Quality 'cottages' now rival larger trophy homes Many people prefer better workmanship, coziness of smaller house

August 23, 1998|By Denise Cowie | Denise Cowie,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Once upon a time there was an architect whose clients wanted a traditional trophy home. Or thought they did. But as they talked, the architect asked the clients to think of the beloved spaces of their youth -- the tree house, the fort.

Would they have been improved if they'd been larger?

Of course not, said the clients, they'd have been spoiled.

They ended up building a house half the size of the one they'd originally envisioned. And living pretty happily ever after.

Another couple, also intent on a trophy home with all the trimmings, built the guest cottage first -- then moved into that and never built the main house.

Jim Tolpin collected stories like these while he was gathering material for "The New Cottage Home" (The Taunton Press, $29.95), a look at about 30 cottages of astonishing variety but fairy tale appeal.

All built since 1980, these scaled-down gems are in towns and fields, on waterfronts and mountains, from Maine to Washington and from Kansas to California.

As he traveled and talked with architects around the country, Tolpin learned that more and more people were asking for smaller houses, although they had the same money to spend.

"They wanted houses with a lot of wood craftsmanship, quality work, charm and detail," he says, "and because they weren't spending as much money on volume, they could spend it on quality."

Not that mainstream America is abandoning its love affair with conspicuous consumption yet.

"But architects are telling me that they have never heard the word cottage come up as much as it has in the last few years," said Tolpin, who feels that many Americans, besieged by outside demands, are turning to a vision of a more fundamental lifestyle.

"A mystique has developed about the English cottage and cottage garden, and there seems to be a shift in the sensibility of what kind of home people want when they are retiring, or moving out of the empty nest, and even for a first home.

Tolpin's interest in cottage architecture was sparked about five years ago, when he decided to restore a 900-square-foot cottage in a little town on Puget Sound that he describes as "very picturesque -- no malls, no major highways."

He was well-equipped to do the makeover. Before he became a journalist and author a decade ago, he had been a woodworker, a maker of custom cabinetry, for more than 20 years.

"It is pre-Victorian, and it's a very simple house, all shingles, with a nice arbor," he said of the space he shares with his wife, Cathy, who gave up her own wisteria-covered cottage when they married. "The person [who owned it] before called it the rose-covered cottage, because it did have roses growing all over it, and a white picket fence."

The couple kept the roses and added a lot of rhododendron and viburnum to create a lush garden -- a hallmark of cottage design. It is one of many little cottages in his area.

The word cottage evokes images of thatched roofs, picket fences, roses clambering over the door, cozy rooms, a fire in the hearth. It's the first image of home we draw as children. A memory from a long-ago storybook.

Tolpin says are seven features shared by many of the cottages in his book:

Modest size (under 2,000 square feet), that doesn't sacrifice a sense of spaciousness.

Human-scale entry that welcomes you home.

Unpretentious and intimate interior, most often centered on a hearth.

An exterior that makes good use of indigenous materials. Shingle siding, cedar-shake roofs and fieldstone say "cottage."

Well-crafted, sometimes quirky architectural details.

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 on the inside.

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

Tolpin's love affair with cottages isn't over.

Besides being the host of the Internet's Cottage Home Network (at www.cottagehome.net), he is already working on another book about cottage communities. And eventually he and his wife plan to build a new cottage by the water.

Pub Date: 8/23/98

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