Dogtrot [ dog·trot ] - a roofed passage similar to a breezeway; especially : one connecting two parts of a cabin. I'm a bit of a Dogtrot nerd - if that's even possible. I've long admired its simple form and the power of a single, well-proportioned void in an otherwise long, rectangular building. I've studied the building type in depth and offer you here an abridged 'design workshop', if you will. I particularly love knowing the origin story of this humble structure - see if you agree.
The dogtrot is a wonderfully versatile building typology that has endured differing building climates and cultures not only because of its utility, but also because of its simplicity and beauty.
While it’s hard to pin down the exact origin or antecedent of this building typology in the United States, there’s much evidence that earliest forms of dogtrots came into existence here in the lower Delaware Valley colony of New Sweden in what we now know as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. It is believed that Swedish and Finnish settlers of North America in the mid-1600s brought a building typology know as the ‘pair-cottage’, from Northern Europe. These pair-cottages consisted of a pair of log cabins stationed side-by-side and joined with a common grass-covered roof. The Fenno-Swedish settlers were accustomed to working with large timbers and hewing logs for construction and as early settlers of the lower Delaware Valley it made sense that their woodworking skills were put to use in constructing their early homes.
The origin of the early dogtrot’s construction methods as linked log cabins is telling as well. There were two major limiting factors in the construction of log cabins - the first was the length of log that a team of men and livestock could handle. The second was the availability of such raw materials. Selecting logs of a length able to easily be moved into place, especially above one’s head, limited the size logs one could use to build the log structure with and thus the length of the walls. Equally, a log’s taper was a critical factor as the taller log sections yielded more taper. Accounting for these factors during construction ensured the log cabins remained small and one-story.
Once a log structure was completed, adding to it presented difficulty. In stick frame construction of the present day, additions are accomplished simply without much thought and in virtually any location. Lacking any way to modify the supporting walls of the log structures meant the only means of adding to the structure was to build yet a neighboring structure - again subject to all of the previously noted limitations. Building the second cabin only a few feet away would’ve resulted in a useless and dark intervening space. But by separating it a rooms’ width (12 – 16 feet) away it doubled as an additional outdoor, multipurpose room. All of this was accomplished with a simple, singular gesture.
The dogtrot plan layout is characterized by two equal rectangular shaped, single-story rooms termed ‘pens’; separated by between sixteen and twenty feet connected by a common, usually gabled, roof and a floored breezeway or dogtrot which spans the full depth of the plan. Each of the pens was accessed via a door opening onto the dogtrot separating the structures. The dogtrot behaved as an additional room. The functions of each of the flanking pens were usually different. One was used as private living space and the other as a kitchen and dining or any number of secondary uses: workshop, office, apartment, storage, tavern, or inn.
The intervening space, the dogtrot, served many purposes. Access between either pen and the dogtrot was simple and direct. Some historical examples omitted the floor in the dogtrot breezeway leaving bare earth. This created a covered place to service wagons - a sort of modern day carport. The more common configuration placed the floor coplanar with the interior space. In this way it functioned more like an additional outdoor room - a porch, a place to store farm implements and a place to sit out of the sun. This ensured a social status to the dogtrot as the central gathering point in these early homes.
The dogtrot design is known well in southern building cultures of the United States. It permeated southern pioneer architecture in part because it had offered an ingenious solution to the region’s hot climate. The dogtrot’s breezeway, positioned centrally in the plan, naturally created a cooler pool of air between the warmer interior spaces. This cool pocket of air could easily be drawn into the flanking pens by opening the doors at either end of the gables. In a time before air conditioning, one can see the draw of this passive cooling effect.
Providing heat to the enclosed ‘pens’, one chimney could be found on the gable ends of each structure. Early incarnations were constructed of wood, but proved extremely dangerous. Later versions were more fire-resistant and permanent built of brick and stone.
Many dogtrots included a porch along an entire eave wall. The porch usually had a shed roof with a lower pitch than the main roof and over time the exterior spaces of these porches were enclosed and apportioned to interior use.
Symmetrical window configurations were most common, with one or two windows per pen on each eave wall and two windows flanking the chimneys on the gable ends.
In keeping with the efficient use of space, full adoption of the attic space for both storage and even extra living space was common. This expanded the use of an often extremely compact building footprint.
The historical record indicates that dogtrots were of two origins. Those that began with one structure added a second and connected the two with the roofed dogtrot. And, those that began by constructing and connecting both pens at once.
Other additions took to enclosing porches, making each pen two rooms deep leaving essentially a foursquare plan, and even separated structures. The separate structure was popular in the south, where the kitchen would be housed in this separate building connected by a covered breezeway. This removed the largest source of heat from the living space and limited losses in the frequently devastating fires.
In the south, where ventilation and cooling are bigger concerns than insulating, dogtrots were commonly constructed on piers. In the north, fieldstone comprised many a farmer’s foundation because the glacial till was plentiful, required removal from fields used for crops and frost depth had to be taken into account. Stone provided a durable means of stabilizing the building’s support to ground not subject to freezing.
Log construction formed the basis for early dogtrots; the joint imperfections were filled with clay and twig chinking to keep out the elements. The interiors of these log structures used clapboards and board and batten wood finishes to conceal the roughly hewn logs. The limitations of log length and taper, as discussed earlier, had a substantial impact on the scale of early dogtrots. Equally, the raw materials available locally meant most of the structures utilized the wood from the surrounding forest - notably pine and spruce.
With advent of large scale lumber mills and the mass-produced wire nail in the late 1800’s the raw materials and methods of home construction transitioned away from log construction toward light frame construction which persists today as the most popular form of construction. Stick-frame construction being modular and infinitely flexible changed the construction requirements of additions and renovations. Sticks could easily create additions and loads could be transferred to the foundation by simply joining them together to create headers. Holes could be cut in walls and extensions weren’t limited to the size of logs.
With the necessity for additions no longer hindered by the dimensions and heft of the log, and social pressure to promote one's status via their home, the dogtrot succumbed to other more stately building types. Today those in the south who grew up knowing the typology often recall the dogtrot fondly, but at the time it was considered to be a very humble shelter. Which is to say, built for the poor. As such these homes didn’t correlate well with wealthy plantation owners and with time it gave way to grander and more sprawling architectural styles found in the south to this day.
As an architect interested in humble structures, I find the dogtrot to be particularly compelling – in its climactic response, its simplicity, its affordability and fort its flexible, integrated indoor/outdoor space. I think it’s why the dogtrot remains a viable and sought after plan for many.
While the climate of the Northeast, where I live and practice, isn't subject to the same stifling heat as the deep south, our winters and shoulder seasons beg for flexible transition zones between indoors and out. The dogtrot layout is the perfect corollary and it addresses this need elegantly. I think of it as an expanded mudroom, a place to store kayaks paddles and kick off your snowshoes under cover of weather. Pair it with a set of sliding screens and it's a screened porch. Add a fireplace and it's a sheltered outdoor dining area. Add benches and it's a living room or sleeping porch, or play space. The very lack of any strict functionality makes it inordinately useful and adaptable. Isn't that what our modern lives demand?