August 19, 2007
For Allan and Nancy Bissinger, the right house was born while they were busy making other plans. The couple, who have three grown children and live most of the year in New Orleans, hired New Orleans-based firm Waggonner & Ball Architects to design a small guesthouse on their 40-acre property in the rural hills of southern Mississippi overlooking a small pond. “Our plan was to have Mac Ball design the guest/party place and eventually build a much bigger house across the pond,” says Nancy. “But because the small house is so functional, we’ve decided to postpone building anything else.”
Taking cues from the vernacular surrounding landscape and architecture—small farms with intermittent pine trees and scrub land, barns, tin sheds, mobile homes, and chicken coops—Ball designed the 850-square-foot home (which also has 395-square-feet of storage space, a 316-square-foot dining porch, and a 200-square-foot screened porch) as a modern take on the “dogtrot” prototype. Typical in the rural south, dogtrot buildings have a covered open space between two closed spaces, providing a sheltered, breezy area to gather during the hot summers. In the Bissinger’s home, this area serves as an informal dining porch looking out to the pond. It has quickly become the couple’s favorite part of the house. “Allan built a table and benches and we use the space as our main dining room and sitting room,” says Nancy Bissinger. “There is always a breeze from the pond and the sights and sounds are wonderful! In the morning we watch the birds and cows in the pasture as we have our coffee and in the evening we listen to the birds settle in for the night and the frogs sound off in their courting rituals.”
“The materials, as well as the design, are all very simple,” says Waggonner & Ball project designer Catherine Smith. The wood-framed house sits on an untreated concrete block base. Stained board-and-batten siding is interlaced with horizontal weatherboard siding. A diagonal, single-slope standing seam metal roof juxtaposes with the vertical form of a freestanding masonry fireplace in the dogtrot space, while broad steps and a raised concrete deck extend that area further into the landscape.
“We wanted to be part of the natural setting,” says Bissinger. “We wanted big windows so that we could see everything outside. We also wanted a low maintenance situation—no sheetrock, only wood for walls. The original drawings were very conventional, but as the weeks progressed, so did the design.”
Inside, Smith says efficient use of space was key. The open porch divides the living space and screened porch from the storage/workroom. The living space is a double-height volume with a sleeping loft above closets and a bathroom. “We tried to make the most of such a small space,” she says. “Built-in cabinets, window seats, and some attic space, helped.”
According to Nancy, the small house has turned out to be the perfect respite to the couple’s busy city life. “Allan likes to say we have a mini-vacation every weekend,” she says. “We fly fish on our pond, watch birds—many species nest in the yard and we enjoy their families, Allan rides his tractor to clear brush and plant grass on the property; I pull out weeds and maintain our (mostly) native landscape, our friends and family visit and we enjoy peace and quiet with them. Our three grown children also enjoy the peace and quiet. We hope one day to teach grandchildren about the joys of the country life.”