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Q Why did you decide to focus on remodeling after years of writing about new homes?

A I've been planning to write this book for a long time. People have asked about remodeling since the first book came out. From what I learned working with homeowners in the Twin Cities, I knew there was a huge amount to say, but the magnitude of the challenge was intimidating. With an existing house, you really have to get down to the nitty-gritty details.

Q What's the most common remodeling mistake?

A Adding too much space.

When people think about remodeling, they think about something big. You see them everywhere -- monstrous additions. The people intended to solve a problem the only way they knew how, which was to add space. They put off remodeling until they can afford to add on. The book is designed to help people undertake remodeling as an incremental, step-by-step process.

Q You say a bad addition can actually reduce a home's value. What's a bad addition?

A A bad addition looks like it landed from outer space. It has nothing to do with the existing home. A good remodeling is all about integration. You know it's a good addition when a neighbor asks, "Where did you add on?"

Q Your book advises readers to "think like an architect." How?

A An architect thinks about, "What special resources do we have?" and "How do we rework the space?" Always begin with the simplest, least-complicated solution.

With kitchens, for example, you can stay within the existing footprint by opening up the wall between rooms or borrowing space from a butler's pantry or something else you don't use much.

Q What's behind your book's subtitle: "Tailoring Your Home for the Way You Really Live"?

A We imagine a formal life that none of us are living anymore. The formal living, dining room and foyer -- those tend to be the larger, special places that more and more are completely unused. They're waiting to be rediscovered and repurposed.

Q You encourage people to think less about rooms and more about activity areas. Give an example.

A Because we have names attached to rooms, we think we have to use them that way. One client had a formal front entry that was never used. We took out the door, added a window and made it into a child's bedroom. People are attached to the idea of a formal living room for when a guest comes over, and there are toys all over the family room. But the reality is that the people we're having over are not formal guests, they're friends.

When helping people remodel, I'd come for a first meeting and be welcomed into a formal living room, where we'd stand and talk. As soon as the [client] decided I was a nice person, they'd say, "Let's sit in the kitchen, or the family room." I never sat in a formal living room. They're not comfortable. We're making the largest room available only for people we don't even want in the house.

Q How can you make a McMansion feel homey?

A The problem with a lot of houses built in the '90s is the cathedral ceilings and all the acoustical problems that go with them. They're too noisy. The rooms are so tall that there's not a sense of "there" there.

But McMansions offer a lot of opportunity. You can build shape into a too-large room by creating an oval, an alcove or lowering the ceiling to make a more intimate space within a big area. Ceiling height is a fabulous way to make a big difference.

Q Which materials are most and least likely to look dated in 15 years?

A Home fads are like fashion. Things get trendy, then they go way out. My personal feeling is that you should go with what's natural and timeless.

Super dark stains and light bleached woods come and go. Instead, use a clear finish that lets the wood be its natural color. That doesn't date. Granite [countertops] is not a fad. It's a natural material, and a lot of people really love its character. But I have felt for several years that the higher-end appliances that look commercial are going to date. They're not graceful -- they have sort of a macho attitude. I look for things that don't shriek "I'm a kitchen."

Q What are some of the least-expensive ways to make a big impact on your space?

A One simple thing you can do to give a room a little more interest is to run a trim band above doors and windows, and paint a darker color below it. I also encourage people to view remodeling as an opportunity to make a house more energy-efficient. Get an energy audit and a list of projects you can do. It will save an enormous amount on your utility bills.

Q You compare your own remodeled house [in Raleigh, N.C.] to a well-worn shoe or favorite cardigan. What's the most comfortable spot?

A I have an office over the garage. It originally was a bonus room, with brown shag carpeting, dark paneling and one window, but it had a nice shape, with a sloping roof. For me, there's a feeling of comfort there because of the shape of the space. It feels cozy, and now you can see in all directions.

Q If you could get one "do-over" from your own remodeling, what would it be?

A It's a silly one. I used the wrong lightbulbs under the cabinets in the kitchen. They burn out too fast and are difficult to change. They drive me nuts.

Q In this economy, a lot of buyers are looking for foreclosure bargains. They know they're not buying their dream home, but something that they hope to improve through remodeling. What should they keep in mind?

A Look for a house with good bones that's well put-together. Hire an inspector and make sure the house is stable and healthy.

Also look for a house without a pretty face, that you can remedy. Those are harder houses to sell because they don't look good on the outside, but they can be good raw material. Look for a kitchen that can be opened up easily. That one move can transform a house. There are so many ways to make a very average house feel fantastic. You may actually be buying the house of your dreams.

For more remodeling tips and a searchable database of "Not So Big" resources, visit


By: Sarah Susanka, Marc Vassallo

Publisher: Taunton Press, 336 pages, $21.95