A Lakefront Retreat in Alabama Gets a Thoughtful Makeover for an Expanding Family

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Photo credit: Emily J Followill
Photo credit: Emily J Followill

Montgomery, Alabama-based designer Ashley Gilbreath developed a lifelong love affair with design at a young age. Gilbreath says that while she didn’t grow up with the fanciest of things, her mother had an innate ability to make everything in their home intentional, thoughtful, and beautiful, which inspired her mission as a designer to equip people to do the same at any stage of life.

Gilbreath’s latest project was for a growing family looking to restructure their long-adored vacation home on Lake Martin. While the idyllic property on a small, secluded peninsula of this massive lake had provided the family with years of memories, the house no longer fit their needs. They outgrew the structure and were looking for something more appropriate for their expanding family, which now includes grandkids. The house still needed to capture the essence of lake life, meaning it needed to prioritize functionality and nothing could be so precious that it couldn’t stand up to a child in a swimsuit or muddy paw prints.

The clients began from the ground up by tearing the house down and hiring McAlpine alum, Chris Tippett of TSB Architecture to rebuild a home that felt appropriate in its context while still being elegant and architecturally stunning (Gilbreath was such a fan of his work on this project that she hired him to renovate her own home). Tippett says that there were many discussions around the former home on the property, which was a 1930s-inspired lake cabin, and though they were ready for an upgrade, the clients really wanted to bring the simplicity of the floor plan and laid-back feel of the old cabin to the new house.

Photo credit: Emily J Followill
Photo credit: Emily J Followill

“What we try to do as architects is to listen to our clients and give them a house that meets who they are and meets their program,” says Tippett. “When it comes to the lake, I’d say it’s most important for us to create outdoor spaces as well as exaggerated overhangs to keep you out of the sun—and keep the sun from coming into the house—while allowing you to enjoy the outside and water views at all times. The whole house is designed that way to let you have a lot of glass without getting direct sunlight.”

Another top priority for Chris was to make the house entirely of wood so that it would feel comfortable and only get better with age. This way, it can get beaten up a bit and actually look better in time, so the family doesn’t have to feel like they need to tip-toe around the house and keep kids out of certain areas. This also allowed for some fun extra details, such as the panel wall in the living room that features a hidden door to the owner’s suite.

Photo credit: Emily J Followill
Photo credit: Emily J Followill

“One of the most beautiful things about Chris’s work is all the unexpected surprises of thoughtfulness around every corner,” says Gilbreath. “They don’t jump out at you necessarily, but when you take the time to really look, you’ll notice there's so much incredible design in this home. We got to come alongside Chris’s vision and align with it in the finishes and colors to make the home look like it’s been there for a while, though it also seems classic and timeless. The home is clearly brand new, but no one would walk in the door and think it was built yesterday.”

Gilbreath spent countless hours curating just the right pieces that felt timeless, elegant, and perfectly worn by time to prevent the home from feeling too formal or uptight. The designer says this is one of the aspects that made the project such a fun experience because she could embrace the idea of the home looking like it has intentionally been loved and enjoyed over time by the family instead of creating a perfectly polished aesthetic that didn’t reflect their warmth or the years of memories that have already been made on this plot of land. And every aspect of Gilbreath’s designs were a play on pulling the outside in as much as possible, from the color palette to the floor plan to add to the sense of place.

“The house functions so beautifully, and that’s a testament to the architect and owners more than anything,” Gilbreath says. “Great views are captured everywhere in this house and there’s not a moment where you could forget where you are.”

While choosing a favorite room in this home is nearly impossible for the designer, Gilbreath has a special affinity for the hidden owner’s suite. She says clients are often so afraid of major color contrasts in a room, but having such dark, rich walls allowed for the beautiful pieces she collected to really shine. The designer also appreciates how the scale of the room allowed her to create a cozy seating area with an adjustable round table that can transform the desk into a tranquil office or intimate dinner table in an instant. While functionality remains of the utmost importance, Gilbreath’s killer collecting prowess and thoughtful design sense creates a family vacation home that’s equally inviting, serving as an ideal backdrop for holidays, long weekends, and Summer Fridays.

“We try very hard to make sure that every project really reflects the client,” says Gilbreath. “I want someone who opens a magazine or looks at a house tour to wonder who did this instead of instantly knowing it was me. We should be well rounded enough to pull off any look, but every project should convey a sense of hospitality as soon as you walk in the front door. You should feel like you can sit down, prop your feet up, and let your kids color on the tabletop. At the end of the day, a home needs to be designed for real life, not a magazine, and hopefully any space of ours that you will walk into will be inviting and livable at all levels of life.”

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