Sometimes, designing a house is less about conforming to a graceful picture in the mind's eye and more like solving a giant Rubik's Cube. Such was the case when architect Chris Tippett, a partner at McAlpine Tankersley Architecture, took on a new house project for a family of six who had outgrown their nest. Because they adored their neighborhood—a dappled, woodsy area of Mountain Brook, Alabama, that was lined with cottages and threaded with walking paths—the couple decided to raze their existing house so they could build a new one on the same site.
Cramped and pie-shaped, the lot afforded an almost impossible footprint due to its size and shape as well as stringent new zoning codes. None of this fazed Chris. He came up with a telescoping floor plan that's wider at one end of the lot and becomes narrower as it reaches the lot's point. He decided that this eccentric shape looked best clothed in a clean, contemporary rendition of the late 19th-century style known as Carpenter Gothic, a vernacular tradition wherein house carpenters improvised features that were originally carved in stone in authentic Gothic architecture.
Like the exteriors of old Carpenter Gothic churches, the house Chris designed has steep gables, vertical board-and-batten siding, and closely grouped windows. Clad in clear cypress boards with a faded opaque stain, the house continues to weather and will only get better over time. "You get to see the character of the wood—the graining of it and the variety of each board—but when you step back, it all works as a cohesive whole that's very relaxed and soft," Chris says.
Inside, the decorating celebrates the architecture. Despite having young children, the homeowners wanted rooms with a sophisticated look. Designer Susan Ferrier of McAlpine Booth & Ferrier Interiors created her signature world of rustic elegance while leaving plenty of open space for horseplay. She used a lot of ivories and golds, taking the rest of her color palette from the roof tiles outside—slate greens, blues, and grays. Every room is a spare but sumptuous still life layered with textures and bold scale. "I prefer using large pieces, which calm and ground a room," says Susan.
Because of the floor plan, some rooms had to do double duty. In the dining room, which is also the foyer, two iron carriage lanterns float over the table like giant armatures. Below them, an assortment of straight-backed chairs of varying heights and two custom benches give the room a lively skyline. Another grand-scale gesture is the breakfast room's 14½-foot licorice-colored banquette, part of another compelling community of seating pieces that flank a gracefully attenuated oval table.
In the living room, Susan made a stunning marriage of opposites. Over the masculine grid of windows, she hung a large carved mirror that looks like a coat of arms crossed with a Rorschach test, if both of these things were also endowed with voluptuous feminine curves. "It's a fabulous silhouette—definitely the focal point of the room," she says.
Throughout the house, the furnishings have strong, purposeful lines, and ornaments are calming and tactile. Upholstered pieces are covered in textured velvets and linens, many with bronze nail-head trim for a faceted, low-key sparkle. "It's soft, warm, and honest," Susan says of the house. "You can feel these textures with your eyes, and in that sense, the interior is like the architecture—the opposite of slick. It's not just visual; it's sensual."
Tour the Exterior
Because of its pie-shaped end lot, this house has three street exposures. Architect Chris Tippett made sure each side had plenty of curb appeal with his arsenal of Carpenter Gothic details.
Front View The soft green doors and window trim reference the slate roof. For an extra dose of character, Chris gave the high windows and transoms simple plank shutters, with the top and bottom ones playfully thrown to opposite sides.
Entry A big decorative bracket holds up the overhang and dormer that shelters the double front doors. Next to it, a rain chain captures the water from a recessed internal gutter in the roof and channels it into the ground.
Side View Where the triangular lot comes to a point, the telescoping house is just one room deep, but it boasts its largest, almost wall-to-wall, window—a dramatic gesture that constitutes the back wall of the light-filled living room.
Rear View The back of the house has an animated roofline with lots of variation, including three different dormer types. Chris tried to give each room as many exposures as possible to increase light and maximize the views.