Nic & Wes Builders: Transforming houses

By EdgeProp Singapore
/ EdgeProp Singapore |
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Jude and Brian Kow, co-founders of Nic & Wes Builders, a design-and-build firm named after their children, Nicole and Wesley (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore).
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SINGAPORE (EDGEPROP) - Since Nic & Wes Builders was founded by Singaporean couple Brian and Jude Kow over 20 years ago, it has redeveloped or renovated more than 100 houses. The design-and-build firm specialises in conceptualising, designing and building landed homes, which account for 90% of its projects. “We simplify the process for homeowners who need hand-holding by liaising directly with their architects and contractors,” says Brian, 63.
A recent project completed by Nic & Wes Builders is a contemporary detached house sitting on a land area of 6,000 sq ft in the Siglap area in the east. It has been dubbed “the chilli crab house” because of its curved edge feature on the exterior. The house has a built-up area of 5,000 sq ft, a swimming pool, and a landscaped garden with an ornamental pond. The house features a car porch with a glass canopy, four en suite bedrooms including a grand master suite, a glass elevator and a curved glass staircase. It took about 12 to 18 months to complete the redevelopment and the cost was estimated at about $3 million.
Other houses that Nic & Wes Builders had been involved in and were completed recently include a semi-detached house in Namly Estate, off Bukit Timah Road in prime District 10; and a terraced house along Fidelio Street in Opera Estate in the prime East Coast area of District 15.
The exterior of the “Chilli Crab House”, a bungalow with its curved exterior feature, at the Siglap estate in the East, built by Nic & Wes Builders, was completed recently (Photo: Nic & Wes Builders)
Today, the firm has 10 ongoing landed housing projects with contracts worth an estimated $15 million. About 30% of the projects handled by Nic & Wes Builders are detached houses or bungalows, 60% are semi-detached houses, and 10% are terraced houses. When the firm started, about 90% of the projects were terraced houses, and the rest were semi-detached.
From just a husband-and-wife team, the firm has grown to a staff of 40. The couple’s children — daughter Nicole, 36, and son Wesley, 33, the inspiration for the name of the firm — have also joined the family business. Both are closely involved in the day-to-day running of the business, and Nicole has been shadowing her father for the past 12 years. As marketing managers of the firm, they manage the firm’s social media presence too. “My kids have the first shot at taking over the company, but I would not force it upon them,” Brian shares. “Without passion, drive and determination, businesses will fail.”
The business started very much as a fixer-upper for their own homes. “It was something we enjoyed doing together,” says Brian. “Jude loves beautiful houses and is artistic, with a great eye for detail. I love seeing things grow, and I wanted the family to be together. That’s how we started 20 years ago.”
Prior to that, Brian was a currency broker for 15 years. “It consumed a lot of my time, and I wanted to spend more time with my wife and see our kids growing up,” he recounts. “That was the fundamental reason why I left the financial industry.”
swimming pool - EDGEPROP SINGAPORE
The swimming pool of the "Chilli Crab House" (Photo: Nic & Wes Builders)

Buy and flip

The couple’s first marital home was a 1,500 sq ft HDB maisonette in the east purchased from HDB for $140,000. They spent $30,000 on renovations. “We came from humble beginnings,” says Jude, 63. “We had to make do with what we had. A lot of it was DIY — we bought water pipes and tubes to make our own dividers. We had to use our brains and creativity to do something different. We even gave a touch of luxury by including marble flooring.”
The maisonette flat was sold five years later for $250,000, which was considered “way above market price” then, relates Jude. Encouraged by the success, the couple decided they would embark on the strategy of buying, fixing and then selling their home at above-market prices. “We started by flipping our own houses,” she adds.
Their second property was a semi-detached house sitting on a 3,000 sq ft freehold land, also located in the east. The house was purchased for around $500,000 sometime in 1993-1994, and the couple spent $70,000 in additions and alterations. They saw a neighbouring home sold for just over $500,000 a year later. However, it was in the original condition.
The couple decided to list their home for sale at $830,000, more than 60% above the neighbouring house. “We did not think anybody was going to pay that price, but we just wanted to see what price it could hit,” says Jude.
However, a buyer turned up and gave them a cheque at 10am the next morning and did not even negotiate on the price. So they sold the property, after living in it for just a year.
The couple’s third property was another semi-detached house in the east, which they tore down and rebuilt. They purchased it for just over $600,000 sometime in the mid- to late-1990s and spent $150,000 in redeveloping and fitting out the property. The new 2½-storey house with an attic sat on a freehold site of 3,200 sq ft. They turned the entire second floor into a master suite with an open terrace and jacuzzi, an en suite master bathroom that was as large as the bedroom. “We did a lot of adventurous designs to fit our family’s needs,” according to Jude. After enjoying the house for two years, the couple sold it for $2 million.
A 40-year-old intermediate terraced house converted into a Balinese-style tropical home (Photo: Nic & Wes Builders)

Seeding a business

After selling their third home, they decided to start Nic & Wes as a business. “We realised that because we made the houses different, there was always an unexpected element when people walked in,” says Jude. “That was the secret to adding value to our houses. From there, we realised we enjoyed the journey. So we decided to turn it into a business, and that’s how we got started.”
After several more homes, the couple decided to take the business more seriously. They looked back on their journey and realised that the key problem areas were dealing with contractors, and liaising with architects and engineers during the building phase. And for the uninitiated homeowner, it can be a daunting process.
“We learnt the hard way and gained from our experience,” says Brian. “We realised that we were essentially playing the role of the project manager for our various homes. And we thought perhaps it was something that we can do because everybody who buys a house will have to go through the same issues that we faced. We decided to head in that direction.”
The couple has seen the shift in trends over the decades. In the 1990s, it was the Balinese-style homes that were in vogue. By the early 2000s, many homeowners wanted a recreation of the colonial-era black-and-white homes, notes Brian.
By the mid-2000s to 2010s, the trend shifted to the more contemporary tropical design. Post-pandemic, the trend is towards more sustainable, green homes with solar panels, as well as heat-reduction and energy-saving features.
The exterior of the early 19th century single-storey bungalow which has been redesigned as a classic black & white bungalow (Photo: Nic & Wes Builders)

‘Lifestyle destination home’

There is also a desire for a “lifestyle destination home”, as well as bigger homes to cater to multi-generational families living together yet ensuring their respective privacy, according to Jude. Inclusion of lifestyle amenities is becoming more commonplace, such as swimming pools, home gym and a home theatre. “The home office has become a standard requirement as more people work from home,” she adds.
Since Covid, construction costs have inflated by some 20% to 30%, estimates Brian. Today, it would cost about $1.3 million to $1.8 million to tear down and rebuild a terraced house, and about $1.8 million to $2.3 million for a semi-detached house, although some can cost as much as $3 million today, depending on the built-up area and materials used, notes Brian. For bungalows, it would cost at least $3 million or higher. “It’s important for homeowners to know the full cost upfront, including the professional fees, construction cost, as well as the fixtures and fittings,” says Brian.
Despite the global economic concerns, Brian believes Singapore’s landed housing segment will remain resilient. After all, there are only 73,184 landed housing units in Singapore as at 3Q2022, according to URA data.
Detached houses, including Good Class Bungalows and those at Sentosa Cove, make up just 15% of the landed housing market, while semi-detached houses make up 30%, and terraced houses, 55%. Meanwhile, private apartments and condominiums make up 313,769 housing units. Hence, landed property accounts for just 19% of total private housing market in Singapore. And most Singaporeans aspire to own landed property.
Today, Nic & Wes Builders has 40 full-time staff including electrical technicians, engineers and tilers. “We work with external architects and other professional consultants, but the building works will be handled in-house by our staff,” says Brian. “We help the owners with liaising with the various parties, from the excavators, structural engineers and architects, to getting the various permits. At the end of the day, the owners will get a beautiful home.”

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