Wednesday, May 13, 2009

BTO: In Crusoe's footsteps

Business Times - 09 May 2009

In Crusoe's footsteps

Mark Phooi's four-storey home feels very much like a huge tree house. By Cheah Ui-Hoon


BY all accounts, house-hunting is many a Singaporean's favourite past-time - scouring through the classified advertisements, going for property launches and so on. It's certainly one of the best ways to get a good buy. Just ask Mark Phooi, a self-confessed house-hunting junkie, who moved into his home in Binjai Park recently.


The house he bought in 2007 counts as one of his good buys, an on-the-spot decision he authorised through his son, since he was overseas at that time. 'My eldest son was the one who viewed the house and his verdict was that it had a lot of room to play with. So since we had been house-hunting for a while, I could trust him and asked him to make a downpayment for it,' says the 46-year-old CEO of First Media, which owns several design companies and design schools.


It's a good thing his wife and three sons - aged 20, 16 and 12 - share his enthusiasm for house-hunting, as many weekends have been spent checking out real estate. In fact, his eldest son's 'taste' is better than his, says Mr Phooi.


'House-hunting has become something of a hobby. It's also a way to educate my sons on property prices, land size, design and so on, to inculcate this kind of knowledge in them,' says the former swimming coach.


It took a year to find the Binjai Park house - the fifth the family has stayed in. Mrs Elisa Phooi hopes it will be the last. If not, she hopes the family will at least stay longer than five years, which is the average time they lived in previous houses.


As far as a final move goes, the Phoois certainly have good reason to settle down comfortably at their Sian Tuan Avenue home.


Being in design himself, Mr Phooi totally reconfigured the layout of the house and determined the decor. 'It had quite a straightforward kind of boring layout before,' he explains. What he has done is as good as any architect - if not better.


He has created a tropically sensible four-storey dwelling that feels very much like a huge tree house, with the way almost every corner and wall has been converted into wood-framed windows that are kept open to capture the breeze. There are also small open balconies on different levels skirting the facade of the house, where seats or plants have been placed to create an outdoor, resort feel.


When you enter the house at street level, you go through the garage and the 'basement', which contains a sound room and an adjoining family entertainment room, before walking upstairs to the main living area.


The built-up area of the house is more than 5,000 sq ft, with the second level being an open concept - the kitchen and dining room lead right out to a garden-on-the-roof.


Because Mr Phooi's house is also on slightly higher ground than the row of houses opposite, the view from the living room is of rooftops and trees.


Each of the boys has his own 'personalised' style, such as a loft in one room, and an outdoor attached bathroom in another. Almost all of the rooms have a balcony with a wooden deck, and on the top of the fourth storey is a 'watch tower' for a spot of star-gazing if anyone in the family so wishes.


Fortunately, their neighbour behind lives in a good class bungalow with thousands of square feet of green land, so even though the Phoois have neighbours on both sides, their view at the back of the house is forest-like with fruiting trees.


The house is a vast change from their previous one on Lornie Road, says Mr Phooi. 'After they widened the road, there is just so much more traffic. And we couldn't ever open the windows because of the dust and noise.'


Although some families would move their furniture with them to a new house, not so for Mr Phooi, who prefers to give away his old furniture and start afresh. 'It's an expensive affair,' he chuckles, but adds that it's good to rejuvenate one's living environment every so often.


This time around he's gone for a contemporary classic look, and the items that set the tone for it are modern classics from up-scale Baker Furniture.


The white fabric sofa set with hand-tufted buttons blends nicely into the resort-like setting, although one wouldn't have thought so. Even accents like a pair of Queen Anne armchairs - from Baker's Stately replica range - sit quite regally, with the garden behind.


'It was the starburst mirror at Baker that first caught my eye,' says Mr Phooi, although he was clearly persuaded to extend his decor to the living room set and more.


He kept a few pieces from the previous house, such as an antique Indian table. Decorative antique accents throughout the house also include knick-knacks from overseas - a pair of wooden skis from Geneva, for example, and an old saxophone mounted on the wall.


Asian elements include an old Tibetan mail holder and a Burmese opium pipe, which he has also framed.


He also has a collection of antiques and collectibles like these at his design schools on Keong Saik Road and in Jakarta, he reveals. 'It's good for the students . . . to give them a sense of history.'


The schools are a new addition to his company, which he started from scratch while coaching swimming for almost 10 years. Swimming was his first love in fact, ever since he was a sea scout from the age of nine or 10. After he finished national service, he took up coaching under the late national swimming coach Kee Soon Bee.


After that, he taught on his own, and at the height of his teaching life, had 200 students learning how to swim.


But knowing this wasn't going to be a viable long-term career, Mr Phooi had concurrently studied for a diploma in graphic design at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.


'After I graduated, I immediately began a part-time postgraduate programme in management studies, and also started Lancer Design Services, working from home,' he recalls.


Soon, he had 12 studios specialising in different design disciplines and related markets, and First Media was incorporated in 2002 as a holding company.


The Enterprise 50 Startup Award winner (2005) and Top Entrepreneur of the Year Award winner (2006) has now come full circle and returned to his first love - coaching. 'To me, that's what teaching design management in the design schools is about - and many of my 'students' have become successful business owners in their own right,' he says. You look around for the lap pool in the Phooi house, but only see one for the koi. 'It's a case of being jelak already,' Mr Phooi says with a mental shudder, using the Malay term to indicate swimming was an activity over-done in his salad days.


These days he hardly hits the water any more, preferring instead to participate in land-based activities like golf.


Mr Phooi has sure come a long way from the days he would make his students do laps in the swimming pool, having designed his own career as successfully as this house.

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