Choosing the right style as a prototype is the key to building
a handsome and affordable home that has a small "environmental
Here in my adopted city of Norwalk, Conn., there are hundreds
of little Cape Cods built in the mid-20th century —
one-story houses with a steeply pitched roof springing from the
top of the front and rear walls, and a door centered in the
front wall. If you add a story and reduce the roof pitch, you
get a colonial. If you leave off the room to one side of the
front door, you get a "half Cape."
To pull more light into the second floor and decorate the vast
unadorned front roof, fancier versions add dormers (below).
This looks good, but you really get more bang for the buck if
you build one big shed dormer. Since sheds are considered ugly,
they always go on the back of the house. It's important to hold
the shed in from the building's gable ends to maintain the
basic integrity of the roof.
The "hunchback" affair shown below, at below, is a cheap and
dirty solution that doesn't follow this rule, and the result is
quite ugly. Nevertheless, the approach is tempting, because you
get more space by spending less money. Some builders try to
disguise the stylistic solecism by "painting" the Cape roof on
the gable end with a piece of contrasting trim (below). The
idea is on the right track, but it doesn't work because the
result is two-dimensional.
However, the same stylistic sleight of hand, if done in a style
that features roof overhangs, works splendidly. Start with a
simple two-story box with a 6/12 roof (the one I own, circa
1929, is almost a 24-foot cube). Establish a generous rake
overhang at the ridge, then tack on what looks like the lower
part of a gambrel roof, carrying the extended overhang down the
side. Continue the main roof with a shallower rake overhang (or
none at all), and voilà! You have a snappy-looking
The tacked-on elements are relatively cheap, because you can
frame them any way you like and they don't add corners or
offsets to the basic box underneath. The ones in the example
(below) are about as fancy as they get, with neat hipped roofs
over the rake overhang returns.
The Challenge of Narrow Lots
These prototypes sit longwise to the street, which implies a
wide lot. Add a one- or two-car garage at one end, and the lot
gets even wider. But if we're serious about conserving
resources, we need narrow-lot developments, which reduce the
resources spent on transportation and street infrastructure.
And since building up density is such an essential tool for
conserving resources, we also need to fill in the gaps in
existing streetscapes with narrow-lot home designs.
That's easy to say but hard to achieve in U.S. communities,
where the car is king. A front-facing attached garage on a wide
lot looks fine; on a narrow one, it creates the infamous "snout
house" (below). This example has a one-car garage and can be
salvaged; a snout house with a two-car garage is beyond hope.
The garage pushes the living spaces to the rear, which makes it
necessary to set the front door and front room as far back as
possible. In solving this problem, the builder of this home
caught a bad case of "gable-itis." He also skimped on the roof
overhang and trim details.
The first step in fixing his design is to bring the two windows
together over the garage, to avoid the grotesque face created
by the two eye windows and gap-toothed garage door. You also
need a porch over the entry, and some horizontals to get rid of
the middle gable. Finally, add back the missing trim, and you
have done about all you can (below).
Front garages create inefficient and poorly lighted floor
plans, and homes with attached garages are often contaminated
with carbon monoxide from idling cars and from chemicals stored
in the garage. We can solve both problems by prohibiting
attached garages at the front of narrow-lot designs.
Tackling the Cost of Style
With the car out back where it belongs, you can tap into many
stylistic prototypes from the 19th and 20th centuries to
inspire a narrow-lot design: Craftsman and bungalow, Prairie
School and Shingle, Bay Area and vernacular farmhouse, to name
some used up north. The trick is to simplify the detailing, but
not too much.
Let's start with one of my favorite prototypes, the
"story-and-a-half" houses so common in the Northeast. You see
them everywhere: Look for eaves set halfway up the second-floor
wall. When dormers are present, they interrupt the eaves
— a really nice effect. The spaces on the second floor
are intimate and varied because they are partly under the
The structure may be derived from the Greek Revival style,
where the first-floor girt frame extends past the second floor
to create a wide entablature. This stub wall also creates
usable space on the second floor, which otherwise lacks
headroom due to the low roof pitch demanded by the style.
That same construction (with a steeper roof) is used in the
story-and-a-half homes. The side windows are narrow, and
dormers are set over the windows below so that as many studs as
possible cantilever to resist the roof thrust. This example
from West Falmouth, Mass., lacks dormers, but it has porches on
two sides and a wing out of sight at the rear (below,
The style can yield a handsome and economical house without a
lot of trim. Here is a sketch of an accessible home (bottom)
that illustrates what you can do. It shows a shed dormer, a
shed roof over the entrance, and a shed-roofed bay attached to
the front. (I am a fan of hanging bays from the wall instead of
building an expensive foundation.)
With contemporary platform framing, it's best to carry the roof
on a ridge beam to eliminate the thrust. This gives you
complete freedom to locate windows and dormers where they work
best with the furniture. A taut design without overhangs may
get you in the magazines, but overhangs really help keep a
building dry, with or without gutters and leaders. The main
complication with the roof is the double cantilever at the
corners (I recommend using a simple bracket to avoid rake
Homes need enough detail to make them authentic. We need to
build affordably, but if we just say no to wide lots, we will
save more than enough to justify a little decoration.Gordon Tully is a principal of Tully
Architectural Consulting, LLC, in Norwalk, Conn.