This 1923 Birmingham cottage was plain-Jane until Jacob Dorsett and James Laughlin helped it shine.
1 of 5Southern Living
"We were itching to buy a house that would be a project for us," says homeowner and Realtor Jacob Dorsett, who purchased the cottage before it even hit the market with his partner, James Laughlin, an architect. They'd been living in a Craftsman bungalow high on a hill in Birmingham when they first spotted this rare Georgian home just one street over. "The brick was in bad shape, but its simplicity felt youthful," says Dorsett. The house needed help but not a total face-lift. "Because a Georgian's design is so symmetrical, it's a very approachable style to update," Laughlin says. "We knew that with the right appointments, we could turn this cracker box of a home into something really special."
2 of 5Photo: Hector Manuel Sanchez; Styling: Buffy Hargett Miller
When it came to deciding which improvements to carry out, the duo strove to give it a classic look but also broke some traditional architecture rules—for example, they skipped the shutters. "We didn't want it to look too cutesy," explains Dorsett. The 32-foot-wide, two-story structure needed to hold its own against the neighborhood's stouter Craftsman designs and statelier Tudor styles. Here's how the couple turned their home into a standout.
Restore and Paint the Brick
The old mortar between the bricks was crumbling and had to be repointed before they painted. “Otherwise, it would have looked like a zebra with deep cracks between the bricks,” says Dorsett. They coated the house in a clean, warm shade of white (Whitetail [SW 7103] by Sherwin-Williams).
"We selected minimal plantings that would complement the exterior," says Dorsett. As if playing connect the dots, they placed four large boxwoods across the front and joined them with a low hedge of smaller ones to soften the foundation. "Luckily, the house faces south, so it was easy to grow grass to cover the entire yard," he says.
3 of 5Photo: Hector Manuel Sanchez; Styling: Buffy Hargett Miller
Tailor the Front Entry
This is a good example of balancing traditional charm with exact proportions. "We elongated the entry with a four-panel-style door instead of a six," says Laughlin. A mail slot installed at the bottom of the door also lengthens it. The curved hood, trimmed with new copper flashing, remains to highlight the delicate fanlight below.
Work the Windows
Previously, the center window above the door was narrower and shorter than the rest of the exterior's six-over-six, double-hung ones. Dorsett and Laughlin designed this new window to match the others, which were restored by reglazing them and sanding down the muntins. Enhancing small details such as these can make a big impact on a streamlined facade
4 of 5Photo: Hector Manuel Sanchez; Styling: Buffy Hargett Miller
Reopen the Porch
"We wanted to take the house as far back to its original look as possible and found old photos through our local historical society. There, we realized that the poorly constructed addition was actually a porch," says Dorsett. "We uncovered the concrete floor and discovered the porch columns buried in the walls."
Accent with Downspouts
Leaving off shutters modernized the look of the exterior while also giving it a bit of austerity. "There was too much dead space between the outer edge of the front windows and the sides of the house. To fill it, we relocated the downspouts from the sides to the front to frame the exterior," says Laughlin.
Build an Ornamental Fence
What's the absolute best way to add inviting charm to a home in the city? Wrap the yard with a farmhouse-inspired split rail fence. "It's just under 3 feet tall, and it's purely for looks. We didn't want to block out our neighbors," says Dorsett. Think of it as landscaping that you never have to water.
5 of 5Photo: Hector Manuel Sanchez; Styling: Buffy Hargett Miller
Add a Curve
"The house had a lot of straight lines and was starting to feel too rigid," says Laughlin, who shook up that squareness by installing a round window on the small wing just off the left side of the home, where the powder room is. "We researched a lot of old Georgian houses to make sure that it was stylistically appropriate to use this type of window here," he says.