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Souter and Pepper

Photographer credit: Barton Taylor

Souter and Pepper

Photographer credit: Barton Taylor
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In a quiet suburban backyard, this magnetic secondary dwelling by Souter Built is making noise on the awards circuit, but more importantly, showcases the benefits of sustainable building.

Laura Valic


Adam Souter had a dream of making a positive impact on the world. A builder, with a love of sustainability and conservation, he thought one of the most powerful ways he could do this was by constructing an environmentally sensitive showcase home for others to experience first-hand.

When Adam and his partner Ame bought a house in 2014 in the Illawarra, south of Sydney, the large suburban block included a noble resident which planted the seed of an ambitious idea.

‘The backyard had a beautiful Pepper Tree that had been there for 60 years,’ Adam explains. ‘I didn’t want to chop it down to maximise the land but instead demonstrate that with clever design you can build a high-performance dwelling that fits in with the environment.’

The concept he floated to architect Alexander Symes – someone equally focused on sustainability with ‘a unique and striking design capability’ – was a multi-purpose secondary dwelling wrapped around the tree and built to rigorous Passive House standards.

The dark-toned exterior, with boards laid in a precise vertical pattern
Builder Adam Souter with his partner Ame and their three children inside the Pepper Tree House

‘He said to me, “I love it, but I think you’re crazy”,’ Adam laughs. ‘There are a lot of complexities when building in a tree protection zone…but I was up for the challenge.’

A chippie by trade, the 36-year-old’s interest in conservation grew while working on heritage restorations in Sydney from early on in his career. In 2017, when he launched his own building company, Souter Built, the business concentrated on this type of work along with high quality custom-built sustainable homes.

A HIA GreenSmart Professional and certified Passive House Tradesperson, Adam says Souter Built has minimum building standards it adheres to – such as incorporating thermally broken double-glazed windows – and he only works with clients or architects who share his enthusiasm for sustainable building practices.

In Alex Symes, he is conscious of finding an ideal counterpart: ‘I appreciated how supportive he was of the concept,’ Adam says. ‘I was adamant about what I wanted to achieve, and Alex was all on board.’

The Pepper Tree House in no way resembles your standard ‘granny flat’. Two wings totalling 60 square metres diverge either side of the tree’s unfurling branches, its twin trunks bracketed by a 25-square metre deck.

Positioned upon the steeply sloped rear backyard, the predominantly timber structure with a lush endemic rooftop garden is as winsome as it is domineering. ‘The house is monstrous in size. When you stand at the bottom of the street and look up, it towers over you,’ Adam explains.

Two wings totalling 60 square metres diverge either side of the tree’sunfurling branches
The backyard had a beautiful Pepper tree that had been there for 60 years

The dark-toned exterior, with boards laid in a precise vertical pattern, is a beautiful testament to the care taken by the building team. Adding a compelling contrast to this vivid uniformity is the introduction of charred recycled timber (Shou Sugi Ban)from Eco Timber Group, seen to great effect in the angular, cantilevered window embrasures.

Since the secondary dwelling was designed for use as an office during the week for Souter Built’s growing team, as well as weekend accommodation for potential clients or AirBNB guests, all material choices had to be durable, low-maintenance and high quality.

Internally, the walls and ceiling are lined with OSB oriented strand board, with a select grade Eucalyptus Blackbutt – secret nailed with brass trims – chosen for the floor. Adding an earthy quality to the interior scheme are multi-hued recycled bricks from the Brick Pit and collected from old jobs, which form part of the floor and a feature wall.

The interiors, designed by Paiano Design’s Eliesha Keenan, consists of clever custom-made multifunctional joinery such as hideaway office hot spots, pull-down beds and a banquet lounge in the living room that rolls out with a separate trundle underneath.

Adam’s love of timber is apparent throughout the home, even popping up in some surprising places. ‘In the kitchen and bathroom, we added brass tapware inlaid with timber from Wood Melbourne, and the world’s first timber composite basin from Woodio. They look incredible,’ he says.

Serene forest green benchtops and joinery constructed with Paperock Tactile was another unique inclusion. The recyclable high-grade marine birch plywood with a paper-based film features nano technology that’s anti-fingerprint and scratch resistant, Adam says. ‘We approached Paperock because we just loved their company, and they launched this new product with Pepper Tree.’

Recycled brick flooring
Oriented strand board

As a certified Passive House, the home includes loads of insulation (R5.4 in the walls, R6.5 in the roof and R5 in the floor), airtight membranes and triple-glazed thermally broken timber windows imported from Germany (thankfully ordered prior to COVID). This all contributes to a controlled ambient temperature, while a heat recovery ventilation system ensures filtered air. The construction is also ‘thermal bridge free’ which eliminates cold and hot spots within.

What’s clear when talking to Adam is that the entire project was a collaborative effort between Souter Built, the designers, trades, consultants and suppliers. Case in point was the two-month laborious excavation process around the tree that required the services of a level 5 Arborist

‘We weren’t able to use mechanical excavation because if we damaged any root over 50mm in diameter we could have compromised the tree’s health. It all had to be hand dug,’ he explains. ‘It helped that I was both the client and the builder during construction because I was able to work out any issues with my site manager on the fly while talking to Alex.’

Despite the Pepper Tree House being his ‘most complex and challenging’ project to date, in July 2021 Adam experienced the actualisation of a dream when his family’s lovingly crafted second home was complete after nearly five years of planning. ‘The awards are great recognition, but to actually build and own it, to be able to visit it every day – that makes it more special,’ Adam says. ‘It’s an accomplishment that I’m super proud of.’

It’s now not only a place for Ame and their three small children to enjoy for years to come but is also inspiring a growing number of young romantics.

‘Since April 2022, we’ve had about seven guests propose there and a wedding night stay too!’ Adam laughs. ‘It’s become this magical experience for people, which is pretty cool, and not something we anticipated.’

A sustainable build truly creating a positive impact in more ways than one.



Alexander Symes


Souter Built

Interior design

Eliesha Keenan, Paiano Design


Wollongong, NSW




Highly Commended 2022 HIA Australian GreenSmart Custom Built Home


First published on 28 Feb 2022

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