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Monday, October 29, 2007

Designing sustainable luxury villas

Richard Hassell is one half of one of the hottest design and architectural firms in town, WOHA, which he set up with co-founding director, Wong Mun Summ. He grew up in Southern Australia back in the 1970s. Amid a global oil crisis then, his father, who had a great interest in sustainable energy, built a holiday home in the outback powered by a wind generator and a solar panel system to capture solar power.

"I remember listening to the radio, and my mum running around with the vacuum cleaner, all using solar power," reminisces Hassell, who spoke at the Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) inaugural conference on sustainability on Aug 30, with the theme "Sustainable Real Estate in Singapore: Where to from Here?".

He became fascinated with the idea of building a completely self-sustainable property, way before it became fashionable. "It's something that we've always wanted to do," says Hassell. "But all through the 1980s, because of cheap fuel, no one was interested in doing anything sustainable."

Until now, that is. It was a hotel resort property in Uluwatu, on the southern tip of the island of Bali in Indonesia, that presented him with the opportunity. In most sectors of real estate, especially in office, the designer, the developer and the end-users or occupiers are not connected, thus there are no feedback channels as to whether a design worked, or what else can be done to improve sustainability.

"The hotel industry is quite interesting in that the missing connections between the designer, the developer and the end-user or operator have actually been [in place] for a long time because of the kind of operation agreements they have and because they usually benefit from the shared profits of the organisation," explains Hassell. "And customers respond very well to the green idea."

Through the design of the Alila Villas Ulu­wa­tu, Hassell shows that being eco-friendly doesn't come at the expense of luxury and comfort. The 13.5ha plot, owned by Indonesian property developer Franky Tjahyadikarta of PT Bukit Uluwatu Villas, was perched on the edge of a steep cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean. The idea was to build a project based on the principles of Environmentally Sustainable Design (ESD). The resort is also registered for Green Globe certification and will be the first hotel in Bali to get the highest level of certification for ESD. "We were trying to create something contemporary, [while being] conscious of the environment," says Hassell.

This was the overall theme driving the design of the Alila Villas Uluwatu, which has 41 one-bedroom hotel villas available only for rent, and 25 three-bedroom hillside bungalows and villas for sale. The hillside bungalows and villas, which will be completed in mid-2008, are priced from US$2 million (RM6.7 million).

"We wanted to capitalise on the dramatic site and the views of the sea," says Hassell. So, instead of the traditional Balinese steep rooftops that would have blocked all the million-dollar views, the roofs have been made flat and turned into terrace gardens that follow the contours of the terrain. The roofs were covered with lava rocks, which absorb solar energy, thereby keeping the villas cool, but they are also ideal for growing the local Balinese Savannah-like vegetation. The developer turned the rooftops of the hotel villas into nurseries to see which plants thrived best in the local climate, which was drier than central Bali and "very much like South Africa", says Hassell.
The architect was also conscious of keeping the existing terrain and not discharging water from the site into the sea, which would have damaged the coral reef system. In clearing the land, large trees were left untouched. To conserve water, rain gardens were created to serve as water catchments during the rainy season; they were designed such that water is gradually drained from them to irrigate the plants.

All material used came from Bali and Java, and the biggest challenge was getting timber. Fortunately, the government was converting telephone poles in Bali from wood to concrete, and also replacing old railway tracks, so the company managed to buy all the discarded wood.

Inspired by Central Java's 2,000-year history in the use of bronze for furniture and ornaments, the design team used the material for their furnishing. "The problem was that we had so much bronze in our furniture that they were stolen and had already been recycled," Hassell says. "But I think it's nice to use local materials and provide employment for the local community. It's the idea of thinking globally, but doing a lot of research locally to make a lot of these things."

All the hard work was worth it, though. "I think it's philanthropy — sharing knowledge, having an environmental plan and involving the community," he adds.

(Cecilia Chow is City & Country editor at The EDGE Singapore)

By The EDGE Malaysia (By Cecilia Chow)

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