Exceeding The Code in Coastal Style

 In Better Built, Design for Living, Home Decor & Remodeling

When it comes to new development, it is easy to dwell on the sort of construction we do not want, but how about paying attention to what we do want? The ‘power of the positive’ if you will.

What follows is a call-out to local government and business buildings that were built, re-built, or re-used in a way that matches the beauty of the Outer Banks and its historic cottages.

In each case we will highlight which architectural features are a nod to the “old Nags Head style” that give us our sense of place.

When architects and builders of the original Nags Head cottages began construction in the mid-1800s, they built structures that were inhabitable on the hottest summer days yet could be boarded up and abandoned during a winter of high tides and nor’easters. The homes were also built economically with scavenged materials anticipating annual storm losses and cheap repairs.

Their uniqueness was recognized when the Nags Head Beach Cottage Row Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.


The original homeowners didn’t need flood insurance policies or Base Flood Elevation (BFE) figures to tell them not to build on the ground level. Putting a house on pilings allowed waves and storm tides to pass under the home rather than flooding it. Pilings also granted homeowners a second or third chance at picking up and moving inland away from an eroding shoreline.

outer banks pilings

Clockwise From Left: Jennette’s Pier, a Nags Head home on Cottage Row and The Bird Store.

Today, the use of pilings maintains those benefits and more. Pilings keep them in compliance with the BFEs that didn’t exist earlier. And if the building is inland enough and the pilings are high enough, shaded parking is created, another concept that did not exist in the 1800s.

Love the Lattice

In between all of those sturdy pilings, latticework was often mounted under the historic cottages. Lattice prevented shade-seeking livestock (and their fleas and flies) from wandering under the house where the humans also lived and slept.

A look around at lattice used today reveals benefits that do not involve fleas, flies, or livestock.

outer banks lattice

Left: Kitty Hawk Kites in Nags Head. Right: Traditional Outer Banks latticework.

Is your restaurant perched near a busy road? A permeable barrier of latticework allows for a breeze and creates a little seclusion while maintaining a view for diners.

Are you lacking storage space? Lattice creates impromptu storage for businesses to keep everything from kayaks to restaurant supplies behind their lattice “walls.”

Trying to increase curb appeal with a limited amount of space? Lattice becomes a natural trellis for flowering vines, twinkle lighting, and artwork.

Lean-out Benches and Endless Porches

Nags Head loves its porches so much that they are rewarded handsomely with points in a 2003 ordinance. The ordinance states, “The most desirable design element… is the wraparound porch which shall have the greatest value in the point system.”

Revised in 2015, the ordinance is directed only at new construction and remodeling and has a detailed outline for scoring buildings that incorporate architectural features with a “Nags Head style” or “coastal style.”

outer banks architecture

Clockwise From Top Left: Nags Head Town Hall, Weatherly Insurance in Kill Devil Hills, Resort Realty in Nags Head, The Bird Store in Kill Devil Hills.

Nags Head Deputy Town Manager Andy Garman says, “What I typically hear is there are people who have an interest in building with the Nags Head look, and they don’t even look at the points because they are irrelevant. They are going to go beyond what we require.”

And when it comes to porches? “You can
almost meet your entire point requirements if you have a gorgeous, wraparound porch,” Garman adds.

Shingles, Shutters, Dormers

Historic cottages had simple wood batten shutters that were hinged at the top and provided quick protection from a storm. Propping the shutters open with a stick captured even a tepid breeze while still shading the rooms from summer sun.

Sharp roofline angles with dormers that met with a shallower porch roof allowed for more light, ventilation, and headroom while minimizing the amount of roof structure needed.

outer banks architecture

Clockwise From Top Left: Beach Realty in Kitty Hawk, Nags Head Hammocks, Village Realty in Nags Head, The Bird Store.

Cedar shakes or shingles were left unpainted. As they weathered with age, they developed a natural, grayed patina that is a hallmark of the Cottage Row Historic District.

Today, even with the availability of air conditioning and durable composit siding, area businesses will emulate the cottage style details even if they are design features only. Plus, the Nags Head ordinance grants points for hinged, board and batten style shutters, steep-pitched roofs with dormers, and real cedar, pine, or juniper shingles.

They make the building “look like a residence, not a commercial building,” says Garman.


Nothing evokes “coastal style” like a tower or perch whose sole purpose is a view of the sea, sound, or horizon.

We may not be looking for ships in distress anymore, yet ocean walks, watchtowers, and clerestory windows keep popping up in new construction.

outer banks architecture

Clockwise From Top Left: Kitty Hawk Lifesaving Station converted into a residence, Nags Head Hammocks in Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head Links Golf Course.

Garman can justify a modern coastal tower being placed in today’s buildings beyond just the points that are earned.

“Some provide light below, or they will have a spiral staircase inside.” But at a store like Nags Head Hammocks he says, “It’s part of their brand. It’s part of an overall experience.”

Raw and Reclaimed Interiors

While the use of reclaimed wood may be trendy now, it was a necessity back in the early days. It was not an aesthetic decision to have walls of bare, reclaimed wood in the original Nags Head cottages. Residents used lumber that was readily available, sometimes salvaged from shipwrecks, because paint and wallpaper were finishing touches best left for homes in the city.

Today it is purely an aesthetic decision (or an act of love) when a business preserves original wooden walls or designs an interior using drywall sparingly.

outer banks architecture

Above: Owens Restaurant. Below: Basnight’s Lone Cedar Café.

“The ordinance does not cover the insides, just the exterior and how it affects the community,” says Garman.

The unmeasurable benefit of this practice today is that visitors enter businesses like the Bird Store, Jennette’s Pier, or Basnight’s Lone Cedar restaurant and they are rewarded with an experience that brought them to the Outer Banks in the first place.

Architects and developers who have grown up here or who have watched Old Nags Head Row cottages weathering storms season after season have a desire to keep the character of the place they call home. They will design and build what we know is “Nags Head style” architecture regardless of regulations. In fact, they will often exceed requirements even if means added time and money.

“We do get comments that it enhances the community,” Garman says about the regulations.

“And then there are other really good examples that would way far exceed our requirements. Once you put it on paper, and give people an idea what is being looked for, they embrace it.” ♦

Susan Selig Classen
Author: Susan Selig Classen

Susan Selig Classen has been living, writing, and editing on the Outer Banks for over ten years. Her other published work includes articles in AOPA Pilot, Convention South, and Brain Child magazines. Susan was formerly the editor for Three Dog Ink Media.

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