When CHI International executive director Pilar Morais considers taking on a new serviced-apartment project, whether it involves building from scratch or refitting an existing building, she usually has one main concern.
'Design is the most important thing,' she says. 'You see so many buildings where it isn't done right. You lose your storage space, you don't have a good flow through the apartment, you get off your bed and stub your toe on something.'
To avoid those pitfalls, CHI International knocks down all non-structural internal walls if it is refitting a building, as it did with its first four projects in Hong Kong. (It has since built a fifth from scratch in Wan Chai.) The company then marks out on the floor exactly where all the walls, hallways and major pieces of furniture will go.
'Obviously the plan is going to change over time, but we mark it all out,' Morais says. 'We have an idea in mind when we purchase a property as to what can fit, and when a designer is able to match that, everybody is happy.'
Anyone looking to design a residential property with clever storage space would do well to consider how serviced-apartment operators lay out and furnish their flats. They are the champions of practicality. Needing to combine all the facilities of a typical hotel room with the comforts of home, they ensure a long-stay apartment operates as a place not just to sleep, but also to work, eat, relax and play. The apartments also need a dash of style to set them apart in a competitive marketplace.
Cynthia Wong, director of Hanlun Habitats, which runs four serviced-apartment properties in the Mid-Levels, says location, looks and rent are the top factors that bring customers to the door. But it is design that will keep them - and the company has had guests stay for as long as five years. Guests want 'intelligently planned interiors that provide for comfortable living and working spaces', Wong says. Hanlun's flats range in size from 436 sq ft to 1,170 sq ft. 'The apartments must look good as well as being livable to keep long-term guests and bring return guests.'
For the Ovolo Group, which operates six serviced-apartment blocks in Hong Kong and a serviced-office building, it takes at least two months of planning and as many as 80 renditions of a layout to achieve the right design. 'We spend a lot of time on ... where everything goes, where the light switches are,' says founder Girish Jhunjhnuwala. 'That's more important than which shade of brown we should use - the colours and the interiors are the easy part.'
Paul Kember, who runs K plus K Associates with his twin brother, Johnny, designed each of the company's properties. For the latest addition, at 256 Tung Chau Street in Sham Shui Po, the company took over an existing hotel and gutted it, lowering all the window sills to maximise light in the apartments, which are mostly three-bedroom suites. The two-bedroom units are 500 sq ft and those with three bedrooms are 700 sq ft.
Flexibility is key to the design. Rather than fill a room with furniture, Kember makes sure most pieces have more than one function, and nothing is simply ornamental. The key is to create 'multivalent space', in which tenants can work, relax and eat.
Window sills in the bedroom, for example, double as a bedside table, with its own power point, say, for recharging a mobile phone. The apartments also use especially slim day-night blinds, which can easily be switched from blackout mode to allow in natural light, and they occupy less space than curtains. A coffee table stretches in front of the sofa in one position - or flips upright to serve as a laptop-computer table if a guest wants to work from the sofa.
To fit over the sink, Kember designed a wooden chopping board that can be removed to do the dishes or used when extra space for cooking is needed. The metal kitchen countertop also lifts up to store utensils underneath, if you have more food or kitchenware than will fit in the nine drawers below. The extra few inches are handy for storing noodles or fruit, the kinds of snacks long-term guests are likely to want on hand.
In the bedroom, the beds are on hydraulic springs, so they are easy to lift up. The extra storage space can be used to stow suitcases, golf clubs, extra clothing - whatever luggage people bring to Hong Kong.
At its property on Hospital Road, Mid-Levels, Shama also maximised under-bed space, and custom made its two-seater sofas to provide storage beneath the seats. Possessions can also be stashed in the sectional compartments in its coffee tables, with oversized leather trays that sit on the surface. Shama's 48 apartments on Hospital Road, at 470 sq ft each, were smaller than the company's typical 750 sq ft rooms, a constraint that required creative thinking to outfit for comfort.
It took eight attempts to achieve its current room design. 'We designed it like a boat,' says Shama chief executive Elaine Young. 'Every single nook and cranny is some form of storage - you've got to be able to put everything away.' The key to accommodating tenants comfortably is providing flexibility. A desk, with extensions at either end, can be pushed against the wall and used as a conventional work surface, but, with the flaps up, can double as a dining table for four, with seating provided by the sofa and two chairs.
'Light, ceiling height and outlook you really can't change,' says Young. 'Everything else you can fix, budget allowing.'
Dillon Garris, a Paris-based American designer, worked on the Shama properties at Hospital Road and in SoHo, and has also designed two CHI Residences serviced-apartment blocks - one at 279 Kowloon Street in Yau Ma Tei and one at 120 Connaught Road West, Sheung Wan.
'It was essential to make full use of the space by opening the rooms wherever possible,' Garris says. 'I concentrated on the use of sliding panels between the living room, bedrooms and kitchen/dining rooms, thus creating open views to the whole apartment and beyond.'
Morais, her family and staff stress-test the firm's serviced apartments by staying in them. At its Nathan Road property, doing that revealed inadequate storage space in the bathroom - another consideration for apartments in which guests may stay for months. But there was room next to the sinks, so shelves and a countertop were added before the units opened.
'We need to find the balance between maximising space while still maintaining a sense of ease and comfort,' Morais says. 'Most importantly, it needs to be functional. If it doesn't serve a purpose other than to just look good, it's unnecessary.'