Making the most of those rooms at the top

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 September, 2009, 12:00am

Who could resist the chance to do up a penthouse property with bird's eye views? Penthouses in Hong Kong occupy either half or all of the space at the pinnacle of an apartment building. And they are a rarity, so refurbishing such properties presents unique challenges.

These range from scrupulously checking for water leakage problems to finding the right barbecue equipment, plants and patio furniture that will not blow away in a heavy wind.

One of their charms is that they offer occupants ample volume and natural light. They also often come with great views. 'You are on the top and have the best views of [all flats] in the building,' Wittgenstein Design director Julie Wittgenstein said.

Despite such obvious benefits, penthouses have drawbacks. These include living rooms that are often huge, meaning that the ideal refurbishment usually focuses on creating a sense of intimacy.

'People still want to have the feeling of being in a cocoon at home,' Wittgenstein said. 'You also have to play with light to create feeling [and] warmth. You need to make a statement, but at the same time be at home.'

Renovators should also consider adding some outdoor space. Roof gardens and terraces can add a great deal of charm to a property. Many people are also keen to incorporate ponds or swimming pools in their penthouse design.

But Liz Towner, principal designer at design consultant Towner & Partners, said the additional loads of these structures had serious implications, so it was crucial to consult a structural engineer before building such structures.

Owners should examine the original building drawings to ensure the floor could withhold the additional stress created by water and the construction materials. 'The engineer will make the necessary calculations of the added load and present a design drawing to the Buildings Department,' Towner said.

Roof space can be used to create a second living space in an apartment that occupies half a penthouse. Wittgenstein said: 'This is the theatrical aspect of your house. It can be fantastic ... more like an eagle's nest than a penthouse.'

Window treatments are another approach that can maximise high views. Most apartments in Hong Kong are surrounded by other buildings so are bereft of good views.

Penthouses, however, have great vistas but can be a bit too private. 'You can play with window treatments. You can try to make [windows] completely bare so that you maximise the views. You can create a sheer effect so that in the evenings you can create a warmer ambience,' Wittgenstein said.

Renovating or refurbishing a penthouse property can be a significant project. A typically sized penthouse space of about 4,500 sqft can take up to six months, although some penthouses are about 1,000 sqft.

'They are all unique,' Wittgenstein said. Costs also depended on the quality and standard of the refurbishment, she said.

The unique nature of a penthouse renovation project means that the devil is in the detail.

Towner said that, although people liked penthouses because of their open-air environment, occasional UV-protected shades might be necessary.

Shading comes in all shapes and sizes and may require approval from the Buildings Department.

'Permanent shading built as a roof structure will require a structural engineer's design and a load-bearing calculation for submission of the design drawing to the government,' Towner said. 'One should therefore take this into consideration before building a permanent roof.'

Occasional shading includes fixed and retractable canopies and tents, or simply a sun umbrella.

If a terrace is on the cards, flooring should be weatherproof. Granite, ceramic tiles, homogenous tiles and mosaic are good choices for ease of maintenance and durability.

Towner said: 'For those who appreciate the warmth of wood, there is an innovative recycled wood flooring especially developed for outdoor use.'

Wall finishes should also be taken into consideration. Granite, ceramic tile, spray paint or low-cost exterior wall paints are by far the most popular in Hong Kong. Lighting options are abundant and lend themselves to penthouse projects.

However, when choosing lighting fixtures and fittings, ensure that fixtures are waterproof. 'The same logic applies to all electrical wiring installations - fuse boxes, conduit, faceplates and sockets. All must be waterproof to ensure safety,' Towner said.

Water leakage is a common problem with penthouse design and requires onsite inspection by professionals.

Renovators also need to bear in mind local by-laws that require penthouses to provide escape access to other tenants in the event of a fire.

'Owner-occupiers should also be aware of what is the allowable limit for them to build a barrier for privacy that is not in conflict with the fire code,' Towner said.