Great escapes: The world's most beautiful contemporary cottages

Story highlights

  • Cottages are getting a modern makeover as more urban dwellers seek respite from the city
  • The designs are often ecologically friendly and emphasize a connection with nature

(CNN)Award-winning architecture probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind when hearing the word "cottage."

More likely, it conjures images of quaint countryside dwellings -- rustic abodes in Cape Cod, thatched roofs in England, and modest oceanside retreats in Sweden.
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    First emerging in medieval England between the 5th and 15th centuries, the word "cottage" refers to a home for cotters, peasants who worked on farms in the countryside.
    The more familiar style of rustic cottage architecture, typically made with heavy stones or wood, emerged in the 18th century.
    But quaint and cozy is no longer the order of the day. As more and more city dwellers look for a refuge to relax and recharge, cottages all over the world are getting sophisticated, environmentally sensitive makeovers.
    "Contemporary taste calls for a lighter touch and a stronger connection between nature, the materials, and the architecture itself," says Charles-Bernard Gagnon, principal architect of Quebec City-based Cargo Architecture.

    The getaway plan

    Toronto firm Superkül is one of many firms answering the call for off-the-grid hideaways.
    "Cottages are destinations of the heart, and those fortunate enough to own them really let their hair down in these rural properties," says co-principal architect Meg Graham.
    "Immersion in nature and the larger landscape is critical (for people) to recharge and refresh, to see things in a new light."
    Tucked away on Georgian Bay in Ontario, Superkül's Shift Cottage is an idyllic getaway nestled between dense trees and unique rocks formations.
    Shift Cottage, Canada, by Superkül architects.
    The owners requested a home that would tread lightly on the land, so Graham and Andre D'Elia designed the 2,000-square-foot property on a natural clearing without destroying any vegetation.
    Graham says the cedar cladding exterior will eventually fade to a silvery gray that echoes the colors of the landscape.
    "Architectural expression of cottages is freer, and there is a greater variety and diversity of form," says Graham. "The focus has shifted outward, and people want to watch and feel like part of the change in seasons and skies."
    The connection to nature continues inside Shift Cottage, where the duo chose pine and oak for the floors, as well as stacked stone for an inviting fireplace.
    "It's a centering process of getting back to the basics, away from the intensity and trappings of urban life," says Graham.

    Location, location, location

    From the materials used in construction to the orientation of windows, contemporary cottages take their cues from their specific location.
    And with large windows, concrete floors and raw finishes, Villa Boreale in Canada's boreal forest is about as close to nature as it gets.
    Villa Boréale, Quebec, Canada, by CARGO Architects.
    Deep in the woods, the vacation home is just a few hundred feet from a path where deer and black bears wander freely.
    "Nature awakens all the senses," says Gagnon of Cargo Architecture. "The great Canadian boreal forest in particular, in the Charlevoix region, offers a raw experience."
    To protect the surrounds, Gagnon made several sustainable choices, using locally sourced materials, cedar wood siding, recycled steel wall cladding and double insulation.
    The Danish-inspired design emphasizes the landscape surrounding the house, with a large window in the living room that frames the view.
    Meanwhile, residents might spot a moose while sipping an espresso in the morning, thanks to long vertical windows in the kitchen.

    Leave no footprints

    With a greater emphasis on enjoying and protecting nature, some owners are extra careful not to leave a trail of destruction. Forest Retreat, for example, barely even touches the ground.
    Forest Retreat, Czech Republic, by  Uhlik Architekti.
    The 172-square-foot hideaway in Central Bohemia in Czech Republic rests on a giant boulder and two smaller stones, minimizing the impact on the land.
    "We try to understand the surroundings and work with it. The site for Forest Retreat has its own unmistakable atmosphere," explains Petr Uhlík, principal architect of Uhlik Architekti.
    "The retreat feels like a shy and quiet visitor amongst the boulders."
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    Built for a busy urbanite who wanted to escape the daily grind, Forest Retreat is made of locally sourced wood from fallen trees on the owner's property.
    The far side of the residence is essentially one big window, making it feel as if guests are sleeping in nature.
    "We chose the location and orientation of the retreat by watching the movements of the sun -- where the sun sets, where it rises," says Uhlík.
    "That way, the view from the sleeping space frames the sunrise among the trees."