Inspiring Cabins and Cottages

Explore the nuances that make cabins and cottages inviting places to vacation or live in year-round.
By Jim Tolpin
June/July 2006
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This 12-by-18-foot cabin is near Sturgeon Lake, Minn., and cost about $2,000 to build. The owner built it with local lumber and incorporated used windows, flooring and roofing material.
Photo by Duncan Livingston

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For many of us, the archetypal image of the cottage home comes from storybook memories of our childhood: the diminutive dwelling glimpsed through the trees at the end of a winding trail, smoke rising from the chimney, roses rambling over a trellis and up onto the thatched roof, leaded windows, an inviting entryway ... There's something ineffable about this image, something that makes the idea of cabins and cottages so appealing for so many people, but it's hard to put your finger on exactly what it is.

After all, also implied in this picture are cramped quarters, a dark interior and a lack of modern amenities. In attempting to define the enduring appeal of cottages, words such as comfort, coziness, charm, simplicity, intimacy and romance readily spring to mind, suggesting that the idea of cottage is as much a state of mind as it is a tangible presence.

To try to capture the essence of cottage appeal, think back to those most special places of your childhood. In your mind, revisit that snug hollow hidden under dense lilac bushes, the ramshackle fort cradled high in the limbs of the maple tree, the attic closet and its secret passageway winding under the stairs, or the bunk bed at the lake cabin draped with thick blankets. What do these places have in common? What did you feel like when you were in them? And what do these places of your childhood memories have to do with cottages?

I'll answer the last question for you — everything. To me, these hollows, forts and closets all evoke the essence of what the cottage house must be for us. In our childhood, we found or created spaces to fulfill an essential, unspoken need to feel safe and secure from an overstimulating and dangerous outside world. (If you think about it, none of these spaces would have felt this way had they been larger, more open to the outside or more fancily built.) We may be all grown up now, but these needs are still essential to our sense of well-being. Those who understand this also understand the appeal of the cottage house: a magical, almost mysterious place that holds us closely within its lovely boundaries, warming and soothing our work- and world-weary souls.

What seems to be constant is the idea of the cottage as a retreat, the place to go to get away from it all, be it a beach cottage overlooking the ocean, a mountain hideaway, a pastoral retreat nestled in the woods or even a thoughtfully built cottage in town. It's a place for lounging, for curling up with a good book or for doing absolutely nothing. It's small enough to personalize and make your own: If you want to hang lobster pots from the ceiling or carve snail shells for drawer pulls, who's going to stop you?

The cottage as a weekend/vacation getaway is only one aspect of the contemporary cottage. There's also the cottage as a permanent residence — a perfect home for young marrieds, empty nesters or retirees. The appeal is a house that's easy to live in and easy to maintain; a house that encourages informal living while offering unpretentious comfort; a house that's small enough to allow you to spend more on fine details, quality materials and craftsmanship; a house that's expressive about who you are and how you like to live your life.

You may still be wondering what exactly makes one house just a house, while another is somehow a cottage. Admittedly, there's no hard-and-fast answer: One person's cottage may be another person's hovel. But in selecting the houses that appear in my book The New Cottage Home, I looked for certain attributes, features that in some way evoke those spaces of childhood. Of course, no single house offers all of these attributes, but all the houses share many of these qualities:

• A modest-sized (under 2,000 square feet), compact footprint that does not necessarily sacrifice a sense of spaciousness in the floor plan.

• A human-scale entryway that welcomes you home.

• An unpretentious and intimate interior, most often centered around a hearth, in which you instantly feel warm, relaxed and cozy.

• An exterior that makes good use of indigenous materials. Shingle siding, cedar-shake roofs and fieldstone say cottage; vinyl siding paints a different picture.

• Well-crafted, sometimes quirky architectural details.

• The use of sashed windows — some diminutive in size — to reinforce the human scale of the building from the outside while giving a sense of security and protection to those inside.

• Thoughtful orientation of the building to the site and sun, relatively informal landscaping, and the presence of exterior rooms (porches, patios, decks) all of which allow the house to respond to, and easily engage, its natural surroundings.

There are other attributes that come to mind — cozy nooks, high-pitched roofs, low ceilings, bare wood floors, built-in furnishings, to name a few — but the seven characteristics listed above are, to me, the defining features of the small cottage home.

Going small is not done just for the sake of quaintness. Reducing volume also makes a structure energy- and resource-efficient, saving money that can go toward richer materials and the crafting of intimate, artful details inside and out. Architect Robert Gerloff of Minneapolis reminds his clients it is the details that hold our interest, that can make the cottage “as unforgettable as a villa.”

And it is the details that also give a home a sense of charm, intimacy and rightness ... and the ineffable sense of having been lovingly created by its builders.

Excerpted from The New Cottage Home (Taunton Press).

Ideas for Your Own Cabin Getaway

MOTHER EARTH NEWS recommends the books below for their beautiful pictures and inspiring ideas.

The Adirondack Cabin by Robbin Obomsawin (Gibbs Smith)

Cabins by David and Jeanie Stiles (Firefly Books)

The Cabin by Dale Mulfinger and Susan E. Davis (Taunton Press)

The Cabin Book by Linda Leigh Paul (Universe)

The Getaway Home by Dale Mulfinger (Taunton Press)

The New Cottage Home by Jim Tolpin (Taunton Press)

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Post a comment below.


8/26/2013 1:35:37 PM
Great cabins and cottages I would love to spend one week there in my life.

8/18/2013 11:31:31 AM
I love cabin building is there some who is looking for a recent construction degree graduate, who be willing to mentor in all aspects of cabin building. I live near the Ashville north carolina area. Please contact me through mother earth news community or facebook Richard Wehrstein services

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