Small Cottage? No Problem

Tips to make “tiny” work.
Tiny Cottage - Interior
By using a smaller, scale-appropriate pieces rather than a giant, overstuffed piece, cottages don’t feel so cramped. // Photography courtesy of Cottage Home

Tiny homes may be all the rage on hip, housing-oriented TV shows and blogs, but living small is nothing new to Michiganders who flock to the cottages and cabins found along waterways all over the state. The growing interest in tiny homes is, however, providing waterfront owners with lots of ideas about how to make the most of a vacation home’s limited footprint.

“I think most people who are attracted to a small lakefront cottage — or a tiny house for that matter — really embrace the minimalist lifestyle. They don’t need a large house to show their net worth, or to relax in, or to take their family to get away. They just need a clean, safe, functional environment that just happens to be small,” said Aaron Kipfmiller, design and construction manager, and owner of Great Lakes Tiny Homes, LLC, of Mount Pleasant. He also is the state chapter leader for the American Tiny House Association and sits on the association’s national board of directors.

“The people who have a place near the water don’t want to spend all their time focusing on the house and maintenance and cutting the lawn. … Going tiny on the waterfront just makes a lot of sense.”
— Marc O’Grady

The growing trend toward building tiny homes has caught on in a few states, but it is still in its infancy in Michigan, Kipfmiller said, and that’s mainly because of the widespread municipality ordinances that place restrictions on minimum square footage.

Some communities are beginning to reconsider those limits on new construction, and he expects more to follow suit as demand for small homes increases; but in the meantime, Michiganders already are enjoying lakefront living in small-scale cottages, many of which date back to the 1950s and earlier.

Tiny Cottage - Kitchen Island
In a small kitchen, an island allows for movement on both sides, whereas narrow, U-shaped kitchens can quickly become congested. Pass-through windows (shown in the corner) are a convenient way to connect the kitchen to the dining area on a porch. // Photography courtesy of Cottage Home

So, what can homeowners do to take advantage of every square foot of a cozy cottage, particularly when summertime visitors come to call?

Kipfmiller, along with small-house experts Brian Bosgraaf, designer and president of Cottage Home in Holland, and Marc O’Grady of beag+haus in Traverse City offer the following tips to convert cramped quarters to highly livable spaces.

Improve the flow. Observe traffic patterns during transitional times, such as when a group is gathering for a meal or coming in from the beach. In a small space, it’s always better to have two traffic pathways.

Tiny Cottage - Mudroom
The addition of hooks, shelving and a storage-below bench creates a drop-off spot for sports and beach gear, and keeps it contained in one area. // Photography courtesy of Cottage Home

“One entry/exit may be fine with two people, but when you have 20 people on the Fourth of July, you’re going to go crazy if you have all these dead-end traffic jams because of the layout of the furniture and floor plan,” Bosgraaf said. That may mean simply swapping a large, traffic-stopping couch for a couple of small loveseats or something more substantial, such as tearing out a peninsula that cuts off access to the kitchen and replacing it with an island.

Organize, organize, organize. Without organization, a small home quickly can feel claustrophobic and that is especially true in the kitchen. “By creating a designated space for everything, you reduce clutter and free up space. That can be as simple as having a rack on your wall that is designed to hold your dishes and nothing else, and hooks on the underside of the rack to hold coffee mugs,” Kipfmiller said.

“In a normal residence, you probably have a 20-by-30-foot living room and a 12-by-14 screened porch — it’s just the opposite in a cottage because
everybody wants to be on the porch.”
— Aaron Kipfmiller

Another easy organizational trick he uses in tiny homes is to screw the lids of mason jars to the bottom of a shelf and then store spices or other dry goods in the suspended jars.

Create kitchen counter space. A moveable island is a great way to add counter space where you need it, O’Grady said. It can also serve as an extra dining area with the addition of a few stools or even be rolled out to the living room or porch to hold snacks.

Tiny Cottage - Dining Room
Replacing chairs with a bench can save all-important floor space in a smaller cottage. // Photograph courtesy of Cottage Home

Choose space-saving dining options. Rather than buying a big dining room table, opt for a drop-leaf or expandable table so it takes up less room when not in use. Be creative with table chairs, too. Instead of storing folding chairs for extra seating, consider chair-height stools that double as additional living room seating or small dressing chairs that can be brought in from the bedrooms.

Table placement near a wall allows for a seating bench on one side. “If you push the bench against a wall, you can save 2-3 feet just by not insisting on a traffic pattern behind the chairs of the dining room table,” Bosgraaf said.

Tiny Cottage - Murphy Bed
A Murphy-style wall bed hides during the day but drops down to provide additional sleep area at night. // Photography courtesy of Cottage Home

Look up. Wall space often is overlooked, but it can provide a great deal of storage throughout the interior. “You can go vertically along the walls with hooks, shelving or anything that you can mount to a wall to increase your organization,” Kipfmiller advised. “Just by getting things off the floor, you can free up all kinds of floor space.”

Skip the closets for guests. Closets with doors can take up too much space in the petite bedrooms common to cottages, so think about other options, such as an armoire, O’Grady suggested. Outside the bedrooms, guests can share a bench with storage underneath, along with coat hooks, cubbies and shelves above for beach gear and outerwear.

Tiny Cottage - Curtained Bunks
Simple curtains can provide privacy for bunks tucked along a wall. // Photography courtesy of Cottage Home

Make the right sleeping arrangements. Fold-up Murphy-style wall beds, two- and three-high bunk beds, and slide-out trundle beds are all good options for small cottages because they save vital floor space. Another option is a bunk that attaches to the wall with piano hinges and chains, and can be folded up and out of the way during the day, Kipfmiller said. Even a minuscule loft at the top of stairs or a small widening in a hallway can accommodate bunks and trundles, and these can double as reading nooks during daylight hours. For multiple beds in one room or for a set of foldaway bunk beds in the corner of a living room, a strategically placed curtain can provide privacy.

Go big on a porch. If you’re thinking about adding a porch, don’t skimp. “In a normal residence, you probably have a 20-by-30-foot living room and a 12-by-14 screened porch — it’s just the opposite in a cottage because everybody wants to be on the porch,” Bosgraaf said. To get the most out of the porch, he suggested including space for comfortable seating, a dining area possibly with a  through-window to the kitchen and a pantry. The pantry can house a refrigerator for large food platters and bowls, a cooler for beverages, shelves for plastic cups or grilling supplies, and storage for returnables. “That way, people don’t have to keep running into your kitchen,” he added.

Tiny Cottage - Porch
Everyone gravitates to a screened porch, so bigger is better. The wall of sliding doors also brings the outdoors in. // Photography courtesy of Cottage Home

Let the sunshine in. Another substantial improvement is to vault the ceilings and add windows to increase natural light and to give the cottage a more open and airy feel. That includes glass walls and windows between the cottage and porch or deck to “make the exterior area feel like an extension of the cottage and give the overall home a larger feel as well,” O’Grady said.

Regardless of the types of improvements cottage owners make, small is the way to go when it comes to lakefront living, according to O’Grady. “The people who have a place near the water don’t want to spend all their time focusing on the house and maintenance and cutting the lawn. They want a smaller home, so they can spend more time doing the things they went to the cottage to do in the first place,” he remarked. “Going tiny on the waterfront just makes a lot of sense.”

Thinking Outside the Cottage

Native plants
Plants help soften the hardscape. Native plants are a good choice because they can survive Michigan winters. // Photography by Leslie Mertz

An inviting outdoor space can turn even the tiniest waterfront cottage into a wonderfully enjoyable and relaxing setting that’s perfect for entertaining. All it takes is careful planning and execution, according to landscaper Joe Wagner, owner of Better Yards Landscaping Inc. in Houghton Lake, and a Michigan Certified Natural Shoreline Professional (

The first step is to look at the lay of the land. “Most waterfront lots have a slope, but nobody’s going to want to sit on a slope, so it’s a good idea to cut into that hill to create some flat landing areas to utilize your space better,” Wagner said. One level might be the patio, another the fire pit, and a third an outdoor dining space with a barbecue and picnic table.

To connect the terraced spaces, a winding path is an excellent choice. Pavers work well for the path and for the steps. Wagner is partial to big slabs of natural Michigan outcropping stones. “They just look more natural, so it’s not so straight up and down,” he said. Plants can have a softening effect on the sides of paths, steps and terraces. Wagner recommends native plants because they are suited to the environment and are more likely to survive Michigan winters.

Seating is another consideration. Rather than keeping dozens of chairs on-hand for occasional crowds, Wagner suggested installing short walls around the perimeter of terraces to not only create cozy outdoor rooms but also to provide spots for guests to sit. Well-placed flat-sided boulders also can be tucked into the landscaping and serve as natural chairs and benches. When used in an outdoor dining area, seating walls and flat boulders second as additional counter space for food and drinks, so guests don’t need to traipse into the cottage and congest the kitchen.

curved walkway
A curved walkway offers a nice contrast from the angles and straight lines of a cottage. // Photography by Leslie Mertz

For the fire pit area, the traditional wood-burning fire still is popular. Many cottage owners, however, are choosing gas options that provide a nice flame at the flip of a switch, while eliminating the need to buy and stack of piles of wood. Either way, Wagner favors pavers or another flat surface around the fire pit so chairs have a stable foundation.

Taken together, he says, these suggestions create comfortable, functional exterior spaces. “They feel like a continued part of the cottage, but they’re open so they give the freedom of being outdoors,” he said, adding that well-planned outdoor living affords even the smallest structure a welcoming attitude for homeowners and their guests.

Leslie Mertz is a freelance writer and environmental educator. She lives Up North near a branch of the Au Sable River.

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