ILYCE: When did you start thinking about the concepts of “Not So Big?”

SARAH: It started when my first business partner and I started an office together in 1983, and a client called and said “I can get a home for $75,000.” He laid down the gauntlet for us. I said, “I can’t build you a house for $75,000 but I can make you a wonderful house and we’ll do our best to bring it in at a price you can afford.”

ILYCE: How does someone get a good house when you don’t have a lot of cash to spend?

SARAH: We started thinking about reapportioning square footage into quality of the space. And, we became known for that. Fortunately, we started out with a fellow who didn’t have much money.

We learned the ropes project by project. We started making liaisons with builders who knew how to use their craft, not just expensive materials. That’s how the Not So Big house came about.

ILYCE: When did you start calling it that?

SARAH: I didn’t actually name it until I started writing. Other architects have moved in this direction. On my website,, I have something called the “home professionals directory”, which is a listing of architects and builders around the country who are excited by what I’m doing and want to work with clients who want same look and feel as the houses shown in my books.

There’s a big movement out there. I had the feeling when wrote first book that it would generate lot of interest in public. And it has. The directory part of the website gets about 40,000 individual hits a month and that’s when I haven’t had a book come out. It’s very active part of the site.

ILYCE: I know you don’t really like the “McMansions” that have sprung up, but is it ever appropriate to build a big house?

SARAH: Sometimes that’s an appropriate thing to do. Some people want a bigger house and I don’t see my role is to force them out of building it. I want to help them spend their money intelligently.

(My work) is not about getting them into a smaller house, but about building something that expresses something about who they are and really supports their lifestyle. There are so many better ways to do that than typically building a bigger house.

Often, when I’m working with client, what they do is come with a budget and an assumed square footage (they can build for that amount of money). I say, “Let’s not jump to square footage right away, let’s do some planning. Based on that, I’ll tell you what dollars you’ll need per square foot so we get into the ballpark.”

ILYCE: So you’re really starting from the budget and quality desires than square footage. What about using less expensive building techniques. How do you feel about manufactured or modular housing?

SARAH: They also like to use the term “factory crafted” because the word “modular” has a negative connotation.

I’m actually doing a modular house for the Home Builder’s show in January. The house is being built in a factory setting and they will be bringing 7 boxes to the site.

(Ilyce’s note: With modular housing, the house is built in individual boxes that are loaded onto trucks and later connected together on-site.)

Why I’m doing it is I believe there are better ways to build a house. We have the fear that if something is made in a factory, it will be of lower quality. That’s like saying because a car is made in a factory, it’s a poorer product.

The quality control of modular houses is extraordinary. I do a lot of detailed trim lines, moldings, and these items have a real requirement of exactness. I can get (individual) builders there but takes awhile. But with manufacturing process of modular homes, I impart the information about what I want once, and it’s done right. It’s very exciting.

I’m a convert (to modular homes).

ILYCE: What will the cost savings be for your modular house?

SARAH: It’s hard to tell you right now because we haven’t got all the prices in, but my guess is it’s a lot less. Conservatively, it’s at least a third less expensive than building on site.

We had this wonderful moment when we were talking with the people from modular factory company and we were talking about how we’re putting in $100,000 in materials. And the guy from the factory had funny look on his face. He said he had never put $100,000 (in extra trim work) into a house before.

These are wonderful moments.

ILYCE: What is most satisfying about your career right now?

SARAH: The number of people who come up to me at public lectures and book signings and they’re so thrilled that they thank me giving them the tools to build a better house. They feel I’ve given them permission to build a house that is really wonderful.

ILYCE: Are you currently taking on new clients?

SARAH: I’m not designing right now, and I haven’t in about a year. We’re doing a rerun for the Home Builder show. My life now is so much about writing. I figure, while I have the microphone and people are listening, I’ll do this.

But I miss it. I love design. Right now, I’m passing all that along to other builders and architect.

ILYCE: As an architect, what do you think about the housing situation in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?

SARAH: Everything that was under water would have to be almost demolished. Water is about the worst thing for a house.

But it’s really time for quality over quantity (in the Gulf region)… We must create houses of a higher quality and build them so they will last through another hurricane. There are architects who are, and others who should be, donating time for design of these homes.

It’s a huge task. I don’t want to underestimate the challenge. But, it’s possible.

ILYCE: What new books do you have coming out?

SARAH: In February, 2006, I’m releasing a sister book called Outside the Not So Big House. It’s about the surroundings of the house and how the house and surroundings interrelate.

There’s no book like it out there. My coauthor is a landscape designer who started her life as an architect. She has a very deep understanding on the interior on the exterior. Thompson press found her and we talked about doing a book and for one reason or another, it wasn’t right time, but then opportunity came up again.

ILYCE: What is it about your new book, Inside the Not So Big House that resonates with readers?

SARAH: You can personalize your house with architectural details. Most people don’t know it that architectural details exist. It’s the “Aha!” in a house. I kept finding people who wanted to personalize their house and wanted same details as in my houses.

Over the course of building a single house, people don’t know what a detail is, so there is no way to know how to personalize the house. What was needed was a bunch of illustrations to show what architectural details are and then to explain what it means. That these details become a level of expression (for the homeowner).

Most architects don’t bring up architectural details because it costs more money and clients don’t understand them. It’s a battle to understand the possibility, but this is the stuff that makes the house feel like home. If the homeowner understood, they’d put it in and ask to leave something else out.

ILYCE: Tell me about the house you live in today.

SARAH: I live in Raleigh, North Carolina. My current house is a 1977 Cape Cod-type house. It’s a very common type of house for the area and we have remodeled it several times.

Before we moved in, we made not very expensive but radical changes to the ceiling heights. We opened up spaces so we could use them more effectively. Two years ago, I desperately needed more space. I was functioning out of 2 bedrooms, so I added on an addition. The office is in pretty nice space on back of the house. Both my husband and I work at home.

ILYCE: Are home offices changing?

SARAH: I often get asked about home offices. People want to know if you can apply what I am describing to the office environment and other places. Home offices are burgeoning today, so it’s an issue whose time has come.

ILYCE: What advice do you have for home buyers and people building or renovating their own homes?

SARAH: Don’t worry so much about what we’re told we need for resale. Although there’s some truth to the resale concern, it’s been taken it so much to heart that homeowners are afraid to personalize their homes.

But the houses that have personality are the ones that sell faster. You can do stupid stuff, that no one would want that. But the vast majority of things you like, the vast majority of other people will as well.

I think part of why there is so much turnover in houses, is we never give ourselves permission to imprint ourselves on a house, and that’s what makes it a wonderful place to live.