Only a Drone Could Capture How This House Fits on a Lot That’s Less Than 20 Feet Wide

An ultra-narrow home rises on a steep slope, wedged between two buildings, a road, and a waterway.
Text by
Candace Jackson

Looking for a picturesque place for their new home but daunted by skyrocketing real estate costs in Sydney, Australia, architectural designer Emma Viljoen-Holmes and IT consultant David Holmes set their sights on the little suburb of Cottage Point. With only about 50 homes, the town is surrounded by a national park. The couple came across a newspaper ad for a tiny sliver of waterfront land there that looked ideal, but in reality, had some issues.

Referencing a boat shed, Emma Viljoen-Holmes and David Holmes' multi-level home near Sydney is made of a corrugated-steel roof and weatherboard siding. 

The lot is less than 20 feet wide on a steep 38-degree slope that descends from a road into the Coal and Candle Creek. Setback rules meant the footprint of their home would have to be minute. Wedged between two large homes and owned by the local council, the property had no town water or sewage and was in a brushfire zone. Nevertheless, the couple proceeded, paying $282,000 for the land at auction.

The 13-foot-wide four-level home offers views of Coal and Candle Creek, a tributary of the Hocksbary River. 

Their plans were further complicated by pushback from neighbors who opposed any development on the site. It took a year of jumping through permitting hoops before they finally got the go-ahead to build. David took a seven-month break from his job to do much of the site work and landscaping himself, while Emma handled the home’s design. The project, completed in December, 2016, cost roughly $744,000. 

The result is a 13-foot-wide, 1,250-square-foot home that unfolds down the hillside in four pitched-roof volumes, each with a balcony or mezzanine facing the creek. The top two levels are mainly bedrooms, the third volume is taken up by the kitchen and living/dining area, and the bottom tier is reserved for guests.

While in the midst of the project, Emma and David found out they were expecting their first child, Harry, who is now four. Their two-year-old daughter, Sophia, was born while the home was under construction. The inverted, stair-heavy design may not sound particularly conducive to life with a toddler and preschooler, but the couple says the layout means the children only need to use the middle two floors. Their shared bedroom and the TV room are on the entry level, overlooking the living/dining area, offering easy parental sightlines between the spaces. The kids also enjoy running around on the lawn out front and the untouched, natural surroundings have made for an idyllic family backdrop, with waterfront campfires, sea eagle sightings, and swimming.

The house, located near Caringa National Park, provides a place for the Holmes to raise their children amid nature.

A big chunk of the home’s budget was spent on bringing basic facilities to the property. There are tanks below the bottom floor for black water treatment and grey water recycling. Emma and David have plans to take the home fully off the grid by adding solar power someday, but for now, they’re just thankful they found a way to have high-speed Internet and phone service delivered via satellite. "I was looking for a personal challenge," says Emma. "But we look at where we are now and we love it."   


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