Jenni and Shawn Calma share a keen appreciation for unique home design, particularly contemporary styles that stand in significant contrast to the traditional dwellings embraced by most homeowners in the south. The Birmingham natives met at Auburn University, where each earned undergraduate degrees in architecture.
As Vice President and Partner with Lathan Architects, Shawn has worked on commercial projects including recent upgrades and additions to K-12 schools in Vestavia Hills and throughout the state. Jenni often finds herself channeling her expertise into home renovation projects and the two enjoy collaborating to bring her visions to life.
In 2019, after completely renovating a more traditional house in Crestline over twelve years, the Calmas found themselves out of projects to satisfy their creative impulses. A unique contemporary home in the Mountain Brook suburb of Dunbarton presented an opportunity they couldn’t resist. Built in the International style of LeCourbusier, part of mid-twentieth century Bauhaus movement, the home is a squared white stucco-clad L-shaped dwelling with expansive common spaces and soaring windows.
”What’s funny is I had come across this house a while back because it was on and off the market over a couple of years,” Shawn shares. “When I saw it, I said ‘Wow, that’s just something you don’t see every day. At the time we weren’t really looking. I told myself, ‘I’m not telling my wife about this.”
The home hit all the right marks for the couple so when Jenni came across it and the time was right, they made an offer. The Calmas believe it is one of original homes constructed in the neighborhood around 1985. They say most areas have strict covenants that prevent homes like theirs from being built. Dunbarton was unique in the developer’s ability to permit a variety of home styles built to suit the owners’ wishes without the conventional constraints of other areas.
“It definitely was a custom home, I haven’t seen one similar to it in Birmingham,” says Shawn. “The kind of house that Jenni and I gravitate towards is the modern house other people would buy, tear down and rebuild.’ That’s just not our jam. There’s a very small percentage of people that really appreciate this style.”
In additional to the architectural features, the Calmas enjoy elements like the intentional way the home is situated on the property. “We don’t know who the architect was—we’ve never been able to lay our hands on a set of plans. I think they were really thoughtful about space and how to site the house. I suppose only architects would pick up on that. The front of the house faces east, so in the morning we get a nice diffused light through the glass block wall,” Shawn points out. “In the evening, the clear glass that looks out to the backyard pool area doesn’t get a direct western blinding sun because it goes down behind the trees.”
The Calmas were excited to find a home well-suited to entertaining, and they look forward to being on the other side of the pandemic so they can host gatherings. One of the first upgrades in order was a pool that is impeccably placed in the hardscape to look as though it was always there. “I wanted a place where the kids could invite their friends and everybody could hang out,” says Jenni. With that idea of entertaining, the Calmas tasked Sphere Audio Visual with installing a state-of-the-art home audio/visual system.
Guests step into the home through a heavy, custom wood door into an entryway with a unique office nook above that opens to a balcony above. The main level features a big open den with two-story ceilings. Behind the marble tile covered fireplace is a spacious dining room that features a distinctive geometric mural chosen by the couple using happywall.com. Behind the dining area is the kitchen—the next project on the couple’s list.
“Next is hopefully the kitchen,” says Jenni. “It has been in the works. We have been going back and forth between drawings and talking about it and making decisions about what we want.”
Shawn says it can be hard for an architect to design for their own home when they are so accustomed to drawing up projects to meet other people’s specifications. “Jenni does most of the designing. We consult, obviously and we talk about the materials, but her ideas and her thoughts are really what drive most of what’s done.”
“We’ve always worked really well together,” Jenni adds. “We’ve just sort of always played well off of each other’s ideas. We usually have a project going, a running to-do list. Our daughter will come in and add something like ‘sit down.’”
Up an open stairway lined with metal railings are four bedrooms and three bathrooms. The master bedroom features a custom inset wall covered in matte black crocodile textured wall covering positioned behind the king-sized bed.
Downstairs is a huge area that runs the length of the house. It features a music room, a craft room, a spacious den and plenty of storage. “It was all open and after the first weekend we were here, Shawn put a door to the basement because we have teenagers, and they are loud,” Jenni says.
The couple laughs about dated design choices, some of which have been remedied and others they plan to address over time. “We jokingly refer to it as the Miami Vice house,” Jenni says. “There’s a cove in the dining room that had fluorescent lights and we took those out and behind the lights it was pink. All the closets were pink.”
“If you were to see our bathroom now, you would want to put on your sunglasses and get behind the wheel of a Ferrari with the sleeves rolled up on your blazer,” says Shawn. “It’s pink and black, very dated, still from that era.”
When asked if they will stay in the home forever, the Calmas hesitate. “I think we would,” Jenni says, “Unless we build something on our own from scratch. I think that’s always sort of the architect’s dream.”
“Our houses have always been palettes,” says Shawn. “We’ve never had the chance to do exactly what we want to do. This house has a lot of qualities that, if we’d never seen it, probably would have been integrated into what you’d call our ‘dream home’. It’s a good palette, a good place to start. If we built a home one day, it would probably have to be in an area outside of Birmingham without any covenants because it would be very contemporary. We’d buy a whole bunch of acreage and have a garden and build a big white box in the middle of it. The idea of that is kind of nice.”