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House of Cupboards


Q: What happens when an architect and a furniture maker design a house together for their young family?

A: The ‘house of cupboards’.

When Sunny Wilder (architect) and Nicholas Coyle (furniture designer/maker) moved their thriving timber furniture making business from Melbourne to Pambula, on the far south coast of NSW, they wanted to build a house that combined their skills and included a lot of storage. ‘We have always liked the idea of prefabricated houses, but have seen that they are limited by their size and scale if they are the type that arrive fully finished on the back of a truck. Most prefabricated houses of this type also require easy site access and crane hire, which is not always suitable for tight urban spaces or remote areas. And prefabricated houses usually lack the timber detailing, warmth and individuality of an architecturally designed house’, says Sunny.

Sunny has always been passionate about designing a low cost home. She knows well that Australian labour costs are high: ‘The best ways to restrain costs are to reduce the time on site and the amount of trades used – our whole house can be built by a carpenter, there is no tiling or plasterboard used’. Faced with a bush block and limited funds, Sunny and Nick needed to build a house fast for themselves and their family. Prefabricated housing is becoming increasingly popular, and they wanted to try out their own version in an attempt to create a new housing model. This project is an example of how a natural low-tech material such as timber, combined with traditional joinery techniques, can be used in a new way.


Sunny and Nick wanted their house to:

  • be low cost
  • be prefabricated in their workshop, easy to put together on site and quick to build – but not limited in its scale
  • have lots of built-in storage, and for that to be a functional part of the house, not
  • something fitted in at the end – it is load-bearing and integral to the way the space works
  • include solid timber joinery that lasts the life of the house, not something to be ripped out and updated when it wears out or goes out of style
  • be bushfire resistant and sustainable
  • be light filled and inspiring to live in.

Green features


• A small footprint – the house is 82 m., the deck is 34 m. – less to heat and less material used.

Lots of passive solar features, including:

• orientation for natural light (north) and to capture north-easterly breezes to keep the house cool

• slatted screens allow filtered dappled light in

• flyscreen wrapped around the house allows insect-free outdoor living, cross-ventilation and reduces the impact of the sun

• the cavity timber floor is insulated using batts

• a large, fully insulated roof cavity stops heat penetration in summer and heat loss in winter

• the 2.4 metre ceiling height means that there is less space to heat in winter.

Pambula is temperate in winter so largescale thermal mass is not required. The couple is looking into thermal mass further for cooler climates.

The living area deck bathed in morning sunlight, is fly-screened to create an insect free environment
Bathroom with birds’ eye messmate drawers
Recycled plastic sheets line the toilet walls
Nick, Otis, Lyla & Sunny on the front steps
The kitchen is compact yet practical. The central square island bench is key to food production
A prototype hat stand greats you on entry

Building materials

Recycled timber is used for the structural frame.

Solid timber joinery and flooring used throughout is sourced locally, from Blue Ridge Hardwoods (Eden) Pty Ltd.

Flooring ‘shorts’, an inexpensive by-product from the mill, were used for the infill panelling in cupboard sections, door panels and joinery.

Use of structural insulated panels, which come clad with white COLORBOND. both sides, and with compressed mineral wool inside – R value of 3.0, fire retardant, and no need for interior or exterior cladding. The panels were recycled from a construction job. Luckily many were the right size for the job; a few needed to be cut down.

Water saving

Rainwater is collected from the roof, stored in bladders underneath the house, and then pumped up to a 25000 litre tank for gravity-feeding. Composting toilet.

Energy saving

The gravity-fed water system doesn’t need to use a power pump every time a tap is turned on.

A small, slow-combustion wood heater heats the house more than adequately in winter.

LED lighting is used throughout, and only needed when the sun goes down.

A small instantaneous gas hot water heater is used currently: one cylinder of gas is used per quarter for a family of four for all hot water, and also for cooking.

Provisions for solar panels and solar hot water are in place, and a switch to solar will happen in the near future.

Paints and finishes

Natural oil finish used on timber work throughout.

Porter’s VOC free paint used on the plywood ceiling.

Recycled plastic sheet is used to line the bathroom – the orange colour is from commercial milk production containers.

Waste saving

Only one small trailer of waste was produced during construction. The house is modular and uses standard lengths, of 3.6 and 2.4 metres, reducing offcuts.

The light filled inside living space showing the metal wall panels internally.


The ‘House of Cupboards’ won two Australian Timber Design Awards in 2014:

’Excellence in timber design – small budget project’ and ‘Excellence in the use of timber products – Australian certified timber’. The house was also shortlisted for the ‘Judges Innovation Award’.

Apart from the awards, Sunny and Nick, and their two children Otis and Lyla, love living in the house. They have lived in it for over a year and are happy with the way it performs thermally and spatially. Most people who visit think the house is much bigger than it is; ‘That’s because no space is wasted’, says Sunny.

The deck is really another room, and the family eats out there for most of the year.

Sunny says, ’it feels like a viewing platform for nature – like watching the resident kangaroos – we are removed from, yet connected to, the landscape.’

The house is well sited, making use of prevailing breezes in summer, and sunshine in winter for year-round comfort. Any concerns about it being cool in winter have been dispelled: the insulated floor, structural insulated panels and wood heater keep them ‘almost too warm at times’, says Nick.

The couple decided not to oil any of the external timbers, ‘these are now starting to fade and turn silver, which is making the house sit even more comfortably in its environment’, says Sunny.

Prefabrication allows the design to be modular, and adaptable to change, which is good as Otis really needs his own bedroom before he starts high school the year after next.

Sunny and Nick are proud of their achievements: ‘we have been through the classic process of living in the caravan, through building the shack to the final house – we built the whole house within our means, using our own skills, and making use of local and recycled materials’, says Sunny.

Their house was built and conceived as a prototype for low-cost housing, it has proved successful for their family and now they are looking to manufacture the House Cupboards from their workshop in Pambula.

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