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Book Review: December 2010

Not So Big Remodeling: Tailoring Your Home for the Way You Really Live

by Sarah Susanka and Marc Vassallo

Susanka - Not So Big Remodeling - Copyright 2010
© Randy O'Rourke, Architect and Elaine Gallagher, AIA

I have several of Susanka's books and enjoyed every one of them. I love old houses because of the materials and techniques used like old growth woods and handwrought hardware as well as the craftsmanship of dovetailed drawers and mortise and tenon joinery. Often these survive despite the determined remuddling of our parents and grandparents. However, that doesn't mean all old houses are restoration worthy. And that's where Not So Big Remodeling shines.

Susanka discriminates between the house that merits a historical restoration and the merely old … usually mangled … house that needs to be restored to reasonable functionality and some decent aesthetic. This book is an ideal starting point for the homeowner who must add space to an old house.

She also delves into "green remodeling" from the standpoint that it's more sustainable to use what you have and maximize its value than build new.

For the purists among us, Not So Big Remodeling might unsettle you. She has no qualms about taking an existing house ... let's say a pretty little 1920s Colonial Revival cottage and turning it into a Garrison Colonial more reminiscent of the 1930s. What is instructive is how beautiful some of these remodels are.

It should also be noted that Susanka makes no argument for retaining and augmenting original windows, but instead recommends window replacement. Her examples were well-done, so even though keeping your windows is preferable to replacing, her solutions were well-thought out for the house. (Anyone who has priced historically accurate dual-pane replacements knows that's one improvement with a hefty price tag!)

In the hands of less skilled designers, major old house remodels often make us wince. "What the devil were they THINKING!" is a common lament. Through a series of case studies, Susanka examines issues and offers solutions on a room-by-room basis and in almost every case they are thoughtfully designed, functional, and very attractive.

She starts with the basics and asks the essential questions ... something I expect from a good architect. What do you like about your house now? What works? What doesn't? She covers the neighborhood context, proportion, the elements of style, and most importantly, how to achieve a balance between the old and the new. Each chapter begins with a series of questions, then launches into a variety of solutions that range from the traditional cottage to modern and contemporary looks. There is a lot of eye candy ... my favorites are the small, intimate spaces like nooks, corners, and built-ins that are natural solutions for our little old houses.

Susanka - Not So Big Remodeling CoverSusanka's house examples are often fairly large by old house standards, but she never demands size as a solution. There are plent of great examples of ways to reconfigure floor plans to accommodate life style variations, activities, and the individual needs. She shows before and after layouts to demonstrate a more logical flow between spaces that enhances what's already there.

Of the many shelter books on remodeling, this is one of the best (IMNSHO). For owners of older homes who are going to make improvements, it provides valuable insight into what might work well for their homes, especially if they are not applying for the National Register. It's also great resource for newer homes that are somewhat character challenged.

Susanka, Sarah and Marc Vassallo. Not So Big Remodeling: Tailoring Your Home for the Way You Really Live. Taunton Press, Newtown, CT. 2009

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