[UPDATE] Guz Wilkinson pursues sustainable design amid high land prices

/ EdgeProp Singapore |
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SINGAPORE (EDGEPROP) - From the street, Guz Wilkinson’s office is identifiable from the profusion of trees and plants growing in the compound. “We have about 15 trees growing at any one time,” says the Singapore-based, British architect and founder of Guz Architects. “Those at the entrance were planted during the circuit breaker.”
Wilkinson: Most people are still unaware of the danger the planet is in. I think it’s very serious. That’s why as a company, we have planted thousands of trees (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
Over the past decade, Wilkinson has planted thousands of trees in the UK and New Zealand. “When I go back to the UK to see my family, I like to buy land and plant trees,” says the self-professed tree-hugger. “I just planted another 4,500 trees in the UK.”
In New Zealand, he purchased an 8ha plot of land where he has planted about 700 trees. “Most people are still unaware of the danger the planet is in,” says Wilkinson. “I think it’s very serious."
This multi-country, tree-planting campaign is Guz Architects’ way to offset the carbon footprint from “our house-building activities in Singapore and elsewhere — where we use a lot of concrete and steel”, Wilkinson says. “I believe we have to give something back to nature. It’s hard to do this in Singapore because land is so expensive. It’s cheaper to do so in the UK and New Zealand.”
Guz Architects tries to create designs that blend in with nature (Photo: Guz Architects)
Having lived in Singapore for the past 28 years, Wilkinson is worried about its built environment. “Everything has such a short shelf life; things are built at enormous cost in terms of resources and materials, and then knocked down later,” he says.
In his view, a good example of tropical design that has stood the test of time are the black and white bungalows. “They are well-designed and suited for this climate,” says Wilkinson.
He hopes the bungalows that he has designed will endure too. He reckons he has designed “40 to 50” bungalows in Singapore over the span of almost three decades. Even though some of the bungalows he has designed have changed hands, most of the new owners have kept the original design. “Only one had renovation done,” he says.
Exterior view of the bungalow on Cluny Road purchased by billionaire and UK's richest man James Dyson (Photo: Guz Architects)

Record transactions

Several Good Class Bungalows (GCBs) that Guz Architects designed in recent years have been transacted at record prices. Last year, a newly completed GCB on Cluny Road sitting on a land area of 15,100 sq ft, near Botanic Gardens, was purchased by billionaire James Dyson, the richest man in the UK, for $50 million ($3,311 psf) -- which is a record price for a GCB in terms of price psf.
Recently, a GCB at Bishopsgate, off Nathan Road and Chatsworth Road in prime District 10, was leased at a record rental rate of $150,000 a month or $1.8 million a year.
While it feels good to hear that the bungalows he designed were transacted at record prices or sold to famous billionaires, Wilkinson says: “We’re not going to let that get to our head. But it feels good that our designs add value. It’s better than having them knocked down.”
The first of four villas in Sentosa Cove designed by Guz Architects, Fish House, won the Singapore Institute of Architects’ Architectural Design Award in 2010 (Photo: Guz Architects)
Wilkinson has designed four villas in Sentosa Cove — the most famous is the Fish House, which was completed in 2009 and won the Singapore Institute of Architects’ Architectural Design Award in 2010. The rest of his projects are luxury bungalows, primarily Good Class Bungalows (GCBs), mostly around the Holland Road neighbourhood: several houses in Cornwall Gardens, three houses on Astrid Hill, a couple at Oei Tiong Ham Park and Leedon Park. “We’ve done a lot of GCBs,” he says.
In all his designs, Wilkinson tries to evoke a sense of timelessness and space through roof gardens, open courtyards and ponds. “We want our designs to blend in with nature, and nature is quiet,” he says. “We don’t want our buildings to stand out from the street and shout, ‘Hey, we are here.’”
The firm uses materials that are sustainable and sourced from nearby countries, such as Indonesia rather than Italy. Wilkinson likes the warmth and feel of timber as it blends in well with nature. “We always to try adhere to the same principles of greenery and sustainability,” he says.
A bungalow at Sentosa Cove designed by Guz Architects for a client who wanted roof gardens on every level (Photo: Guz Architects)

Personal quirks

What Guz Architects’ clients like about the firm’s designs is his respect for nature. Most of them tend to be nature lovers too. “They want openness, natural ventilation and greenery,” says Wilkinson. “Those who like cascading chandeliers or gold toilet bowls don’t tend to be our clients.”
Admittedly, there will always be a segment of home buyers who are not as enthusiastic about greenery. “It’s not to everyone’s taste,” Wilkinson acknowledges.
All homeowners have their personal quirks, he concedes. The GCB owners at Bishopsgate had requested for a rooftop swimming pool and gym. Hence, the house features a 23m lap pool on the roof terrace, which offers spectacular views. The swimming pool has a glass floor that brings light to a central atrium on the lower floors.
Another owner wanted a swimming pool which he could jump into — from the second level of the house. “We had to make sure that the swimming pool was deep enough for that,” recounts Wilkinson.
Good Class Bungalow - EDGEPROP SINGAPORE
A Good Class Bungalow designed by Guz Architects with pavilions and water courtyards for a nature lover (Photo: Guz Architects)
One client wanted to build a tennis court in his basement. “We told him it wasn’t practical,” says Wilkinson. “It’s very expensive and unsustainable.”
Six months ago, someone approached Wilkinson about designing a new GCB sitting on a sizeable plot. “The owner said, ‘We like your work, we want you to design a new house,’” relates Wilkinson. “I asked, ‘How old is the house?’ And the owner goes, ‘Two years old.’”
Wilkinson explained to the owner that he could not accept the job. “I told him our planet is in crisis. The owner said, ‘Oh, I understand where you’re coming from, but I just really like the land,’” he recalls, lamenting: “Land has become so expensive in Singapore that the house is irrelevant.”
An extended family home designed by Guz Architects for two brothers who wanted to share a Good Class Bungalow with communal spaces for entertaining and separate private wings for their respective families (Photo: Guz Architects)

Extended family living

High land cost in Singapore has also led to the trend of extended family living. Guz Architects recently designed a GCB for an extended family in the Holland Road area. “It’s one big bungalow shared by a multi-generational family,” says Wilkinson. Shared spaces include the living, dining and entertainment areas, and there are dedicated floors for each family too. This living arrangement allows the parents to see their children and their grandchildren often, says Wilkinson.
Another large extended family home that Guz Architects designed was a GCB for two brothers and their respective families. The bungalow has communal spaces and a courtyard for entertaining friends and family. Each family has its own private wing within the property. The bungalow was completed a year ago. “When we met the client recently, he told me that the house has actually brought them closer together as a family. The two brothers were living apart before,” Wilkinson says.
He sees such extended family homes as “an efficient way of living” instead of building and maintaining two separate bungalows.
However, there are also instances where the parents build a big house hoping that the children will come live with them. “But the children don’t want to; they want to live separately,” he adds. “So it can work both ways.”
A house designed by Guz Architects with willow trees as part of its landscaped garden (Photo: Guz Architects)

One bungalow at a time

When Wilkinson first arrived in Singapore as a 29-year-old architect in 1992, he worked for a local firm, Tang Wee Houe Architects, for four years before venturing out on his own.
In 1996, when he started his own practice, he decided to design one bungalow at a time: “I started with the design of one bungalow, and as that project came to an end, I got the next one by word of mouth,” says Wilkinson. “For the first few years, I was working by myself. And then eventually as I got more jobs, I hired a few staff. And my staff have been with me for over 10 years.”
Today, Guz Architects has about seven staff. “We are a very small business,” says Wilkinson. “I don’t want a big company because then I will just become a manager.”
The increase in site coverage for Good Class Bungalows may discourage the design of roof overhangs, at a time when we should be doing more of such tropical designs, according to Wilkinson (Photo: Guz Architects)
Wilkinson does all the designs by himself at Guz Architects. “I like designing, and I do everything by hand,” he says. “I attend all the site meetings, the owners’ meetings and other meetings.” His staff assist him in the submission of plans and coordination.
At any one time, Guz Architects has four or five ongoing projects. “I find that not having too many jobs and not too many staff is the best way to go,” says Wilkinson. “That allows us to choose our clients — because a difficult client can make life difficult indeed.”
Wilkinson is a proponent of sustainable tropical design. In July last year, URA revised the site coverage for GCBs from 35% to 40%. The 35% site coverage before had excluded the roof overhang, while the increase to 40% now includes the eaves.
“This will discourage the design of roof overhangs, at a time when we should be doing more of such tropical designs,” he says.
A private residence designed by Guz Architects for a client in Jersey, with a view of the English Channel (Photo: Guz Architects)
Today, Guz Architects’ designs can also be found overseas: in a private condominium project in India, a private residence in Oman and another property in Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands, and fronting the English Channel. Having designed a resort in the Maldives, Wilkinson could potentially be designing one in the Caribbean. He is currently working on a tropical villa in Bali and a second private residence in Jersey.
Indeed, Guz Architects’ projects have taken Wilkinson further abroad than his boat, Bowman, had. He points to a model of Bowman sitting on a shelf in his office.
Back in 1992, Wilkinson had intended to sail from Hong Kong to the UK. His engine had broken down while he was sailing along the Strait of Malacca. That brought him to Singapore to get the engine repaired. After it was repaired, lightning struck and all the electronic equipment was damaged. “And then a barge smashed into my boat during a storm,” he says. “So I arrived in Singapore by boat and never left.”

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