cottage industry

October 1st 2015 Comments: 8 Topics: ,

I was recently invited to speak to the IGrace Company, a high end construction firm with offices in Manhattan, Connecticut and Los Angeles.  I’d love to share a portion of what I presented.
When designers are asked to showcase their work, I’m sure most take the opportunity to impress – drag out the photos of the biggest and most awe-inspiring. It’s natural to want to feed the quintessential bottomless designer ego. I know – I have one at home, too.

I’d like to do the opposite:  I want to speak about what’s at the heart of what we do. And it’s something small and humble… I want to talk about the cottage.

When clients come to us, this is the basis of what they want. They want something that touches the heart.  Something that silently calls to them, that says welcome, sit down next to the fire and relax.  You’re home now.  Nothing epitomizes this like a simple cottage.  Everyone I’ve ever shown the above picture to inevitably sighs and wants this.  It speaks to something basic and human.  Roof, walls, view, outdoor space and water.  These are intrinsic yearnings – authentic truths are simple and I feel should be tended, valued and celebrated.

Modern life, however, marches in with its complexities and immediately comes with “requirements.”  Our clients come prepared with a laundry list of these contemporary house necessities:  laundry rooms, mudrooms, pantries, media rooms, offices, cat rooms, etc.  All come to the table dragging their spatial baggage (oh, and we need a trunk room for the actual baggage, too).  In the arranging and editing of all of this, our job as designers is how not to lose a precious seed in the dirt.  How can we maintain the wonderful and elementary idea of the simple cottage?  That’s what the soul longs for  – how can we help obtain it?

No matter what the scale of the project, there are a number of things that can be accomplished to pay heed to this basic and modest concept.  Below are a few we practice regularly in attempt to embody the innate goodness found in the cottage.

  1. Celebrate humility.  If a grand gesture is called for, follow it up with an apology.  Every boisterous expression should be balanced with a humble one.
  2. Reduce scale.  Even massive houses can be broken up into bite-sized chunks.  Think like a village.
  3. It’s American to think “bigger is better”.  We were raised that way (I’m looking at you Texas).  Don’t forget to include some “small”,  especially in room sizes.  Not every room has to accommodate the entire clan at Thanksgiving.  A tiny room will quickly become the favorite place to slip into.  A tiny room is like a hot toddy to the body – warm and enveloping.
  4. Don’t just build for the “right now.”  That’s short sighted as well as wasteful.  The huge family of six will not always be there.  I hate to break it to you but kids will be gone before you know it.  Yes, build a house that will graciously accommodate your active family but also plan for a house that’s comfortable when it’s just the two of you.  It can be done.

The notion of “cottage” has always been one we’ve held close to our hearts.  Given a choice, we would design these all day long.  Our clients, however, require more.  The above are but a few suggestions on how we maintain,dearness in our work – that ineffable quality people come to us in search of.

Post recession, “McMansion” has now become now an offensive word;  it’s actually always been a particular vile phrase to me.  I’m hoping the cottage is society’s new treasured goal.  It’s always been ours.

Here’s a few of our larger works that I hope embody the virtues I’ve mentioned:






Greg Tankersley for McAlpine Tankersley


  1. Andy Akard says:

    Nice post Greg. Got a little teary……….

  2. Maurie says:

    I LOVE this post. We have a family of six and have been talking about “downsizing” to a home that feels more like us…I am thinking the cottage feel. All of our friends say…how can you do that with all the kids? I yearn for a simpler life. I’m sure that is not possible JUST by moving to a new home. While our home is not the open floor plan of most in our neighborhood it still feels formal and restrictive. I have tried to soften the interior to have the welcoming/relaxing/enveloping feel. Anyway, this post speaks volumes…especially coming from such talent!

  3. Wanda Hodge says:

    Greg- So very proud of you! You have learned what we all have to discover before we are truly content and happy in this life.
    You are a wise young man.

  4. Wendy Dickinson says:

    This post resonates. My husband and I watch the “Tiny House” movement with amazement. Our attempts to downsize resulted in a simpler home, but it is larger than we want or need. There are days we both want to pack a duffel bag, grab the dogs and head out in our4-wheel drive truck equipped with a snorkel. We are almost ready to declare that our energy will be devoted to living the fullest life rather than the maintaining a huge house. Thank you for sharing your insights.

  5. Heather Coleman says:

    These all feel very typical of New England to me. When we were in NH last, visiting homes built in the late 1700s, I noticed that although the homes were large, the scale was smaller. Rooms were cozy rather than grand. Ceilings were lower, furniture more sparse and less ornate.

    I do love the aesthetic, but how do you give these homes a more southern feel?

  6. Kendra says:

    “A tiny room is like a hot toddy to the body – warm and enveloping.” Such a classic line! I love this. Sometimes they are people’s most treasured rooms too.

  7. Michael Imber says:

    Great blog, Greg. To the heart of what is meaningful.

  8. Hi Greg,

    I was at your talk at the D&D building earlier this week. I am the one who asked how you dealt with clients wanting to build huge homes. Clearly I didn’t read this post beforehand or my question would have already been answered!! I am lucky enough to be designing and building a modest cottage (on the water with added perks of kayaks and a rope swing!) I enjoyed the panel discussion and love the thoughts you put forth here.


Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.


Discover more from McALPINE

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading