Plywood house Waiheke

First appearances are deceiving for this Waiheke Island family home by Bull O’Sullivan Architecture, where sumptuous materials form a warm counterpoint to the utilitarian exterior. Text Michael O’Sullivan and Brad Bonnington. Photography Simon Devitt.

From the street, this house looks like a utilitarian building, with its long, inclined and cranked corrugated façade and single window. Screened by young trees, and with no apparent front door or entry, it is an easy house to bypass. The first hint this might be a domestic dwelling comes from the slatted timber screen on the western façade. Those fortunate enough to be welcomed in are greeted by a warm interior and functional family home, which offers itself generously to the sun and its vast garden and playful green.

The clients wanted a site with enough space for a young family to grow, and to develop a vegetable garden. They found land that had once been a tennis club, with a large flat lawn ready for a children’s play area. Their original idea was to relocate a colonial villa onto the site and ‘modernise it’. But architect Michael O’Sullivan convinced them to pursue a more site-specific response, while using materials to retain some values of the traditional villa vernacular.

Michael O'Sullivan Waiheke home yard elevation

Michael O'Sullivan Waiheke house stair

Michael O'Sullivan Waiheke house kitchen

Running along the southern road boundary, the design takes advantage of the site’s north- facing aspect, while simultaneously securing privacy from the street. The long, narrow plan brings the sun into every room and provides an outlook across the garden. The land slopes down gently from the old tennis court area to the western boundary, accommodating a simple carport and storage rooms under the western wing of the house. A staircase climbs from the driveway up into the full-length covered verandah, which has entry doors into virtually every room.

We worked to a reasonably lean budget to achieve 162 square metres of living space upstairs and the 50 square metre verandah with its generous overhang. The main room is open plan, with the kitchen, dining and living areas all heated by a wood-burner. Along the southern wall, a plywood-lined sloping wall forms a backdrop to the living space, and continues the length of the house to form a gallery-style internal corridor. The children love to run and slide along its smooth surface.

The study and second lounge are screened by velvet curtains

Tucked in behind the kitchen, a children’s lounge/office/spare room is screened by a thick velvet curtain. This completes the public wing of the home, and is where the corridor changes angles into the sleeping/utility wing, with a bathroom, laundry, two bedrooms for the children, a family bathroom, and the master bedroom at the end. All rooms give onto the deck. We sized each space for the family to live together now, and yet not outgrow the house in the future. There was no desire for extra rooms; for this client, family life is about hunkering down together in comfortable spaces and enjoying each other’s company.

Careful apportioning of materials, and a fluid construction process, helped manage construction costs. By using an austere approach to secondary aspects of the building we could specify something more sensuous and warm for the interior and northern façade. Corrugated iron, folded down from the roof to the south, east and west elevations, allowed the more public area of the home to be lined with cedar weatherboards. These fold up the soffit and retract into the interior to the gallery spine, offering an oblique, inside-out reference to a traditional villa. Full-height cedar joinery with load-bearing mullions takes advantage of the view to the garden and, together with the soffit, allows winter sun into the belly of the house while offering protection from the summer sun.

Michael O'Sullivan Waiheke house stair

Michael O'Sullivan Waiheke house bathroom

Michael O'Sullivan Waiheke house interior


Michael O'Sullivan Waiheke house exterior

The interior displays a number of details and quirks our practice has developed over the years – details Michael O’Sullivan has used in his own home. Fijian kauri plywood lining to the floors and walls add a lot of warmth and character. A notable touch is the use of full-height velvet curtains instead of interior doors to the children’s rooms and secondary lounge areas. The velvet is soft to the touch, helps dampen down noise and adds texture to the interior decor.

The home is small in stature, with a robust and functional response to the site, but its simplicity and considered use of materials offer a sensual side, encouraging warmth within the confines of family living. Profile: Michael O’Sullivan is an award-winning architect and director of Bull O’Sullivan Architecture Ltd. He holds a position in the design studio at the University of Auckland and supervises the thesis work of masters students. He enjoys the physical process of building and making furniture for his residential clients, as well as for himself, recently building the new Bull O’Sullivan studio retreat in Lyttelton.

Architects: B/OS

Floor plans


Lower floor plan

Main floor plan


Originally published in The Design Guide issue 5, 2015.

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