What's a cottage?
A cottage is a small stand-alone house, a pre-modern type originally built in Britain for farmworkers--cotters. These were simple dwellings. One story and low to the ground they had a steep roof with enough space in the attic for sleeping rooms. Some included dormers to bring in more light. Cottages were built with local materials and entirely handmade. Scattered in the landscape, cottages were a comforting presence and sign of life. Interiors were minimal and with low ceilings to retain heat. These characteristics can be found in cottages as they evolved from agrarian use to vacation getaways.
Cottages in colonial New England were well adapted to conditions. Settlers built them to gain a foothold on the land once the frontier was relatively secure. In response to windy and bitter cold winters on the Cape and north coast they were built tight and low with no eaves or projections to catch the wind. A massive central chimney preserved heat and anchored the building to the ground. A door yard in front defined by picket fence kept blowing sand from piling against the house.
The Knowles Doane house (1765) is a good example. Cottages like this were called "half Capes," because they were often doubled in size symmetrically. Almost square in plan and with a steep roof, the half Cape resembled a cube. It was not intentional, but classicists had long known this was an appealing form.
These cottages did not have raised foundations but wood sill beams that rested on earth. If the settlers found a more desirable location in the winter a small Cape could be pulled over snow and frozen rivers to a new site and the chimney rebuilt.
Closing the frontier
The 1890 Census showed for the first time American settlement spanning the vast continent. The frontier had been effectively broken up, and what seemed an endless wild territory was conquered. This caused some concern among academics, including the young historian Frederick Jackson Turner. He argued that the uniquely American source of vitality, innovation and strength was a result of confrontation with the wilderness.
European immigrants were transformed into Americans by coping with the savagery of the frontier. As they became more resourceful and self reliant they were less class-conscious and more unified. The border between settlement and wilderness continued to shift westward through the 19th century, but the essential tension held until 1890. Turner warned that without a similar challenge the closing of the frontier marked the beginning of America's decline.
Nineteenth century immigrants came to the U.S. believing land to own, cultivate and occupy were almost assured. The 1862 Homestead Act offered unclaimed land in the West free to anyone willing to farm it. From colonial times to the present Americans have expected to have authority over private property, and bristle at imposed authority. This attitude was critical to their sense of autonomy and self-determination.
Early vacation cottages
Once Americans perceived the frontier closed their attitude toward wilderness shifted from lands to conquer to places of sanctuary. Starting in the late 19th century well-to-do residents of eastern cities escaped the hot and infectious (due to poor sanitation) summers by vacationing in New England's coastal climes. Some bought property there, and renovated or built summer homes. Investment by summer residents revitalized many depopulated older towns that had been bypassed by industrialization. Vacation cottages began to crop up in picturesque villages, along lake shores, rocky coves and valleys.
Summer residents were among the most enthusiastic advocates for an American Colonial Revival, and devoted themselves to "restoring" New England's heritage and colonial myths. In California, the recently completed transcontinental railroad allowed Midwesterners to avoid harsh winters, and travel to the land of sunshine where other romantic myths were in play.
Regardless of the region and building tradition the charm of early vacation houses was a consequence of how they were designed and built. The image of a vintage cottage remains popular today, but they are seldom convincing. What were the qualities that gave these out-of-the-way places their character and charm? We can see that many early vacation cottages were:
Light on the land, cottages were designed to fit easily within a natural setting. They disturbed the site as little as possible, nestling into the slopes, woods and other natural features to merge with the land.
Evidence of resourceful builders, remote cottages were built with materials close at hand. They show both ingenuity and expedience. Builders sought the most efficient shelter possible with the least material and effort. Purpose and utility drove every decision.
Simple and graceful, cottages show clarity of thought. Simple forms and construction reduced effort, but as the Shakers clearly realized designs pared-down-to-essentials also have a distinct grace. A simple cottage is easy to understand, and easy to imagine building.
Appealingly human-scaled, remote cottages were built with hand tools alone. Challenges were immediate: "How far can I reach on this ladder? How much can we lift together?" Physical limitations enforced human scale, and this was apparent in the finished cottage.
Improvised and well adapted over time, family cottages often had a casual mismatched look that contributed to their charm. Consistency and decorum gave way to a greater sense of harmony—a home in the landscape, and shared memories across generations of use.
Comfortable furnishings, familiar and cozy were typical of vacation cottages. Found objects and re-purposed discards were also fair game. Nothing had to match. The rules of good taste need not apply. Cottages were furnished for enjoyment, not to impress others.
Respectful of natural setting, a remote cottage was often little more than a shelter in the woods. As Thoreau discovered on Walden Pond, when our attention is focused and uninterrupted we become more observant and mindful of our impact on the place we inhabit. Insights gained can be like portals each one leading to another.
Sheltering and sturdy, remote cottages provided comfort as well as physical shelter in rough weather. Features like a stone foundation, stout chimney and operable shutters all enhanced the sense of protection. Employing sturdy materials also made cottages more secure when closed-up for the season.
Safe harbor. For some people a vacation getaway is a respite from the demands and challenges at home-- a place to recover, reassess and gain perspective. Contrast to everyday life is important here.
Cottages for today
Most Americans today live in highly urbanized metropolitan areas. Communities within the region can be quite diverse. Some are coherent and pristine while others areas are a tsunami of sprawl and neglect. The challenge for these places is to reinvent and repair what no longer works. The nation's sprawlscapes could become the new frontier Turner had hoped for--places where new arrivals might gain a foothold on the land.
Most metro areas in the US have vast areas of poorly utilized land, including abandoned industrial sites, rail yards, parking lots and places overlooked by leapfrog sprawl. Significantly, the redevelopment and recovery of these lands are out of the hands of individuals and small-scale improvements. They are captive to a planning process that is intended to serve only large scale developers and real estate interests. Prior to the 1950s there was much small-scale incremental growth, development and fine-tuned repairs by local citizens. People made informed choices based on their own experience of the place and its culture. This was a natural process in traditional cities, but is seldom seen today.
Where can individuals find land to build for their own use today? Hey, check out the backyard! There may be enough room to build a small cottage or accessory building. In many communities the land use requirements for single family neighborhoods have been relaxed to include accessory uses. There may also be residual or infill parcels poorly utilized that could be bought and redeveloped.
Small houses and backyard cottages built in desirable single family neighborhoods do not reduce property values, but add residents with a diversity of income. If a small cottage could be added to each parcel the number of available dwelling units could potentially double without tearing down a single house! The economic advantage of adding a rental could also stem the McMansion trend, where now any house less than 1,500 square feet is considered a "teardown." Backyard cottages allow singles and couples both young and old to live among families. Some people-- your children, for instance-- might like to live in the neighborhood where they grew up, but cannot afford to buy. If single family parcels remain "owner occupied," with property owner living in either the main house or cottage, responsibility for tenants remains clear. Neighbors will know who to contact if there is a problem with a renter.
Those early vacation houses and studios might be useful models for new cottages. Think of a cottage as a small house with an attitude. It is not only smaller, but more resourceful. It dismisses assumptions of what a house must be, and provokes us to reconsider what is really needed.
Today, it is a challenge to make any new house affordable. Architect Stephen Mouzon asks his clients, "Do you want it bigger, or better? Make it bigger and the quality goes down. Make it better and it must be smaller." He has suggested some good ways to cut costs, and provoked us to develop others. In planning your cottage:
Anticipate potential growth of cottage so you could later add a room or new wing, and locate the building with this in mind.
Multi-use spaces perform double duty. If you can eliminate whole rooms you will significantly reduce costs. For instance, if a kitchen banquette can replace a conventional "dining room," you could save over 100 square feet. Add the right features and the banquette could double as a library or home office. In a small cottage it helps to give each room a distinctive character for spatial variety and contrast.
The "keeping room" was a Colonial equivalent of today's kitchen-family room--where all the action is. Especially during the winter, most activities took place in keeping room before a huge fireplace. It provided heat for cooking, baking, and kept the inhabitants from freezing to death. A multi-use space remains the center of family life today, but a TV seems to have replaced the hearth.
Alcoves opening to a multi-use space could become the alternatives to separate rooms with distinct uses. Alcoves might be a kitchenette, home office, or library/guest bedroom. These could be closed off with screens or pocket doors.
Design floor plans one room deep for windows on at least two walls and cross ventilation. Bedrooms can be quite small if they have big windows. A long thin floor plan could also turn a corner to define an outdoor space or courtyard.
Combine children's bedrooms into a single space with separate bed alcoves. This would reduce the number of rooms and baths needed. Each bed alcove could include a curtain, cubbies, wardrobe, and a window. It would be like a sleeping car. Whoo whoo--here comes the night train.
Compartmentalized baths that can be used by more than one person reduce the total number needed. European bed & breakfasts of our youth usually included lavatory in the room with a WC and shower down the hall. Yours would likely be connected, but it is the same idea.
Build your cottage in a resource-full neighborhood instead of Outer Suburbia. Select a place where you will feel at home. If you can walk or bike to stores, you won't require tons of storage. If there are overnight accommodations in the neighborhood you won't need a guest room. Coffee shops, cafes, libraries and parks are places to go when you get cabin fever. You could even meet some nice people if the WIFI is down.
Like living in a boat, you need places to stow everything essential, but we doubt you would set sail with boxes of junk you thought you might someday revisit. Make every space count. Built-ins are be best for some storage, while movable furniture is better for others.
You can see where this is going. Our point is simply that affordability and good fit are linked concepts in planning your cottage, and often enhanced by fresh thinking.
We all take satisfaction in creating a home that represents our values and aspirations. Our homes have become one of the few places we can express personal authority, and assert a vision of how things should be. For many reasons home ownership in the U.S. is dwindling, and especially for our youth. Many young people graduate from college with high debt obligations and few prospects for a good job. They will not qualify for a mortgage as housing prices inflate well beyond their reach. The positive view is that diminished prospects often lead to new ideas and alternatives.
Make an end run around the system! Start by discarding "consumer expectations" of what we are told a house must be. In this vast landscape re-imagine existing resources, like marginalized buildings and their untapped potential. Consolidate your team, whether its family or friends, and work together to create a home. Invest in places with solid social capital where your financial investment can grow and sweat equity will pay off. Perhaps building a cottage or group of cottages will be your solution.