The Prepared Environment: A Montessori Method for Architecture

by Judith Pieprz

December 14, 2011

Approximately 100 years ago a woman named Maria Montessori pioneered a revolution in education. She prescribed several changes to the traditional classroom including mixed age classrooms; large blocks of uninterrupted, self-directed work time; and a model of learning where students work with Montessori-specific materials to directly and practically intuit information rather than simply being told facts.

Another major change that Montessori enacted was in the physical environment of the classroom itself.  A Montessori classroom is almost always beautiful and inviting.  The physical space is fashioned to support the child’s natural tendency towards curiosity and learning.  This is accomplished with beautiful materials that are easily accessed on low, open shelving.  Each handcrafted material has a specific purpose that allows the child to direct his or her own learning. The Montessori Trio: Beauty, Order and Accessibility.

Approximately 15 years ago a woman named Sarah Susanka pioneered a revolution in architecture.  She prescribed several changes to the current residential home design including smaller size, greater quality, the elimination for the most part of rarely used formal spaces, and the integration of lifestyle realities in the design process.  In other words, said Susanka, let’s build homes for the way we really live.

I had the great joy of reading Susanka’s original book, The Not So Big House, when it was first published in 1998 and watching the resulting phenomena that she has become (11 books, website, minizines, community board).  Any observer of the New Urbanism movement in urban design or the Green Movement in construction will immediately feel comfortable with Susanka’s suggestions.  But I would suggest that The Not So Big Revolution is not just a fad or a theory- just as The Montessori Method was not just a fad or a theory.  Rather, Susanka has offered to the world a new way of thinking about architecture just as Maria Montessori taught us a new way to think about education.

When I first stepped into the Not So Big Showcase at Libertyville, Illinois, I had high hopes.  After all, as I mentioned, I have been following Susanka’s work for years.  I was prepared to be impressed.  I was not, however, prepared to be blown away.  Just ask Nancy McLinden, who was giving me my tour the day before Thanksgiving and she will concur that my jaw had to be consciously raised a few times from the ‘mouth agape’ position.  I actually pirouetted across the bamboo floor once or twice when I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm for the floor plan.  What, you may ask, threw me into an epiphany?  The answer is that it was a Prepared Environment.

Usually, architecture dictates to us how we organize and use the space around us.  For example, an enclosed kitchen dictates to us that this space is for cooking- not for socializing or working or eating.  If we were meant to socialize in a kitchen it would have a couch in it.  If we were meant to work in a kitchen it would have a desk.  And if we were meant to eat in a kitchen it would have a table.  The problem is that most of us do all four things in our kitchens: we cook, socialize, work, and eat in them.  Accordingly, an enclosed traditional kitchen simply does not meet our needs.  The answer: a new bigger kitchen with room to do all of these things.  However, the Achilles Heel of this solution is that we can (and have) said the same thing for every room in our house.  I do more than just work in my office, so let’s throw a television, couch, and snack table in there too.  While we’re at it, a 500 square foot dining room would be great and could double as a ballroom/guest room.

Susanka has suggested something different and much saner.  She has suggested taking all of our highly used spaces and merging them into a highly designed and structured place that is beautiful, orderly, and accessible. Her comfortable kitchen is cozy yet spacious and effortlessly opens onto a gracious living area that is nice enough for company but forgiving enough for reality.  The dining area is an everyday blend of homework space and coffee corner that can easily be transformed through brilliant lighting and clever placement into a formal holiday meal space. And the in-home office (called The Away Room) is close enough to hear the screams of tickle-tortured children but acoustically separate enough to meet your payroll deadlines. By keeping all of the activities in close proximity, Susanka is designing a way for us to live- or should I say, Susanka is designing a way because of how we do live.

“Wait!” I can hear you say.  “I don’t want to live in one big room!” Well, here Susanka has you covered.  Here is where we separate the decorators from the designers and where Sarah S. has earned her keep.  The Not So Big House not only has separate rooms, it supports separate activities.  In Susanka’s home the architecture reinforces the parallel but distinct behaviors of a real family.  By creating nooks, the home allows different actions to take place right next to one another without getting in each other’s way.  The variation in ceiling height unconsciously beckons us to sit down and get busy or lie back and relax- all while a few feet away the dishes are being done behind a counter high enough to hide that greasy pot from view. The Away Room is a succinct answer to the home office that must be a place of productivity within a larger environment of familial responsibility.  In other words, Mom can get her work done while still being aware of what’s up with the kids. The smaller square footage allows us to put money and quality into the rooms we do use- and turn them into everyday showcases of usability, beauty, and flexibility.

Even the staircase was a study in detail and perception.  A covered entry step gives way to the vaulted and light-filled stairwell that beckons you to the ‘private’ part of the home.  Everything, from the soaring light fixtures in the whimsical shape of snowflakes to the gasp-invoking roof deck, all propels you to not only use the space, but to enjoy it.  In Susanka’s creation, Beauty is everywhere and in every detail: a red accent wall welcomes you and holds you long enough for our ADD minds to process and enjoy the beautifully contrasting flower arrangement; the window seat with cushions a little more plush than necessary and accordingly too inviting to ignore; the indoor ‘window’ between the living area and kitchen that not only allows for easy visual and verbal contact, but also makes an ideal and cozy sitting area. Susanka is a master at turning Space into Place.

In the Not So Big House everything and everyone has a place and every place has a function and every function is made beautiful- just see what she’s done with the Laundry Room (now called the Glitter Room), but that’s for another article on “Magic in Everyday Life”.  In the Not So Big House, Susanka has created an environment that is not only willing, but is waiting for you to use it, shape it, live it.  That’s what it was created for.  A Prepared Environment.

Prepared for what?  For living.

Judith Pieprz received a Masters Degree in Cognitive Psychology from the University of Washington focusing on Environmental Psychology (how the brain perceives space).  She has done Usability research for Microsoft to help make their products more user friendly and has also co-founded a school based on theories of education and psychology. Pieprz resides in Israel and is the Operations Director for Ayeka.

Not So Big® Showhouse in Realtor Mag

Our Sarah Susanka designed showhouse on SchoolStreet was recently featured in Realtor Mag! Make sure to check out the article and watch the video tour by Sarah herself.

Designing on a Human Scale

Sarah Susanka’s newly-constructed ‘not so big house’ in Libertyville, Ill., provides smart ideas for comfortable living in fewer square feet.

Not So Big® Showhouse Featured in the Daily Herald

Wasted living space expelled from SchoolStreet design

By Deborah Donovan

Sarah Susanka delivers. For more than a decade the architect has been designing “Not So Big Houses” and writing books about them.

Fans have studied the pictures, reread the texts and tried to imagine exactly what she had in mind.

For people in the Chicago suburbs, the wait is over. The first “tract” house designed by Susanka is built, decorated and open for tours.

Read the Article


Walkable Communities are the Future of Housing

Bloomberg Businessweek published an article arguing for the value in transit-oriented development, T.O.D. meaning  projects located in walkable communities with easy access to public or mass transportation. In the story, Shaun Donovan, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, said, “The ghost towns of the housing bust are places that lack transportation options, that aren’t walkable. The average family spends 52 cents of every dollar they earn on housing and transportation combined, so the biggest opportunity is in development around transportation.”

Read the article:

Similar to the SchoolStreet project, StreetScape development is committed towards delivering sustainable projects through urban infill and Transit Oriented Development.