Open space, abundant natural light and a seamless harmony between the indoors and outdoors ought to be in every home, right? The creator of Sunshine Cottages thinks so.
In the world of home design, true innovation is often a marriage of experience and passion. Ernie Hunter, the visionary behind Sunshine Cottages, epitomizes this combination.
With a real estate career that spans five decades, Hunter has evolved into a self-taught designer of homes that blend aesthetics, functionality and a connection to nature.
“All these years I’ve been in the real estate business, I’ve seen good and bad ideas,” says Hunter. “It’s always been kind of a passion of mine to design houses and help with remodeling. Now, it’s time for me to share some of this information with other people.”
The longtime real estate agent now offers a new option for people who want something different in a custom-built home. His Sunshine Cottages offer a lineup of home designs and floor plans that bring a tighter harmony between one’s home and the natural world.
Best of all, these nature-centered designs are not only fully customizable but capable of fitting within almost any vacant lot a client can find.
Hunter’s designs break free from the stereotypical rectangular box by championing natural light, open spaces and an unbroken link to the outdoors. Hunter’s love for sunshine and the natural world drives him to ensure that each cottage instills a sense of cheerfulness and vitality that influences homeowners’ moods.
“I’ve always been kind of an outside guy. I love sunshine, and I think people feel better when they’re more connected with nature,” says Hunter. “When you have a dark, dreary house, it sets a dark, dreary mood. That’s OK at night if you want a little romance, but during the day, it should be light, bright, cheery and happy.”
There’s ample research to back him up. According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the average American spends roughly 90% of their time indoors. Furthermore, visual connections with nature can help to reduce stress, lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve mental engagement, boost cognitive performance, and positively impact attitude and overall happiness, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Sunshine Cottages take all of this into account by following the principles of biophilic design – an ethos aimed at revitalizing the human-nature connection. The concept often appears in modern architecture with sweeping windows, natural materials and a design that complements the surrounding landscape, whether it’s a prairie, desert or mountain.
Within Hunter’s designs, this principle takes the form of interior and exterior spaces that blend seamlessly with each other and invite occupants to feel as though they’re immersed in nature, even when they’re indoors.
“In what I design, I try to bring the outside into the house and incorporate them together,” Hunter says. “So, when you’re sitting in your living room, you feel like you’re in your backyard.”
He accomplishes the effect with a focus on open floor plans, abundant windows and strategic design elements. For example, the living room features horizontal beams and a 10-foot wall leading into a backyard view of floor-to-ceiling windows. This allows constant natural light and makes the room appear larger. Skylights are set throughout the house to further amplify the daylight.
“You have to make sure that the flow from room to room is connected and open,” says Hunter. “What I’m working on most of the time is open floor plans with a lot of light and high ceilings. You don’t have to have a big space to make it feel spacious. If you design it correctly, that will happen on its own.”
Beyond biophilic design, Hunter’s Sunshine Cottages come in both modern and farmhouse styles on a 1,222-square-foot main floor. These single-story homes include a great room with 10-foot ceilings, a powder room, and a master suite with a bathroom and walk-in closet. The spacious garage accommodates two cars, with extra room for storage and a “hobby garage” space that can double as a storage area or a man cave.
There’s also a lower level, which adds another 810 square feet with a multi-purpose room, a guest bedroom, a storage room, a private office and a spa bathroom.
Hunter has worked Rockford’s real estate market since 1972, and he estimates he’s served more than 2,000 transactions in that time. The experience has shown him some of the inherent strengths and flaws in this region’s housing market, and he’s accounted for those realities in Sunshine Cottages.
“I know this area very well,” says Hunter. “I can tell you who owned a lot of the houses in Rockford and what the floor plan is.”
Central to Sunshine Cottages is their divergence from convention – and that’s particularly true when it comes to the target market. Hunter caters to a niche that’s often neglected: singles, empty-nesters and couples without children.
“Nobody’s designing anything for single people, and this is a group that isn’t likely to open up walls to achieve a view of the backyard,” says Hunter. “You might have a door that goes out the side or one that goes out the back, but a lot of floor plans aren’t open to the backyard.”
Understanding the needs of this audience, Hunter has accounted for lots of adaptability. Once the children move out on their own, there’s less need for a large house.
His designs maximize the living space with room to accommodate a resident’s changing lifestyles – whether it’s aging in place, hosting overnight guests or adding to the family.
The living spaces are larger than usual, with an eye toward company. That means a larger living room to accommodate family gatherings and larger-than-usual kitchen islands where people want to gather over food and drinks.
“If you look at most houses, the living room only seats four, maybe six people if they’re crowded in – which is really kind of useless,” says Hunter. “Most people don’t entertain guests too often. They don’t invite people into their homes so much anymore. But if they had something like I design, where the great room and living rooms are combined, they’d probably want to show it off.”
Hunter’s Sunshine Cottages can be expanded during or after construction, with options that better accommodate guests.
“What you do is plan for your expansion before you build a house,” says Hunter. “Then you build the basic house and, if that’s acceptable to you, you leave it that way. If you later decide you want your family to stay there when they visit, you can expand above the garage or into the basement during or after construction.”
Through Sunshine Cottages, Hunter illustrates what’s achievable when design weaves nature with function. And it’s far more than many of his clients are expecting.
“Everything is geared for what you need and want in your life so you can enjoy your life,” says Hunter. “I live alone, and I’ve worked hard my whole life, so I think I deserve high quality and high design, and I think other people deserve that, too.”