Understanding the history, style and architecture of your home — and the other homes in your neighborhood — is crucial in designing an addition or renovation.

Ignore this principle, and you’ll end up spending a lot of money to decrease the value of your home, not to mention those of your neighbors.

Over the past two weeks, we discussed the Tudor revival and the Craftsman bungalow. For the next two weeks, we will go coast to coast to introduce two more styles: the Cape Cod and the California ranch.

The Cape Cod


Working to stay true to the Cape Cod style, the architect removed the shutters that were too small for the front windows during this exterior upgrade. (Annie V. Schwemmer, Renovation Design Group)

Before                                                                                                                                                                             After

Before Cape CodAfter Cape Cod

If you think of a child’s first drawing of a house (square box with triangle roof, door in the center with one window on either side), you have the overall profile of a Cape Cod house. The exterior is generally symmetrical — usually rectangular boxes with fairly steep-pitched roofs and a simple 1½-story form. This means that the attic is often used for living space, nestling the second story within the structure of the roof.

The roofs themselves are typically gabled (in which the sides come to a triangular point), but variances include gambrel (in which the roof slope has a change in pitch part way down, similar to a traditional barn roof shape) and bowed roofs (in which the sides of the triangle are curved). These homes are typically sided with shingles or clapboards, although they are sometimes seen with brick, stucco or stone.

This style originated with the colonists who came from England to settle in the Northeast states area (our New England). The form or massing of these homes was in response to the severe weather that can develop in that area. The pitch of the roof was steep enough to shed large snowfalls, and the operable shutters were used to block the high winds that accompanied the storms.

As the early settlers focused on their own version of energy efficiency, heat was supplied by a central chimney, and low ceilings helped keep the heat where occupants could really feel it. Small pieces of glass were far less expensive to import from England than large sheets; therefore, the windows were created with multiple small panes configured to create a larger composite window.

These forms are features of Cape homes built in our area during a revival of the style in the 1930s. You’ll commonly see a brick chimney, though at this time the chimney was often moved to one end of the structure. Decorative shutters took the place of the real thing and began to lose their appropriate form along with their purpose. (Remember the shutter rule: Each shutter should be wide enough to cover half of the window it abuts.)

Inside the Cape Cod, if there is a second story, it is tucked within the roof structure. Two distinctive features of this style are knee walls (3-foot to 5-foot vertical walls constructed inside the roof plane) so the room doesn’t end in an unusable triangle space along the outside edge, and dormers (windows with their own roof) to gain headroom on the second floor.

If you will be renovating a Cape Cod, note that details matter on this simple style. The interior woodwork is typically painted, not stained, and the staircases are simple. Rake boards (trim under the roof on the gable ends), corner boards, and window and door trim give the home added character and distinction.

In its simplicity, the Cape Cod tends to be seen as a cozy cottage. It combines characteristic Yankee practicality with a timeless aesthetic and has become an enduring symbol of domestic comfort. Because of the general affection we seem to have with this house style, we seldom renovate a Cape-style home into another style. When we work with the exterior of a Cape home, it is often just to update the general curb appeal.

Often these homes have their original wood siding (or worse, vinyl or aluminum siding added in some former remodeling scheme) and single-pane windows. The task becomes one of bringing the home into the current century in terms of low-maintenance and more energy-efficient materials. Fiber-cement siding has the look of clapboard or shingles, but is dimensionally far more stable than wood so it holds paint for years without needing much attention.

New insulated, low-e glazing in windows that imitate the original multi-paned style make the interior warmer and quieter. New architectural roof shingles (which have a thicker edge and thus create a more interesting shadow line) are often the look of choice when updating roofs that have reached the end of their useful lives.

Original Cape Cod homes were generally built without porches, but because of the simple exterior, the style lends itself to adding one to embellish the blank look of the straight roof line. While a porch highlights the entry and welcomes guests as they approach, it also makes a huge difference in the function of a home. Being able to stand comfortably while waiting for the door to be opened, or to be able to retrieve one’s keys and unlock the door while standing out of the elements are features that make a covered porch more than just an aesthetic attraction.

Many new homes try to recreate the Cape Cod style, with varying degrees of success. Because this style is rooted in simplicity of form and materials, it seems hard for us today to respect these basic constraints. Today we have huge homes with complicated roofs and footprints that go far beyond a simple rectangle attempting to present themselves in this style.

Just as we urged caution when applying Tudor elements to a new or existing home of another style, the same warning applies to designing with a Cape Cod influence. Reproducing some of the charming trim and window styles can be useful, but a house that looks like a Cape house on steroids loses a lot in the translation.

When we understand the history and practical origin of the features of a house style, we can apply these concepts to our homes today, whether we are remodeling or building from scratch. We have a lot to learn from our ancestors as we attempt to make our homes as charming and practical as theirs.

Ann Robinson and Annie V. Schwemmer are the principal architects and co-founders of a residential architectural firm focused on life-changing remodeling designs at RenovationDesignGroup.com. Send comments or questions to as*@Re*******************.com

Ways to enhance your Cape Cod-style home