Bungalows in the sky

Run-of-the-mill "penthouses" may have lost some cache over the years, but today's super penthouses are highly coveted even with their eye-popping prices

August 12, 2017


ALIBABA co-founder Sun Tongyu, Macau casino tycoon Stanley Ho's son Lawrence, and Singaporean venture capitalist Tommie Goh have something in common in Singapore: they own penthouses.

Back in 2006, a consortium linked to the Ho family bought six penthouses at Marina Bay Residences for about S$90 million, including the uber penthouse on the top three levels of the 55-storey project. It is believed that the consortium continues to own most of the units, which are said to be where the Hos put up some of their high net worth clients when they visit Singapore.

Over in prime district 10, Mr Sun paid S$51 million for the sole penthouse spread across 13,573 square feet on the top two levels of Wing Tai's freehold Le Nouvel Ardmore two years ago - the biggest amount paid for a penthouse in Singapore at the time.

SC Global Developments recently smashed that record when it sold the 10,300 sq ft super penthouse at Sculptura Ardmore for more than S$60 million or in excess of S$6,000 per square foot. The luxury residential developer could set another record when it finds a buyer for the 17,642 sq ft penthouse on the top three levels - 23, 24 and 25 - in the Signature Tower at The Marq on Paterson Hill. SC Global says that the unit is not for sale, but according to the grapevine, the indicative price for the plush residence is S$128 million - translating to S$7,255 psf.

An eye-popping price this would be to most folks, but some ultra high net worth global investors may find the pricing palatable for what it buys: an exquisitely furnished residence with super-sized living spaces including five bedrooms, a private pool on the roof terrace, a dedicated lift and four designated carpark lots.

A top-of-the-range penthouse overseas could cost much, much more. In Monaco, for example, the developer of Tour Odeon is asking for 400 million euros (S$640 million) for the unit on the top five levels of the 49-storey development overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The price works out to US$13,296 psf or about S$18,000 psf.

What makes a penthouse?

Most people in Singapore think of a penthouse as a large residential unit at the top floor of a development in the prime districts. Tay Kah Poh, Knight Frank executive director of residential sales and leasing, adds that the word penthouse has a certain prestige attached to it. Or, as veteran property consultant and academic Steven Choo puts it: "Penthouses exude exclusivity, scarcity and have snob appeal."

Jacqueline Wong, executive director at Savills Private Office, says: "Most people get blown away with penthouses because of the views. You have no neighbours living above you."

That said, Mr Tay notes that penthouses draw their value not just from the views - a by-product of being right at the top of a development - but also because of their scarcity as there can be only one "top floor".

Another attraction of penthouses, says Ms Wong of Savills Private Office, is that typically, the floor-to-ceiling height is more than a normal apartment's in the same development; this, coupled with the double-volume spaces in the living and dining areas, makes the residence appear bigger and brighter.

In the early days, a penthouse used to be on a single level. Over time, developers stacked more floors and now there are two-storey and three-storey penthouses as well.

At the higher end of the spectrum, penthouses have become larger and more luxurious, resulting in what are called super penthouses or uber penthouses - with bigger living spaces, entertainment area and a roof terrace with a private pool.

"The master bedroom will have a walk-in wardrobe, double basins (a "his" and "hers"), steam bath, sauna or rain shower," explains Ms Wong.

These "bungalows in the sky" are often decked out with superior finishes and equipment, befitting their status.

The origins of high-rise penthouses are widely believed to be in New York, during the 1920s, or the "Roaring Twenties". Even before that, some European cities had exclusive residences on the upper floors of buildings such as hotels, although these were not high-rise buildings - at least not by today's standards.

In Singapore, too, the earliest residential penthouses were believed to be atop office buildings in the Central Business District (CBD), recalls Tan Tiong Cheng, president of Knight Frank Asia Pacific. Examples include Shing Kwan House, Robina House and UIC Building, which were developed on sites in the second Sale of Sites Programme in 1968 by the Urban Renewal Department (now known as the Urban Redevelopment Authority or URA), and Marina House and International Plaza, developed on sites in the third Sale of Sites Programme in 1969.

These were meant to be commercial sites and did not have any residential component when they were offered for sale in 1968 and 1969 respectively. However, the government later decided to give the sites bonus floor area for incorporating some apartments - to inject more life in the CBD.

Bowling alley inside

At Shing Kwan House, built by Singapore Land, the sole residential penthouse unit on the 22nd storey of the building was where the company's then-chairman, SP Tao, lived. In the case of Robina House - which used to stand on the current One Shenton site - developer Robin Loh had even incorporated a bowling alley into his penthouse, says Mr Tan.

Subsequently, most of the residences on the top levels of office buildings in the CBD were converted to offices - but there were exceptions. International Plaza continues to have apartments. At Shing Kwan House, Mr Tao retained his penthouse until the building was torn down in the late 1990s to be jointly redeveloped with the next-door ICB (Industrial & Commercial Bank) Building into what is today SGX Centre along Shenton Way.

Mr Tan reckons that the earliest penthouses in private residential projects would have appeared in the 1970s - such as the freehold Beverly Mai and Pandan Valley and the 99-year leasehold Pearl Bank Apartments.

Since then, penthouses have come a long way. The tallest residence on Singapore's skyline today reaches 290 metres - or 64 storeys. This is for a 21,108 sq ft triplex unit at Wallich Residence, which is part of Tanjong Pagar Centre, a mixed development project by GuocoLand on a 99-year leasehold site. Wallich Residence occupies the top 26 levels of the development's 64-storey tower; below the apartments are the offices, known as Guoco Tower.

Of course, there are taller residences abroad, such as 432 Park Avenue in New York, with a height of 425.5 metres.

However, a race to the top is unlikely to catch on here, suggest property analysts.

"Singapore - unlike some neighbouring countries, for instance - is unlikely to engage in a race to have the tallest building or residence," argues Mr Tay of Knight Frank. "The planners here are pragmatic and mindful of sustainability. When you have very tall, dense buildings, congestion sets in; it creates urban heat trap because air flow is blocked."

Desmond Sim, CBRE Research head of Singapore and South-east Asia, doubts that there would be buildings much higher than the 290 metres allowed for Wallich Residence, in the near future. "Our built environment is restricted by our small size and especially when we have a very limited flight path. At the same time, a large proportion of the south of our city centre - Marina Bay and Marina South, for instance - is built on reclaimed land and it may be too early to further increase the height control for buildings in these areas."

Agents say that penthouses, especially the super variety, are primarily bought by foreigners, who, unlike Singapore citizens, do not qualify to buy that creme de la creme of the landed housing market - Good Class Bungalows (GCBs).

Some property consultants consider the Ardmore Park condo, developed from 1997 to 2001 by Marco Polo Developments, now known as Wheelock Properties (Singapore) - as a major milestone on the Singapore penthouse scene. The 330-unit freehold project in District 10 comprises 324 four-bedroom apartments of 2,885 sq ft each and just six luxurious penthouses of 8,740 sq ft each - very large by standards at the time - on the top two levels of the three 30-storey towers.

The penthouses have five bedrooms and a large terrace, with just two penthouses in each tower. "And the penthouses were at the highest point at the time in the prestigious Ardmore/Draycott area, and yet just a short distance from the prime Orchard Road shopping belt," says Dr Choo, chairman of property consultancy VestAsia Group and adjunct associate professor in the Department of Real Estate at the National University Singapore.

Room at the top

In the past decade or so, penthouses in Singapore have taken off in two different directions, Mr Tay of Knight Frank observes. "On the one hand, in very prime locations, you still have very large penthouses and their luxury elements have been heightened vis-a-vis the normal apartments in a development.

"On the other hand, especially outside the prime areas, some developers took to minting penthouses as a convenient way to bolster saleable floor area by adding private roof terraces to the units on the top floors, but with a twist that these penthouses were smaller units - two-bedders and sometimes even one-bedders. The idea is to cap pricing at affordable lumpsum levels."

The reason developers adopted this strategy was because private roof terraces were not counted as part of gross floor area (GFA) and hence considered "free area" for developers to sell; the private roof terrace could be a relatively big portion of a small penthouse unit's saleable area.

Small penthouses started appearing as a follow-on to a general trend of developers carving smaller apartments in a bid to keep lumpsum quantums affordable amid rising psf prices.

"The phenomenon of small penthouses was more pronounced in the suburbs while projects in the prime areas or Core Central Region (CCR) still retained the trend of having larger penthouses to meet demand from wealthier buyers including foreigners," notes Mr Tay.

In January 2013, the URA announced a rule change, stipulating that private roof terraces (as well as private enclosed spaces) in non-landed residential developments are to be counted as part of the 10 per cent maximum bonus GFA, and subject to payment of development charges/differential premium.

As the private roof terrace is no longer free to developers, the whole argument of having two-bedroom penthouses with big private roof terraces becomes harder to execute - and the market is going back to the earlier days when penthouses tended to be large, says Mr Tay.

Roxy-Pacific Holdings built small duplex penthouse units - with one or two bedrooms and a roof terrace - in projects such as Spottiswoode 18, WhiteHaven in Pasir Panjang and Jade Residences in Lorong Lew Lian. But ever since the URA rule change, Roxy has stopped doing so as it no longer makes economic sense, according to its executive chairman, Teo Hong Lim.

This whole episode also illustrates that the term "penthouse" is not a planning typology regulated by URA. It's a marketing term that developers use for units on the top levels of some projects.

While there are no new micro penthouses being built for now, developers will continue to offer units on the highest floors of suburban condos and even executive condo (a public-private housing hybrid) projects that they call "penthouses". So the prestige of the word "penthouse" may be diluted, lament some market watchers.

That said, Ms Wong of Savills, argues that "super penthouses" still can be found in the prime districts, because this is where foreign ultra high net worth individuals buy real estate. She defines a "super penthouse" as one that has at least 6,000 sq ft built-in area (that is, excluding open areas like roof terrace) and is the one and only unit at the top level or levels of a block or development, with at least two designated car park lots and direct access via a private lift lobby.

"In the suburbs, big penthouses do not work, as buyers are mostly local and if they have the budget, would go for landed housing, rather than a big penthouse."

Developers of some upscale projects in prime districts have created other large-format choices that have the look and feel of a penthouse, except for the "top of the world" views, of course.

The Marq's Signature Tower, for example, has an interlocking design for the apartments which are over 6,000 sq ft each, says Ms Wong, so that even units on lower floors feel like penthouses - with double-volume ceiling height in the living and dining area and a private pool for each apartment.

GuocoLand's 381-unit Leedon Residence not only has 12 deluxe penthouses (ranging from 5,694 sq ft to 7,718 sq ft) on the top two levels and roof terrace of the 12-storey project, but also 24 duplex five-bedroom apartments of 4,704 sq ft on other levels and six duplex garden homes (on the first two levels), ranging from 6,566 sq ft to 8,051 sq ft.

Like the penthouses, the duplex garden homes and apartments have double-volume living and dining areas as well as private pools.

"You have more choices now, but the 'super penthouse' is still rare because you can have only one at the top floor," explains Ms Wong.

Or, as Dr Choo argues: "The top-grade or 'Class A' penthouses still occupy the apex of the non-landed housing type, just like GCBs in relation to the landed housing segment."