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Design Focus: Cape Cod Style

A country with cultural influences from its colonial past, Canada still draws heavily from its ancestry. It is therefore no surprise that the Cape Cod is popular in communities across the country, and is likely to continue as one of the nation’s most persistent building styles. A widely copied colonial type, the Cape Cod says home.

Cape Cod homes hark back to the earliest period in American and Atlantic Canadian Colonial history. The style counters the present fast-paced modern trend, of sleek and sterile, and leans instead towards cozy and rustic, with natural materials and neutral colour schemes. And after three centuries, the modest design style still feels current. With its simple cottage-like aesthetic, the Cape is perhaps the most iconic of all the house forms in this hemisphere, evoking a sense of nostalgia.


Cape Cod design style has its origins in New England in the 17th century. The basic symmetrical design was built from local materials to withstand the stormy, stark climate of Cape Cod. In an 1800 book describing his travels, Reverend Timothy Dwight is credited with coining the term “Cape Cod” to describe this prolific type of colonial architecture. The style has evolved from the Colonist homesteaders, who came to America in the late 17th century, and modeled their homes after the half-timbered houses in England. Cheap, and quick to build, it was also a common style used in the building boom following WWII.

The style is a simple one. Very limited natural resources, for building at the time, Cape Cods were simple and small, with little deviation in design, and they often had stone or plaster exterior walls. Where milled lumber was available, they were unpainted and constructed with wood and sided in wide clapboard or shingles. They generally had little exterior ornamentation, and a large central chimney, linked to a fireplace in each room. This inexpensive, easy to duplicate design met the needs of the influx of colonial settlers looking for practical, affordable dwellings. The style has evolved to accommodate the harsh winters of in some US states, and Canadian provinces. As it grew in popularity in the West, during the early 19th century, the style mingled with other styles. However the style has not deviated too much, and modern Cape Cod houses are still modeled after the rugged architecture of the colonial period.

After a lull, the Cape Cod style was revived at the end of the Victorian era, and during the Colonial Revival of the 1930s, while remaining true to its roots. Colonial Revival Cape Cod houses are very similar to early Colonial Cape Cod homes, but some have the chimney at one end of the living room, on the side of the house. The houses were often larger than the originals, with updated framing methods and interior plans, staircases and other ornamental details. Elaborate replicas were designed for the upper class, while architects like Royal Barry Wills modernized the Cape for middle-class families, by including modern amenities.


Cape Cods are short, stout, and modest. They inspire images of warmth, serenity and safety. Cape homes are characterized by their use of natural, local materials, such as cedar for the shingles and pine or fir for framing and flooring. The first Cape Cod houses were categorized as quarter, half, three quarter and full Cape. The quarter displays a full depth, single door and window on the front, while the half Cape is two bays, with a door to one side of the house and two windows on one side of the door. The three-quarter Cape has a door with two windows on one side and one window on the other and the full Cape comprises of a front door in the centre of the home, flanked on each side by two windows. Cape Cod houses are typically full Cape.

The design style can be easily recognized  by their low ceilings, to hold in the heat, and steep roof to minimize snow build up. These steeply pitched roofs, with side gables, are very practical in cold climates; especially in snow belts, regardless of the style of home. The overhang of the roof was minimized to prevent strong winds from damaging the roof during a storm. Traditionally, Cape Cod homes had shingle or clapboard exteriors. This made use of the abundant timber in the region. Exposed to the elements, the unpainted wood turns from a warm tan to a grey colour over time. Double dormers punctuate the steep roof lines of many Cape Cod homes and bring natural light into the second floor bedrooms of the home.

Traditionally, Cape Cod homes have a symmetrical appearance and layout on the inside, with a centre hall and equal space on either side. At the heart of traditional Cape Cod house is a chimney. The central chimney linked to a fireplace in most other rooms, and kept the home nice and warm. More recently, the central chimney has become relatively uncommon, as modern central heating has replaced the fireplace as the primary heating source. Most retain the traditional fireplace, but it is placed to one end of the home. Shutters and window boxes are stand out features in Cape Cod designs. They were instrumental in protecting windows from severe winds. Windows were colonial era, with small-panes. With modern Cape homes, full-paned windows are used without detracting too much from the Colonial look.

Colonial interpretations of the style did not have front porches, due to weather and construction concerns; however they are common in revival manifestations of the style. On the inside, Cape Cod homes usually have plenty of warm natural wood, and are painted in neutral shades, inspired by nature. They are draped in natural textures such as vintage linen or burlap. Rustic, handmade, stained wood furniture fits the style perfectly. Add throw pillows to over-sized sofas for a soft, comfortable look.

Wainscoting lined walls and white wood trim are other telling interior design features, but not so much anymore. Today, the layout is likely to be an open floor plan. The walls will probably be drywall, and the decor much more contemporary. As technology advanced, materials often changed from traditional wood shingles or simple clapboard, to concrete shingles and well-insulated tongue and groove siding. The early homes had stone foundations, and on contemporary houses of the style, you’ll often see concrete foundations clad in stone veneer. A Cape Cod-style home can be just as charming with an unconventional or contemporary decorating scheme, as long as the basic elements of the design are there.


Perfect for growing families, Cape Cod’s aesthetics align with the typical Canadian housing preference of rustic and natural. A popular choice for over 200 years, you’ll find the style sprinkled across Canada, with some adaptations. In provinces like Ontario, British Columbia and  Prince Edward Island, custom Cape Cod homes are in demand. These homes now include garages, porches, modern amenities, and much more expansion space than the original modest structure.


Bringing elements of the style to your home can feel exotic, yet familiar. The transformation can be as complex as a new build, or remodel, or as simple as sourcing the right furniture and fabric. General architectural culture has become a melting pot of designs, since the Cape Cod revival. Style categories have become less rigid, as long as some original design elements are included. For Cape Cod homes, practicality, affordability and warmth should be included in your design.

If you’re thinking about adding Cape Cod elements to your existing home, consider a new exterior finish, and some shutters, or perhaps an extension, like attaching extra rooms to the side or rear, if space permits. Altering the roof line may even permit the addition of dormers. To dress up the footings, add a feature wall, or give the fireplace the look of traditional stone, cladding with panelized Versetta Stone® makes for easy installation with mechanical fasteners.


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