Downsizing with Charm

 In Better Built, Design for Living

The Mermaid’s Pillow in Nags Head. Photography by Cindy Thornsvard.

Many Outer Banks homeowners today are trying to get back to the mindset that made this beach so alluring. Whether by downsizing current homes, transforming small spaces into quaint, single-room rentals, or building modest homes with a rustic feel, many homeowners are cutting back on space while maintaining comfort and amenities.

We’ve come a long way since the ‘Unpainted Aristocracy’ of Nags Head first graced the shores of the Outer Banks some 130 years ago. These homes, which now make up Old Cottage Row, marked the beginning of the tourism movement and thus the building of homes along the coast; but it wasn’t until the 70s that the mass production of the Outer Banks’ “McMansions” began. Before then, families vacationing here enjoyed an unvaried availability of rugged, shingled cottages that had a more intimate and authentic Outer Banks feel than enormous, multi-family homes have today.

The Mermaid’s Pillow

mermaid-kitchen-smIn a cottage-inspired new-build called The Mermaid’s Pillow, one Outer Banks homeowner, Cindy Thornsvard, chose a downsized approach to accomplish an intimate feel in her home.

“I’m not a big fan of the giant monsters they are building everywhere,” Thornsvard said. “We wanted to build a place that would meet the needs of many different people who wanted to vacation – but wanted to find a smaller house.”

Her motivation and philosophy on why she decided to go small was actually a twofold decision. As an owner of another rental cottage across from the Nags Head Fishing Pier, she realized that there is a growing niche market for smaller properties because not everyone vacations in large groups. Her first property didn’t have a pool, one of the top amenities many Outer Banks vacationers look for in a home, so Cindy decided to build something smaller that would leave room on the property for a pool. 

mermaid-dining-smAnother driving factor behind the design of her new build was Thornsvard’s own family. The Mermaid’s Pillow is handicapped accessible, complete with ramps going to both front and back doors that were built with their son-in-law in mind who is a quadriplegic.

“We wanted somewhere the family could stay when they come to the beach to visit,” she said, but they also wanted to keep in mind the aesthetics of the place and to avoid any “hospital feel.”

The home is designed not only with wheelchairs in mind. It also offers a wide-open, uncluttered space that will enable just about anyone with mobility issues to maneuver throughout with ease. Plenty of floor space, flowing from the entrance through the living room and into the dining room, allows for unhindered movement throughout the common space of the 1,510 square-foot cottage.

Grab bars in the bathroom, a roll-under vanity, and wide, smooth walkways allow this home to be handicapped accessible without pegging it solely as a handicapped rental. In fact, many do not notice the accessible features unless they are looking for them.

Mermaid-pool-smThornsvard said that the only building code alterations that Albemarle Contracting Services had to account for were the slight adjustments to the pool and driveway concrete to allow for the ramps’ lot coverage elsewhere.

Even with 3 bedrooms and 2½ bathrooms, Cindy ensured that the Mermaid’s Pillow includes all of the amenities one would need when vacationing on the Outer Banks.

The kitchen has a custom-made, ceramic-tiled island which is complemented by a white tile backsplash and retro metal bar stools. The kitchen features modern, stainless-steel appliances and lighting. In the backyard is a stocked cookout area, complete with an in-ground pool, picnic table, and lounge chairs for ultimate relaxation.


Out the Wild Zoo


Out The Wild Zoo in Nags Head. Photography by Mike Erwin.

Not far away from the Mermaid’s Pillow, another downsized rental cottage was created with different objectives.

After purchasing a historic Nags Head home in May 2012, Marty Felps decided to renovate the “little house” that was also on the property. The structure, according to stories passed on to Felps, was once used as quarters for the male servants – the woman’s room was part of the main house.

Felps wanted to create a rental opportunity that included all the amenities and comforts of a modern, vacation home or a complete hotel suite but built with reclaimed materials from the home’s original era.

OZ-10Overall-smAccording to the variety of wood and types of hardware used, the buildings appeared to have four building stages over the course of 30 years or more. The little house was a conglomeration of multiple porches that were added and then closed in later.

“We wanted to keep the same character,” Felps said, “so we used all of the existing wood in the renovation and as many of the original materials as possible.”

With low ceilings, multiple levels of flooring, and five tiny rooms, including a bedroom that could only be entered by walking through a closet, the little house was in bad shape. Despite the disrepair, Felps felt it was important to keep the charm of the place to preserve as much historical value as he could.

 “After being involved in some type of construction for 50 years, I have to say, it was the most varied and truly interesting structures I have ever encountered,” Felps said.

OZ-06Kitchen-smThe once-segmented space now boasts a wide open feel. With an exposed kitchen, only separated from the rest of the house by a half-bar, renters can enjoy plenty of space to cook and entertain with a separate dining nook for eating. All of the walls are wood, from the ceiling to floor as was typical in old cottages. With a dishwasher, washer and dryer, TV, and cable – and you can’t forget the outdoor shower – the tiny home is complete with all of the amenities that can be found in a multi-bedroom cottage.

Out the Wild Zoo also has two decks with the original leaning benches that came from the big house during renovation. Renters have a dedicated path that leads to the beach through the dunes.

Felps was happy to read in his guest book recently that a couple chose this downsized vacation rental for their honeymoon and found it to be perfect for the occasion.
“I feel like it provides renters with the opportunity to enjoy a much more intimate atmosphere,” Felps said.

Homeowners on the Outer Banks are scaling down their cottages to provide vacation amenities – in homes that are just the right size! ♦ 

Abby Stewart spends time outdoors enjoying the fresh, salty air on the Outer Banks where she grew up and where she has now returned to make her home once again.

Leave a Comment

Contact Us

We'd love to hear from you! Shoot us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt