Cape Cod Design and Architecture - Explained

Cape Cod Design and Architecture - Explained

By Mateos Glen Hayes December 20, 2021

Possibly one of the most iconic American architectural styles, cape cod architecture has a long and rich history. It may be a more basic architectural style but it is very practical and never fails to impress with its simple elegance.

Originally from the Cape Cod area of New England, this architectural style has since quickly spread throughout the United States and can now be found in tract housing developments throughout the country. Although it came to prominence in a time before electrification, the style has managed to keep up with the times and remains popular well into the present day. There’s nothing quite like a Cape Cod-style home when it comes to having a good balance of style and practicality.

Origins of Cape Cod Architecture and Design

As is the case for many innovations, necessity was the mother of invention in the case of the Cape Cod house. The first English colonists who arrived on the New England coasts were confronted with bitterly cold winters, strong biting winds, and relentless spray from the rough seas. They needed some form of housing that was strong enough to withstand these adverse conditions but could be built quickly, easily, and affordably.

Colonial Beginnings

English colonists laid the foundations of the Cape Cod-style in the 17th century when they began adapting their English half-timber houses and cabins to stand up to New England’s rough weather. This resulted in houses that were boxier and were built lower than their English counterparts.

This style of housing soon spread in popularity and experienced a building boom throughout New England which went on into the mid-nineteenth century. Interestingly, it wasn’t until 1800 that the term “Cape Cod House” came into use when Yale University’s eighth president coined the term to describe houses he saw during a visit to Cape Cod.

Modern Revival

Modern Cape Cod Houses Are Bigger and Better

Modern Cape Cod Houses Are Bigger and Better

As Cape Cod-style architecture trailed off in popularity, necessity would make it popular again in the twentieth century. When the Great Depression hit the U.S. in the 1930s, it created a big need for affordable housing, and Cape Cod homes were an affordable answer to that demand.

The second wave of Cape Cod home building exploded after the Second World War as the economy rebounded and a nationwide housing boom began. Cape Cod-style homes quickly became the design of choice for real estate developers throughout the country thanks to how easy it was to build many homes quickly and for little expense. American architects such as Royal Barry Wills helped to adapt the Cape Cod style home for the modern era, making room for modern bathrooms, enlarged kitchens, and carports.

 Most notably, Levittown, New York became a major spiritual home for the modern Cape Cod house. This is a hamlet that was founded and developed to provide affordable quality Cape Cod cottage-style residences to returning military veterans. In other words, the Cape Cod house was instrumental in building what is considered to be the first American suburb.

Still Going Strong

Even today in an era of large suburban homes, the Cape cod style home remains a popular choice for homeowners throughout the country. There is something very pleasantly simple and frugal about Cape Cod houses, and that has to do with more than just looks.

Aside from taking up less space, small Cape Cod houses can be designed to be more energy-efficient, and their smaller size also means less in terms of property upkeep expenses. Of course, modern advancements also mean that it is now quite possible to build Cape Cod-style “mansions”, with plenty of room for second floors, mancaves, and anything else the modern home could need.

How to Recognize Cape Cod Architecture 

Cape Homes Have Distinctive Features

Cape Homes Have Distinctive Features

Cape Cod-style homes tend to have some core similarities that make them pretty easy to spot. 

Cape Cod Style Home Exterior

The earliest Cape Cod homes had very simple layouts. They were small rectangular homes with little to no exterior ornamentation and a simple one-and-a-half-story stepped roof design. These original Cape Cod homes seldom had more than two rooms, consisting of a living room and one bedroom for the entire household. The main door was usually in the center and flanked by two large shutter-clad windows.

To keep warm on cold and windy New England nights, classic Cape Cod-style homes were kitted out with one large central chimney designed to heat the entire home. While this same basic framework remains in modern cape homes, there have been some significant changes. For one, modern Cape Cod houses tend to be quite a bit bigger than two rooms.

Thanks to advances in heating technology, it is no longer necessary to have a large central chimney, and many Cape Cod houses might even forgo it to save space. Of course, there’s nothing quite like a roaring fire on a cold snowy day, so many homes have retained this design feature albeit in smaller form. Modern Cape homes tend to be less austere than their colonial cousins, and so ornamentation, two-tone color schemes, and other decorative elements are quite common nowadays.

Room Layout

To accommodate our 21st-century lifestyles with all its electronic appliances and increased privacy, the Cape Cod house has doubled in size. This means that it is not unusual nowadays to see a Cape Cod house with additional wings or annexes. Attic bedrooms are another modern addition to the Cape Cod formula. They allow for charming dormer windows which protrude from the roof and offer that much-needed extra light and ventilation.

Natural Sturdy Materials

One thing that hasn’t changed about Cape Cod houses is the stuff that they’re made of — and that’s a good thing. These homes are built to last, and so strong rot-resistant woods such as oak and pine are commonly used for framing and flooring in Cape Cod homes. Fireplaces and chimneys are typically made with brick — and cedar shake shingles constitute the roofing.

How to Recognize Cape Cod Interior Design 

Cape Cod Style Homes Have No Shortage of Seating

Cape Cod Style Homes Have No Shortage of Seating

The interior home design of Cape Cod houses is distinctive but maintains the elegant simplicity of the exterior design. This is good news if you’re aiming for that Cape Cod look since it means it isn’t hard to reproduce in your home.

Light Coastal Colors

As with other coastal home styles, a light color scheme is a trademark of the modern Cape Cod home. That means lots of whites and coastal blues to brighten things up and help reflect the natural sunlight of the New England coast. Modern Cape Cod homes also tend to have large windows to maximize the amount of sunlight that makes its way inside.

This basic color scheme goes quite nicely with a minimalist layout, which is perfect for making the most use of the space available in your small Cape Cod house. Little spots of color, such as striped blue and white throw pillows as well as patterned curtains, are a nice touch for some added coastal charm.

Lots of Seating

Because they were family homes, traditional cape cod houses have no shortage of seating so that everyone can be comfy in your great room and kitchen. So, make sure that your Cape Cod-style interior has plenty of varied seating options with spacious couches and mini-stools.

To give your interior that authentic regional flavor, be sure to include plenty of wicker furniture and other hand-woven elements. By doing so, you’d offer your living areas a nice and relaxed coastal vibe that the whole family can enjoy.

Lots of Wood 

Quality Materials Are an Important Component of Modern Cape Cod Homes

Quality Materials Are an Important Component of Modern Cape Cod Homes

It probably comes as no surprise that wood is a very common feature on the inside of a Cape Cod house as well. And indeed, luxury premium features such as hardwood flooring, quality wooden-framed windows, and vintage wooden tables and dressers are all welcomed additions to a Cape Cod home as they add texture and character.


Written by
Mateos Glen Hayes

Written by Mateos Glen Hayes