Modern Villa on a Thai Island
Mrs. Grebstadt and Mr. Hicks, own the public relations agency Grebstadt Hicks Communications. They teamed with Mr. Grebstadt's company, MAP Architecture & Planning Ltd., to create a Thai company so they could buy a half-acre building site. Generally, foreigners are not allowed to own property in Thailand. Mr. Grebstadt's company also designed the house.
When Lynn Grebstad of Hong Kong first thought about building a villa in Thailand, she was set on Phuket, the grande dame of Southeast Asian resorts. But Mrs. Grebstad was persuaded to shift her attention to Thailand’s other coast, to the lesser-known island of Koh Samui, by a friend who owns a holiday house here.
The small, 247-square-kilometer (95-square-mile) island in the Gulf of Thailand was shaking off its backpacker past and going upmarket. Bangkok Airways was also planning to start direct service between the island and Hong Kong. (The island is far from the protests that have engulfed the country in recent days.)
So, in 2005, Mrs. Grebstad decided to buy a 1.3-rai (half-acre) plot on a hillside on Samui’s northeast corner with her business partner, Paul Hicks. The two own Grebstad Hicks Communications, a public relations firm based in Hong Kong that represents luxury hotels and other high-end brands.
Finding an architect to design and build the house was easy. Mrs. Grebstad’s husband, Karl, is a partner at MAP, an architectural company that designs hotels and commercial buildings in Asia, as well as luxury homes.
Together, the three built a modern, glass-and-concrete villa with six bedrooms that measures 1,180 square meters (12,700 square feet) of indoor and outdoor space, with 650 square meters (7,000 square feet) divided among three separate structures and the rest in a pool and terrace area.
“This is the reward of us working like dogs,” said Mrs. Grebstad, 56, sipping a glass of rosé while gazing into the valley below. “This is our treat to ourselves.”
The villa, which they named Baan Suralai, or Home of the Angels, was designed to maximize its location in Bophut Hills. Each room has a wall of glass facing the lush jungle to the west, and the beaches and towns to the north.
“It’s a million-dollar view,” said Patrick Caviness, executive director of Samui Custom Homes, a project management company hired to touch up the villa.
Actually, it is a $1.8 million view, totaling the cost of the land, construction and the furnishings that were installed when the house was completed early this year.
According to the local branch of the CB Richard Ellis real estate agency, prime beachfront land on Koh Samui costs around 17 million baht per rai ($27.90 per square foot), while the hillside land can be as little as 4 million baht per rai ($6.55 per square foot). The rai is a local unit that is equivalent to 17,222 square feet.
The villa has three buildings and a sala, a kind of open-air pavilion, next to a 25-meter (82-foot) infinity pool and a wide terrace. The main structure houses a living and dining room measuring 180 square meters (1,937-square-foot) in all, with an open kitchen at its heart. There are three guest bedrooms on the level below, facing the sea.
Covered walkways on each side of the house lead, in one direction, to an annex with three master bedrooms and, on the other side, to the staff quarters. Each of the bedrooms has its own bathroom, and all the rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows.
While life in the tropics may look easy, building a home here is not. For one thing, only Thais are allowed to own land in Thailand so the Grebstads and Mr. Hicks used their companies to form a joint venture, Samui Concepts, which formally owns the property. To comply with the law, the venture has Thais as silent majority partners.
The Thai government has tried to combat these arrangements from time to time, so some real estate agents advise foreigners to lease or to buy condominiums, which they can own because no land is involved. The Grebstads and Mr. Hicks, however, say they are confident that their method of ownership will not be challenged, and that the political unrest that has disrupted Bangkok recently will not become a danger.
Construction was a greater headache. “I am really quite amazed that Karl and I are still married,” Mrs. Grebstad said jokingly. “As a client you blame the architect, and as the architect, they blame you.”
Mr. Hicks, 43, took charge of the furnishings, favoring an understated contemporary look, like the oversized white leather sectional sofa in the living area. “I think something always has to have a sense of place,” he said. “But do you want it be slavishly traditional?” The villa has a live-in staff of three, a manager and a married couple who tend to the complex. Wages and utility costs are low in Thailand but the owners plan on renting out the property when they are not using it to help with expenses. They have not set prices yet but say it could command $1,500 to $2,000 a day, depending on the season.
A property like Baan Suralai costs $4,000 to $5,000 a month to run, according to Marc Ribail, the chief operating officer of Samui Villas & Homes, which now rents out 45 villas on the island and 15 in Phuket. Generally, he said, villa owners are happy if their property rents a few days a month.
“Most people aren’t that concerned with occupancy,” Mr. Ribail said. “They concentrate instead on revenue, or just want to make sure they cover their costs.”