Homes in the sun

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 December, 2010, 12:00am

Speaking from experience I can tell you that building a home from scratch is not for the faint-hearted. Never mind the inevitable cost overrun - prepare for a blowout on your emotional budget, with the joys, frustrations and dilemmas that will follow.

And that's in your own country. Why would anyone attempt such an undertaking in a foreign land?

For Sai Kung couple Ali Ridley and Chris Holloway, building a new home in Sri Lanka was not so much a conscious decision as a dream that grew legs. It started when Ridley, then single, accompanied a friend on a trip to Sri Lanka, and came back owning a block of land.

Ridley, a corporate trainer, fell in love with the almost half-hectare site wrapped around Koggala Lake near Galle, and figured she would one day 'do a small refurb' on the property's existing small bungalow. Meanwhile, back in Hong Kong, love blossomed with Holloway, who's in banking, and the couple began imagining their dream home. 'Before we knew it, we had this mansion,' says Ridley of the five-bedroom, four-bathroom house that resulted. But it took five years (instead of the expected two), went way over their original budget of 22 million Sri Lankan rupees (HK$1.54 million) and involved much heartache before finding a solution - installing a new project manager - that brought their plans to fruition.

The task was assigned to Hong Kong architect Alex Fraser. 'It was a great project to work on - every architect's dream of a green field site on a lake with a brief to make it beautiful,' she says.

The house of around 4,300-sq ft was designed to maximise the natural elements. Its position takes advantage of cooling breezes, and gives all the bedrooms and living areas a glorious lakeside view.

A double-height atrium - a key feature - opens up views of the lake, garden, decks and infinity pool. The design utilises local materials including teak, jackwood and stone, crafted on site by local carpenters and stonemasons, contrasted with modern lighting and fittings.

Fraser cites key details such as the pigmented concrete floor features, the clerestory (upper row of windows) timber friezes, natural stone panels and cast concrete inset features. 'The architecture incorporates modern Western ideas and Sri Lankan building traditions while utilising local techniques and skills,' she says.

The British couple, who see themselves retiring to Sri Lanka and now enjoy vacations there when the house is not rented out (for US$300 to US$400 a night), say their home is 'balm for the soul'. But getting there wasn't plain sailing, involving going 30 per cent over budget. After parting ways with the original builder, they installed a local site manager, who made things run more smoothly simply by paying contractors on time. Would they do it again? 'Probably - now that we're a lot wiser,' they say.

Architect David Roberts had an inside edge when building his own vacation home in Phuket, Thailand: he's chief executive of Aedas, the world's largest privately owned design practice. Even so, it took four and a half years to build instead of the expected 18 months, and cost four times the original budget - owing partly to design changes Roberts made along the way, but also due to 'misunderstandings' about what was included in the build price. He puts it down to cultural differences. 'What's normal in Sydney or London isn't in Thailand,' the Welshman says.

Admittedly, it would be hard to budget for a property whose features include a helipad, tennis court, four-hole golf course and 25-metre pool with bar - and inside, a home cinema, snooker hall, gym and sauna, wine cellar with tasting room and European and Thai kitchens.

But while the labour is cheap, it can't be hurried. Making two or three attempts at a job might not have fazed the builder, but it frustrated Roberts, who was used to getting it right the first time. 'Coming from a western culture, I am driven by budgets, progress, precision,' says Roberts. 'For the Thais it's more about what they're creating.' He was also unused to having only one trade (the plumbers or carpenters) on site at a time, instead of multiple teams - apparently the norm in Thailand - and the lack of management skills, which led to long waiting times for materials to arrive.

As a result, Roberts spent more time than he'd intended to on site, 'helping them unlock problems'. Things got easier when he became more relaxed about it, accepting that while pushing harder might get the job done quicker, it would be at the expense of quality. 'About two years into the project, I decided to go with the flow - to work with it, not against it,' says Roberts.

He is delighted with the result. He loves that the house was hand-built using traditional skills, unlike the mass construction of urban buildings, and is thrilled with the fusion of tropical hardwoods, intricate stone work and fung shui principles. The home is a masterpiece of modern design, and perfectly fulfils its raison d'etre, which is to provide the family with lifestyle enjoyment, and allow Roberts some welcome 'thinking time' away from the pressures of conducting business.

'I spend my time between Hong Kong and London, but Phuket is the place where I recharge my batteries,' he says.

Investment partners Martin McDonald and Tim Jones, a Briton and Australian from the hospitality and finance sectors respectively, have tackled the task of building overseas not once, but many times. They have homes in Bali, Koh Samui, Phnom Penh and Phuket, some still under construction. They wanted to have a choice of vacation homes their families could use when not being commercially let.

Was it a case of same issues, different country?

'It's never easy doing anything in a foreign country, because there are simply different ways of doing things,' says McDonald. 'Combine that with different building codes, language barriers and cultural differences. Also, most people cannot be on site during the whole construction process owing to time constraints. One common theme would be that things very rarely, if ever, get completed on time, or on budget.'

In Koh Samui, they liked the 20-villa masterplan by architects GFAB that allowed the partners to 'pretty much' design their own house within their 1,600-square metre plot of land. The design caters for two families with two bedrooms each, with an extra study/bedroom for a maid. They also carefully considered the space for the full-time villa support staff. The sloping site allowed for beautiful views, which was a prime consideration when planning the bedrooms, living room, deck and infinity pool.

'The pool has an amazing in-built fibre-optic floor that looks like a reflecting star-lit sky at night,' says McDonald. Each bedroom has its own terrace or Jacuzzi and an ensuite bathroom with a seaview.

The bill for their villa (excluding that for land acquisition) was US$1,200,000, of which construction cost US$950,000, architects' fees US$100,000 and fixtures and fittings US$150,000.

A common thread throughout their projects is the difficulty in finding good and reasonably priced contractors. They say schedules are rarely met and price escalations of raw materials are the norm. 'The problem with building on islands in particular is that the international-standard, large-scale contractors are only interested in building 200-room hotels so you are left with smaller operators that just don't have the same management, control and oversight,' says McDonald. In Koh Samui, they switched contractors after a few years of extremely slow progress, which resulted in their project being completed 'on time, on budget and to an excellent standard'.

The pair learnt a number of lessons including the importance of having a diligent project manager with local knowledge and good contacts. 'Don't be afraid to pay slightly more for this, especially if it means they are on site every day and send you regular [at least monthly], detailed progress reports,' says McDonald. 'Trying to handle a project from your desk in Hong Kong or Singapore is just impossible especially if construction isn't your area of expertise. We built in Bali first without a project manager [travelling down ourselves] and it took us many years to complete what should have been done in about two years.'

Would they do it again? They are: the partners are in the planning stage after buying some land in Niseko, Japan. 'It gets easier after you have done it a few times.'

Information about Ridley and Holloway's Sri Lanka home can be found at, and Martin McDonald and Tim Jones' Koh Samui home at

Tips on bringing your overseas investment to fruition

Ali Ridley/Chris Holloway: engage a Hong Kong architect who, in this couple's case, 'pushed the boundaries' of local norms, enabling the house to be built the way they wanted it. At the same time, bring a really good project manager on board locally. They say that frequent and some surprise visits are advisable.

David Roberts, Aedas: estimate your budget, then double it - you need a huge contingency plan. Be as clear as you possibly can about what's included. Also allow for the reality that it will not take less than two years to build, but more likely three to four years.

Martin McDonald and Tim Jones: only plan on building your own holiday home if you have the time, patience, a decent project manager and can afford 150 per cent to 200 per cent of your initial budget. And know that with smaller contractors, 'any form of building warranty is worthless as they simply won't bother coming back to fix anything after they have received their final payment'.