Inside Look: Loving Less

Atlanta architect Stephen Robinson calls for an end to supersize housing

Given Atlanta’s penchant for gated communities and three-car garages, architect Stephen Robinson’s call for moderation seems like heresy—or maybe it’s actually the perfect contrarian solution to the city’s need for affordable intown housing. Robinson is a proponent of quality over quantity, of improving an existing residence rather than tearing it down and building bigger. He hopes homeowners will focus as much on “life appeal” as “curb appeal.” After all, a house’s primary function is serving its owners, not impressing neighbors or future buyers.

“We tend to perceive a lot of value in the numbers,” he says. “Six thousand square feet for $800,000 seems ‘better’ than three thousand square feet for $500,000. But for me, it’s not a question of size. It’s a matter of quality and thoughtful design. Don’t make it big just for big’s sake.”

Robinson’s residential work, such as the home at the right, has been featured in Sarah Susanka’s popular book series, which launched a movement more than ten years ago with the publication of The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live. Her approach seems especially timely given today’s moribund economy. On average, new houses were 7 percent smaller (approximately the size of one room) in early 2009 than the year before. U.S. Census Bureau data shows they shrank every quarter in 2008, marking the first yearlong downward trend since 1994. Susanka draws parallels to the period when grand Victorian mansions gave way to cozy bungalows.

“In Atlanta, there is an enormous housing stock of generic ranch houses located inside the Perimeter and within established neighborhoods that offer many benefits,” says Robinson. “They just need intelligent updating and perhaps modest expansions.”

The best candidates for remodeling have some workable spaces, notes Robinson. “The hard houses are the ones that need two more feet everywhere,” he says. If the bedrooms are livable, owners can focus on the public spaces—or vice versa. Such houses also make it easier to upgrade in phases, as budget allows.

One of the best ways to make an older home more functional is to open up the interior. Robinson often combines different rooms into one space with defined zones. The shared area provides an opportunity for long, diagonal vistas, which promote a sense of spaciousness. A window or interesting piece of art can draw the eye across a wide expanse, he says.

However, warns Robinson, a house can be too open. “Then you lose the enchantment of things disappearing around corners and discovering cozy spaces. ”

Creating “layers” of views makes smaller homes seem more elegant, he notes. Lighting a niche with a piece of pottery or an expanse of richly grained, stained millwork adds texture. Varying ceiling heights make some areas feel intimate and others more grand. Architectural features such as columns and bookshelves can define zones for eating, reading, or entertaining.

The renovation shown here added less than fifty square feet. It is “the classic case of better space, not more space,” says Robinson. “Space was already available. We just had to unleash it.”

Photograph by Thomas Watkins Photography