This past weekend, I went to Chicago with my daughters.  My youngest has been accepted to Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and we went down to explore nearby neighborhoods where she may live.  (Yes, I know it was St. Patrick’s Day this weekend – that certainly made Chicago a more lively destination.)

On the way down from Madison WI, we stopped in Libertyville, the northern Chicago burb where we lived when the girls were young, to visit some friends and get their expertise on Chicago neighborhoods.

Dan and Tad live a few blocks from Libertyville’s bustling main street, and on our way to lunch downtown, we passed through an area that is being redeveloped with new town homes packed in very close and creating a cozy neighborhood feeling.  From these houses, a person could consider living without a car.  Most services are within walking distance, including a train station that can take you to downtown Chicago in an hour. Not bad.

Just imagine our excitement when we realized that one of the houses in this rebuilt block was designed by Sarah Susanka, famed architect and author of the Not So Big House books.  And what do you know?  The building was having an open house right that minute.

Susanka promotes building better, not bigger.  She replaces large, formal rooms  with smaller, multi-purpose rooms, she focuses on comfort and character, energy efficiency and sustainability and people are beginning to listen.   The houses on this block are being snapped up.   It’s a good sign.

Susanka’s not so big house in Libertyville is still 2,600 feet, and I think that is still pretty big, but it’s a great step away from the McMansions that surround Libertyville and Everytown in soulless gray-brown subdivisions with names like Prairie View Estates.

this is a very cool murphy bed. See it open below.

Susanka has written nine books in all and has been named by Builder Magazine as one of the 30 most notable innovators in the housing industry over the past 30 years.

Even though our own house has moved past the design phase into the building phase, I came away with a great idea for the stairs to our loft from the loft ladder she put in this demo house.  These grip holes really made me feel secure even climbing back down.

To see more, check out a video tour here.

5 replies

  1. I must admit our apartment here in Latvia feels small and I would love a bigger kitchen and a craft room, but it is still liveable in and the key is storage. Well designed storage means we can jar up our produce for the year and still move around (still needs working on though, as we are not there yet). And the size of our apartment? Just under 800ft. A house of 2,600 ft would be immense with all the rooms – my main complaint of our American home was not the size but the sheer waste of space.

  2. I agree with what joanna suggested in her comment. 2,600 sq.ft. seem immense to me though I don’t doubt that Susanka may have some very good ideas on how to use the space. What struck me immediately was the photo of the houses. Having just returned from Florida visiting friends who live in the “Villages” where the homes/houses are all “perfectly constructed” and for me, too homogeneous, I found myself disturbed by the image of these houses that looked almost like a movie set. Perhaps after a few years they will look like “real homes”?

  3. I know what you mean, Monique. It does feel like a movie set right now. Only one or two of those houses is actually finished and occupied, and they will seem more lived in when they actually are lived in.
    The think that I think is good about them is that they are giving people an option to moving to the suburbs. A recent study shows that in the U.S. our urban areas are expanding at about twice the rate that the population is growing.
    Villages and towns were customarily sited where agricultural land was good, and as our cities expand, we keep destroying our best growing land (not to mention what it does to habitat for other species).
    Whenever people choose to rebuild an inefficient section already in the city limits rather than build on a farmer’s field — that’s a good thing.
    And though 2600 sounds big to us, the houses in those sprawling suburbs tend to run to much higher square feet.
    Libertyville is a thriving city of over 20,000. It sits on the outer edge of Chicagoan sprawl. Beyond it are farms. Keeping the houses in town is crucial. And keeping them to 2600 feet is a start.

  4. Have you seen Middleton Hills, Denise? That community (just north of Middleton, WI) looks a lot like the one you describe in this article, and works in some ways. It has small lots, craftsman-esque architecture and variety. Yet it doesn’t work for me, and that makes me wonder why…

    Is it the lack of established plantings? Did even our well-established leafy neighborhoods once look like that?

    Is it the way that, for all its internal walk-ability, it is bordered on the south by a major road that hems it off from the rest of the city?

    I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    • I have driven by Middleton Hills when I’m heading out of town to 12, but I haven’t really examined it or moved around in it.
      On the subject of freshly-built neighborhoods, I think they all look very sterile at that moment. I got a graphic lesson on that topic some years ago. When we lived in Libertyville, we wanted to live in the historic district next to downtown, but it was too expensive, so we lived in the very first subdivision, a pocket of 88 houses on a winding loop built into very slightly hilly ground. The houses were mostly tri-levels and quad-levels built in the 60s, but the trees came together over the street, and there was a little strip of trees and brush between the back yards. I fell in love with the neighborhood because of its trees.
      Then at the neighborhood picnic, one of the original homeowners brought photos of the early days. It was desolation row! I would never have considered living there then. But those first residents planted and cared for trees and made a welcoming neighborhood. (Still within easy walking distance of Libertyville’s downtown.
      So I have hopes for the soulless suburbs trying to create community. I wish more of them would think about living in existing communities.
      That’s what I like about the infill in Libertyville. Replacing rundown rental property with a new neighborhood 2 blocks from Main Street helps keep the heart of the town alive and keeps the farmers’ fields at the edge of town in crops.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s