Anthony James moved his family from a high-rise to a village house this year because he was 'completely sick of living where the kids have no outside space, where we have no space separate from the kids, and where there's no greenery'.
He's not alone. Edward Billson, director of MAP Architecture & Planning, says many of his design projects now involve village-type houses. Typically, his clients say they've become disillusioned with a high-density Hong Kong existence, and want their children to have a more normal life.
'I can see a growing belief that these are the best places in Hong Kong to live,' says Billson, referring to Sai Kung and Clearwater Bay, where his clients are finding homes and weekend retreats.
Mark and Angela Mowday bought a 1985 village house in Shek Kong because 'space and openness are essential to us'. The floorplan was unusual for a village house - which are normally 700sqft per floor and boxy - courtesy of the original owner, a German architect. It had five levels instead of the usual three, with additional storage space under the roof. For peace of mind, the couple engaged a structural engineer to check its soundness via a pre-purchase inspection. They retained him for the renovations.
The first step was to rethink the existing space by removing a wall divider and improving the staircase layout, creating larger, more livable rooms. In the new design, the kitchen is at basement level, the formal living room on the ground level (opening out to the garden) and the family and guest bedrooms and bathrooms are on level three. The second living room is on the fourth floor, and the master suite is on the fifth. To define the levels, different textures were used, such as carpet in the bedrooms and marble in the living space. The clean, modern kitchen was designed by Kuchen in Wan Chai, following Angela Mowday's brief.
'Typical village house kitchens don't use up an entire level of floor space, and have a very small eating area,' Mowday says. 'We have a walk-in pantry, which I've never seen in a village house [which typically have sparse cupboards], and a wine room. Because of the split-level design, we were able to have a large kitchen with breakfast bar and a separate formal dining area in the living room. The design of our wall light panels creates a very bright area for gourmet cooking, while a typical village-house kitchen has light bulbs hanging.'
The living room opens to the garden through folding glass doors, and a timber deck is planned, featuring a six-person jacuzzi. For the Mowdays, this is one of the benefits of village life.
'To add to our lifestyle luxuries, we're also building a long BBQ counter with grill, rotisserie and wood fire, so we can enjoy out- door living throughout the year,' Mowday says. There will be a kennel under the deck for the family pet.
Tim Cribb and his Chinese partner moved to Lamma 'because the dog didn't like Mid-Levels'. They now own three dogs (because on Lamma, 'the number of dogs expands to fit the available space'), and the upper two floors of a newly built village house.
The advantage of building from scratch was that they were able to specify exactly what they wanted. This included a steel frame, as opposed to the usual concrete. Although more expensive, it gave the couple an extra 90cm of ceiling height distributed between the two floors.
Wanting a high-quality European kitchen, the couple engaged a kitchen designer. 'When you're going to spend such a long time in the kitchen, it's not something you want to get wrong,' Cribb says. The down side of village houses, he says, is that building regulations aren't as strict as on Hong Kong Island, so contractors 'tend to cut corners'. You might have to learn to live with the likes of uneven window frames or mismatched tiles, because complaining 'doesn't achieve much', he says.
The job took a year longer than expected, which resulted in unplanned rental expenses. Would they do it again? Yes, only next time with a new-found wisdom, says Cribb. 'Beware of what you're told - double the price, and double the time,' he says.
Joey Lau Cho-yee, of A-01 Designers, says perceptions of village life are changing. Design flexibility is a further bonus, she says. In an apartment, certain walls can't be demolished, but the structure of village houses, which are usually rectangular or square, means that, by and large, 'you can do whatever you want'.
One drawback is that village-house ceilings are often low. To compensate, Lau suggests removing the walls and using the floor slab to define the spaces. To enhance the new open-plan design, the full-length balcony that village houses typically have can be incorporated into the living space.
A roof space and garden also give village houses a design edge. Although you might have to wall in your garden - village houses often being built close together or on a traffic thoroughfare - this gives even more scope for creative design. It makes 'quite a nice contrast', says Lau.