No. 26 - The Cottonwood Cottage

Curt Lyons, Designer

Drafted by S. Dehner for THE small HOUSE CATALOG

Designer Curt Lyons talks about Cottonwood Cottage:

I am happy to offer the plans for the Cottonwood Cottage after working to create them in collaboration with Shawn.  At first glance it might just appear to be a typical two bedroom Craftsman style bungalow, but there is a little more to it that needs explaining. My overall goal was a simple, smaller house, that maximized its footprint while trying to keep the overall massing down for efficiency as well as aesthetics. I wanted an open floor plan, where the living room and kitchen flowed together, since meal preparation, before and after work is the majority of time people get to spend awake in their house. The design was kept simple with the intent of keeping costs down, and making it easier to build. This simplicity is revealed in the exposed structure of posts and beam, exposed joists and tongue and groove flooring for the second floor, which is the visible ceiling below. 

I have since had to postpone building the house for myself for now, so I contacted Shawn to make my plans available to you, for free. A lot of thought went into the design and I would love to see it get built. 

My overall goals included:

Curt is an interesting guy and you can read more about him in The Coloradoan.

  • Envelope: A well insulated tight building envelope
  • Passive solar: Ability to use passive techniques to help heat and cool the house. 
  • Practical: A house that was about practicality versus pretentiousness. 
  • Size: With a footprint of 640 s/f downstairs, it is less than half the 2600 s/f average American house today. 
  • Open: Removing halls maximized the floor plan  
  • Heating: When I learned about air source heat pumps (mini splits) I decided I wanted to use one, as well as a wood stove 
  • PV: The roof is oriented with lots of south exposure to try to go for a net-zero energy house
  • Porches: I have always enjoyed porches, but never lived with one and they allow space and function to flow from inside to outside. 
  • Massing: I really wanted the house to be appear modest and fit in an existing neighborhood
  • Green: Sustainability went into every decision from size to materials. 
  • Cost: Could it be built without a 30 year mortgage. 

For those interested in more detail, read on for more of the reasoning and thought process involved in the design. My background includes construction and I am also a bit of a designer. 


I designed this house to be built on a site in Fort Collins, CO which is in climate zone 4. Being aware of third party certifications such as LEED, and Passivhaus, I decided pretty early that I could build to a better house and put the money that would go into that plaque on the wall into the house itself. Those certifications can make sense to academics and engineers who sometimes seem more motivated by bragging rights as opposed to the bigger picture of sustainability. The bottom line, insulation is relatively cheap, and building smaller is a low hanging fruit when it comes to making a house with less impact on the environment. I prefer cellulose to petroleum based foams, and with everything in life, there is a diminishing return on more of something. We ended up with an 8” double stud walls which would have an R-value of around 30, and if it was only R-28 that's still above code and pretty darn good. 

Passive Solar:

Colorado is a natural place for this decision. In the winter we still have lots of sunny days even when it's cold, while during the summer night time temperatures cool down allowing for a cooling stack effect.  The house is designed to be oriented with the long access east to west, with windows on the south that can get solar gain in winter and be shaded in the summer. Windows on the north were minimized to keep down heat loss, which was also the reason for no skylights. 


The overall square footage is around 1000 square feet, I say around because measuring square footage upstairs with sloped ceilings gets tricky. The plans show a 4' knee wall but I think I would drop those to one or two feet since there is a shed dormer and other than changing clothes, most of what I do in a bedroom is horizontal. There is no bedroom downstairs simply because I didn't want to the lengthen the footprint and close off the windows on the west end of the house. As for aging in place, I am going to take the approach of the world's healthiest elderly as in Dan Buettner's TED talk on Blue Zones


Wood stoves have a controversial reputation that I don't think they deserve. They may not make sense everywhere, but where I live in CO, we have thousands of acres of standing dead beetle kill pine. These trees will either burn in a forest fire, or burn in a stove to heat a house, or fall over and eventually rot. All three options will release the carbon they have absorbed in their lifetime. The other heat source is planned to be an air source heat pump/ductless mini split. These little units are cost effective, also work as air conditioners, and are designed for open floor plans with positive reports are coming back from as far north as Maine. The house may need two units one up and one downstairs. To learn more about them I recommend reading articles in the Green Building Adviser.  


While it is all to often defined as being less bad than previous examples, I define sustainable as being infinitely repeatable with no accumulating deterioration, such as a healthy ecosystem. By that definition, it's pretty hard to build a sustainable house in the modern world, but we can build a lot more sustainably then we have been. Build it smaller, make it to last, make it beautiful so people will want to keep it around, use renewable materials when possible, make it so it doesn't need much to function, work with your environment and remember to enjoy the process. 

House plan details

  • Bedrooms: 2
  • Bathrooms: 1-1/2
  • Floors: 2
  • Conditioned space: 1,096 sq ft > 5'
  • Main floor: 588 sq ft
  • Upper floor: 508 sq ft (stairs counted once)
  • Overall dimensions including porch:  20' x 32' + 3' x 8'-4' bump-out
  • Foundation type: High crawl space (6'-2")
  • Print size: 24" x 36" (black & white recommended)
  • Immediate PDF download with license to build
  • Design criteria: International Residential Code (IRC)