited to write more on this topic in future posts. Sign up below if you’d like to be notified whenever a new post goes live.

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26 thoughts on “Building a Not So Big House: Five Crucial Mindset Shifts to Make First

  1. Jillian:

    I also gobbled up that book by Susanna Susanka! I loved every word of it and it is so exciting to see this post and how you are now incorporating these principles into your own design work and into your own home.

    I hope your potential clients reading this post will understand just how important what you are sharing here is to their well being!

    1. Thank you, Leslie! So many of the principles are just good sense, but if you don’t plan for them from the beginning, it can be hard to go back. It’s so important to have this mindset before you start building.

  2. I too devoured those books in the early 2000’s and am in total agreement! The idea of using all your space fully and spending less on square footage and more on customization and upgrades is so appealing. Living large in smaller square footage is not only possible, but preferable in many cases. I loved this post and look forward to more on this subject!

    1. Thank you, Janet! I think it really hit home for me living in Phoenix. All our friends had five bedroom homes with no detail to them at all and most of the rooms were empty.

  3. This is one of the best blog post’s from an interior design standpoint that I have read in a long time. I love the design philosophy (and Susan Susanka). I think her books are design classics. I hope to see more post’s and ideas for this topic. Thanks for writing it.

    1. Thank you, Wendy! I’m really passionate on this topic so I’m excited to write more on it.

  4. Jillian-

    Great topic! It’s so fun to hear from home professionals who are so passionate about the lifestyles that are created in thoughtful planning!

    I discovered Not So Big shortly after we started our business. We live in a home built in 2016 and I grew up in older homes that my parents renovated. For me it kind of explained why many of us love living in older homes. Building and renovating Not So Big in essence “puts back in” the character that we love in older homes and that has been stripped away from many newer homes.

    The point is not to restrain your true needs, it is to test current thinking so that you build a home that fits yours and your families needs. That makes a home that feels great to live in and one that nurture’s your lifestyle.

    We have always encouraged our clients to use this philosophy for building and renovating homes. Some come to us for that reason in the first place, some buy in right away and others resist it. We don’t force anyone, but we do get the pleasure of having many clients come back and tell us what great ideas this kind of thinking brought to their home and how they are enjoying aspects of their homes that they would have never thought of, had we not encouraged them to think in this way.

    1. Thank you, Devan! I know we think alike in this regard. I think I’m especially sensitive to this “stripping away of character” because I grew up in a neighborhood full of Victorians and Four Squares. The character was the norm rather than the exception.

  5. Terrific post Jillian! This is the 2nd blog I follow in the last two weeks that has mentioned Sarah Susanka’s books. I’m glad to see that the concepts still resonate with designers and homeowners! Living in a Not So Big House is a delight!

    The ideas in the Not So Big House cut our renovation costs immensely – and we use every inch of our 2400 sq ft modernized cape cod home. Using her principles, we used the money we saved on square footage on details such as built ins, and good craftsmanship. The away room concept offers quiet respite and one surprising aspect…while the measurable dimensions of the home are smaller, the psychological dimensions are bigger. Years later her message is still fresh and on point. I’m looking forward to your exploration on this topic in the future!!

    1. Thank you, Janice! The Away Room is one of my favorite concepts in the book. We actually have an Away Room in our house that we’re using as our son’s nursery since it’s next to the master. While I love it as his room, I am dreaming of the day it becomes MY room.

  6. Love this blog post, Jillian. I’ve long been a fan of less quantity and more quality, which seems to align with these mindset shifts. I also love the idea of new builds constructed with more attention to detail (and more of the budget dedicated to those details!). Great things to consider…thank you!

    1. Lauren, I think the key is going into the new build with the Not So Big mindset from the very beginning. Otherwise, it’s so easy to keep adding a little here and a little there. And before you know it, the space is taking over the budget.

  7. Hi Jillian – I love the Not So Big House books! I’ve always been a huge fan of small but fabulous homes. Now I just have to get my Marie Kondo on an purge, purge, purge!

    1. Linda, I need to do another big purge as well. Hopefully we’ll be able to start making donations again soon!

  8. I have been thinking about doing this for years and the mindset is so important! I haven’t read the books, but they sound fabulous!

    1. Carla, they are a must read for anyone interested in home design. The photos and styles are really dated now, but the ideas and concepts feel totally fresh. I wish they would do an updated version with new photos and homes. I think it would be a best seller.

  9. Those books by Sarah Susanka are two of by favorite design books ever. Thanks for highlighting how relevant they are still.

    1. I knew you were a kindred spirit. I think they’re more relevant now than ever before.

  10. We bought our not so big house twenty years ago. It got smaller as our kids got bigger. Now it’s tiny and our son is going to move back at the end of summer. I am constantly purging “stuff” and ort creeps back in. But I wouldn’t trade the five acres it sits on for anything!

    1. Christina, I haven’t had to experience that yet, but I imagine kid stuff as they grow makes a huge difference. We’ve tried to be vigilant of letting go of his things as we know they’re no longer needed, but we still have a ton sitting around in our basement. I think living Not So Big also forces you to confront your stuff more regularly than if you have more space for it to keep expanding.

  11. Jillian, I absolutley love this! The concept of ‘bigger is better’ or ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’ is not one that my family follows. I really love your Mindset Shifts as well!

    When we built our home almost 17 years ago, although we had limitations to the layout, we ensured every room was thought out on how we would use it.

    After 17 years, and our kids growing up in this home, some of the rooms have functionally changed, but I find we use all of our home.

    1. Sheri, that’s awesome that your planning worked out so well.

  12. I loved the Great Indoors! I’m in Scottsdale and that location had everything you described including the books! I’m intrigued, I really think that we are seeing a shift in the McMansion mindset – yes we have huge sprauling communities of them all over the valley, but I’m also seeing a resurgence in my clients wanting to renovate older, custom homes with character they’d like to keep or include in their new designs. I’ll be picking up these books they sound like a great read!

    1. Suzi, my stipulation to moving to Phoenix (to my now ex-husband) was that we had to live in Central Phoenix or Scottsdale in a historic neighborhood. Willo was out of our budget at the time, so we ended up in a little 1937 block home in the Woodlea district. It was really on the verge in 2004, but I think has since become a great neighborhood. We sold it in 2006 and were working with the Real Estate Twins to get into Arcadia or Scottsdale in a 50’s style home, but we decided to move back to the East Coast instead. I still think about those houses and love following them on Instagram.

  13. What a fantastic article! I’ve honestly haven’t come across this before, I am not a home owner yet but will definitely be saving this article for when I am ready. Thank you!!

  14. Jillian, I’ve lots of questions. Is this a blog? If so how do I follow it? My wife and I are building our second small house, only 600 sqft. We literally designed and built our first, 1258 sq ft, ourselves. It’s worked great for 20 years. My questions deal with interior design components. Would it be better to contact you professionally? If so, how? Thank you.

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Jillian Lare Des Moines Interior Designer

About Jillian

Welcome! I’m a Des Moines based interior designer, boy mom to one, avid reader and always aspiring artist. I started this blog when I moved to Iowa in 2008. Currently, I write about life in Iowa, personal development, and my creative journey.

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