Goh, at his office in Singapore, with the models of his prefabricated modules and images of his upcoming R+ resort developments in Cambodia (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
SINGAPORE (EDGEPROP) - When Singaporean architect Andy Goh joined Ong&Ong Architects a decade ago, he was CEO of emerging markets. He opened an office in Myanmar, then Thailand, and explored expanding to Cambodia and Laos. “Those were early days in Myanmar,” Goh relates. “Parkroyal room rates were just US$40 a night; the taxis had holes in the floor so that water could drain out after a flood. It was like the last frontier.”
Goh is now both a real estate developer and an architect. In April 2019, he became CEO of Jonah Journeys, an investment holding company that co-founded Furi Corp, a joint venture with Cambodia-based real estate agency Furi Real Estate that was founded in 2012. “If you want to be at the top of the food chain, you need to become a developer,” he says. “Our role as an architect has been slowly eroded over the years. We should not be just building designers; we are more than that.”
He notes that Singapore’s built environment today is more the result of government policy than the imaginings of architects. “It’s certainly not architects who are driving the changes,” says Goh. “That’s why overseas markets provide us with a better platform for growth.”
The value of money is another factor, according to Goh. In Singapore, $5.3 million to $5.5 million would buy you a freehold, corner terraced house at Lorong Biawak, off Upper Serangoon Road, or at Jambol Walk, off West Coast Highway, according to URA Realis in September. “You can’t even buy a freehold, semi-detached house in Singapore for $5 million today,” he says. “But you can build an entire 8,000 sq m shopping mall in another city in Southeast Asia.”
Artist’s impression of one of the cantilevered villas at the 30ha R+ Koh Rong, on Koh Rong Island just off Sihanoukville (Picture: R+)
Prefabricated mall at Sihanoukville
Goh did just that in his first foray as a property developer in Sihanoukville, a coastal city in southwest Cambodia. In late 2018, he came across a site in the city that was just being used as a carpark, but the landowner refused to sell it to him as it was in a prime spot. So Goh took on a 50-year lease on the site. He built a 15,000 sq m (161,460 sq ft) prefabricated shopping mall in just over 12 months.
The shopping mall opened in late 2019 with 60% occupancy. Tenants include KFC, PizzaCo and Starbucks. Goh and his team ended up operating the mall themselves. “We did it because the tenants wanted us to help find staff for their shops, and then find accommodation for the staff,” says Goh. “We were doing more than what a professional real estate firm would have been prepared to do.”
Shortly after the mall’s opening, the Covid pandemic struck. In late 2019, the Cambodian government had also just clamped down on illegal online casinos that were particularly rampant in Sihanoukville.
A decade ago, the Cambodian coastal town had also benefitted from China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese investments led to tourism vaulting more than 700% from 2012 to 2017. According to official estimates, Chinese nationals accounted for over 100,000 or 90% of the expatriate population in Sihanoukville by 2019.
Chinese foreign direct and private investment went into real estate development, hotels and casino-resort properties. By 2020, up to 90% of the businesses in Sihanoukville were run by Chinese nationals. During the lockdown, non-essential businesses including casinos were shut down. Between 80% and 90% of the Chinese expatriates left Sihanoukville.
Despite “the double whammy” of Covid and an exodus of Chinese expatriates, Goh’s prefabricated mall survived. “The locals came back,” he says. “The government has closed the illegal online casinos. The physical casinos have reopened, and they have cleaned up their act.” The mall’s occupancy is still hovering in the 60% region today, but it is due for a refresh, according to Goh.
Artist’s impression of a room made of prefabricated steel structures that are flat-packed, shipped over and assembled on site (Picture: R+)
Integrated luxury resort at Koh Rong island
Two years ago, Goh came across a 43ha land parcel located next to the Sihanoukville Airport and the coastline. The site was purchased for US$197 million in a 51:49 joint venture by Goh and a local landowner.
“We have earmarked six hotels for development,” he says. They include international hospitality groups, including those from Singapore, he adds. Goh has also coined his own hospitality brand, R+, which stands for “rare, respectful and reciprocal”, he explains.
“What we are trying to do is to be respectful of the place that we are in, to get people to appreciate the location,” he adds. “Part of our environmental, social and governance [ESG] is to elevate the lives of the local community there, not just in terms of employment, but to enhance the value of the local produce.”
Ground-up initiatives include back-to-basics farming, making bottles out of recycled glass and working with a local culinary school on a farm-to-table concept using local produce for the restaurants in his upcoming R+ resorts. “It’s about finding the right partners with similar values that we can bring into the R+ ecosystem,” he adds.
Goh’s focus is on the development of R+ Koh Rong, a resort property that hugs a 30ha hilly terrain surrounded by dense greenery at Koh Rong, an island just off Sihanoukville. The development will include cantilevered villas, a luxury hotel, a hospitality school with staff accommodation, a commercial and cultural centre, a park as well as local farms that are involved in tech and co-farming initiatives.
When completed, there will be 36 villas spread across R+ Koh Rong. In order to reduce the carbon footprint, the villas will be prefabricated elsewhere and brought to the site in flatpacks and assembled. Each module is made of steel and is 31.5 sq m in size, which is larger than a 40ft shipping container.
With the smallest room at 31.5 sq m, the modules can be combined to create two- or three-room villas of about 90 to 100 sq m. Each room in the villa is designed to be a self-contained studio, with some bigger rooms enjoying a private pool. Within the villa, shared amenities and spaces include the living and dining areas as well as the kitchen.
There are also larger containers that are naturally ventilated. Some of these will be converted into large bathrooms with a bathtub and open to nature. Others are designed as conventional bathrooms. “We are trying different concepts to give people options,” says Goh.
Close-up of the interior of a room (Picture: R+)
‘A fine balance’ between luxury and sustainability
Each villa will come with four units in different configurations. “People want a different experience when they travel,” says Goh. “Even as they want an authentic and unique experience, they still want the comforts of modern amenities and the pampering.”
Buyers have the option to purchase the villas with a strata title and a 50-year lease; or a leaseback arrangement, where the lease is renewed at the end of 50 years. The villas at R+ Koh Rong, which come with a strata title and a 50-year lease, are priced from US$2.6 million ($3.7 million) each.
Villa owners will have the option to put their property in the hotel’s rental pool to generate a return if they wish. Each room in the villa will have a rate of about US$400 a night.
Goh is also looking to sell R+ stored-value cards to members for an annual subscription. With the stored-value card, members can enjoy up to 30% discount on the room rates. Hence, instead of US$400 a night, they will enjoy a lower rate of US$250 to US$300 a night. The card can also be used to accumulate points which can go towards the purchase of products, F&B or farm tours.
Phase one of R+ Koh Rong will see the completion of nine villas, followed by phase two, which will include the facilities of the resort, for instance, restaurants, swimming pool and spas. Goh is targeting to open the first phase in 2023.
There is no direct flight from Singapore to Sihanoukville. But from Phnom Penh, it is just a two-hour drive via the new highway, compared to around five hours via the old trunk road, says Goh. In recent years, proper roads and infrastructure have also been built in Sihanoukville, he notes. “Sihanoukville is also very accessible for those flying in from China and Hong Kong,” he adds.