City & Country: Menara Binjai: A long labour of love

The late Austrian playwright, poet and journalist Karl Kraus once said: “Experiences are savings which a miser puts aside. Wisdom is an inheritance which a wastrel cannot exhaust.”

While the heirs of the Chua family are by no means wastrels or misers, they have indeed inherited the accumulated wisdom, as well as the foresight, of the late Khor Joo Saik, a hard-nosed Nyonya businesswoman who married into the family, and her also deceased son, businessman Dr Chua Seong Siew who was trained in medicine at Cambridge University.

Khor’s husband and Seong Siew’s father was physician Dr Chua Boon Teck whose father was Chua Cheng Tuan, one of the co-founders of Cycle & Carriage Co, now known as Cycle & Carriage Bintang Bhd in Malaysia. He and his brother Cheng Bok founded the company in Kuala Lumpur in 1899. The company was the pioneering Mercedes Benz franchise in Malaysia.

Cheng Bok was responsible for building the legendary Bok House, a grand old mansion located along Jalan Ampang, which found itself in the middle of a furore as heritage activists and conservationists fought to have it placed on the National Heritage register. However, Bok House was demolished in December 2006, after efforts to have it declared a National Heritage Building failed.
Guan-Hock and Jackie are happy they are fulfilling the ambitions of their elders. Photo by Patrick Goh
Boon Teck and Khor built their family home on a two-acre plot of land at the intersection of Jalan Binjai, Jalan Ampang and Jalan Tun Razak. The site of the former family home is now set to house a “green” office tower called Menara Binjai. Two generations in the making, the 35-storey Menara Binjai is the Chua family’s labour of love.

The mother-and-son duo of Khor and Seong Siew, whose businesses included the historic 80-year-old Coliseum cinema, and café of the same name, had predicted that the tract of land the family home sat on would be valuable as the area’s future would one day be as bustling as Singapore’s Orchard Road. Their descendants are making the most of this strategic piece of real estate with their Grade A green office building.

Originally named Menara CSS after Dr Chua Seong Siew, the tower was renamed to capitalise on Jalan Binjai’s increasingly premium status in the residential market, one of his sons Guan-Hock tells City & Country.

“This project is really the realisation of the vision of my late grandmother Khor Joo Saik and my father,” he says.

A lawyer by profession, Guan-Hock is one of the six directors of Khor Joo Saik Sdn Bhd (KJS) led by him and other relatives, including first cousin Jackie Chua (daughter of Seong Siew’s younger brother Hooi Siew).

While the family had mixed feelings about the demolition of the family home — a roughly 6,000 sq ft double-storey colonial bungalow complete with air-raid shelter, annexe and fruit trees in the garden where the children would play — as many of the Chuas were raised there, he says the family ultimately agreed to fulfil their duty in realising their elders’ ambitions.

“It would not make sense to live there due to the extensive commercial developments in the area, it is not the same quiet neighbourhood we grew up in,” he adds.

“Our grandparents bought the land in the 1930s, and knew it had great potential. It is our duty to realise their vision. Our grandmother in particular, was a visionary who said in the 1970s that we should not sell the land as it would become like Orchard Road in Singapore. She was right.”

Part of the land has been acquired by the federal government for the construction of the Ampang Park LRT station.
Dr Chua Boon Teck and wife Khor Joo Salk with sons Dr Chua Seong Seiw (left) and Chua Hooi Siew at the family home.
The family decided on an office tower due to the numerous residential high-rises already in the vicinity. “Furthermore, it was the wish of our elders, who had sought professional advice, to have an office tower rather than condominiums,” says Guan-Hock.

“We are enthusiastic about the project for a number of reasons. One is the location because it is at the crossroads of three major roads. It is also a stone’s throw from the Petronas Twin Towers. It is directly on top of the Ampang Park LRT station.

So, in terms of location and accessibility, it is fantastic. People can come by bus, by LRT or  drive,” he points out.

The project has been on the drawing board since the late 1990s, but took flight only in 2008 when the family home was finally demolished. KJS then teamed up with internationally renowned architectural firm Veritas Design Group,  Ranhill Bhd unit Ranhill Bersekutu Sdn Bhd, Crest Builder Holdings unit Crest Builder Sdn Bhd and Web Structures Pte Ltd to embark on the development.

The development was largely funded by yet another investment by their eagle-eyed grandmother — about 1,500 acres of rubber and oil palm land in Putrajaya, which was acquired by the government to set up the new administrative capital.

Declining to reveal the sum received from the government, Guan-Hock, however, says KJS invested some RM180 million from the sum received for the Putrajaya land in Menara Binjai.

“She would look at prime locations for rubber estates, plantations … ultimately as real estate investments. She always said property was a much better investment than anything else — stable, and an inflation hedge,” he recounts.

Lillian Tay, a Veritas partner, says Seong Siew firmly stated during preliminary discussions that he wanted the “best office building” envisioned as a tall and graceful silvery vision housing cutting-edge green technology.

In her designs, she also sought to leverage the site’s unique position, which will provide unobstructed views from the office tower overlooking the Ampang Park LRT station,  Jalan Tun Razak junction and Nikko Hotel plaza.

“So, because of that openness, we went for a glass facade facing the open junction,” she explains.

To achieve this, double-glazed low-emissivity glass was specified to reduce heat and noise, says Tay.

The lobby will feature mahogany wood panels and perhaps even furniture created from the salvaged remains of an ancient tree that once sheltered the family home.

“I always believed that the tree brought us luck. We were never been robbed. You see, we had no security system, nothing.

And the old wooden door, one kick and it would fall down. It was that old. Now I live in my own house and I have cameras and beams going everywhere. When I was living there... nobody ever noticed that there was a house there. People asked me, where do you live? And then they go, ‘what, there’s a house there?’” Jackie says.

The building will boast dual green certification — Singapore’s Green Mark Gold as well as Malaysia’s Green Building Index, which is a rarity, says Guan-Hock.

The guiding principles of the building’s designs are energy efficiency, flexibility and comfort. KJS seeks to make the building more comfortable via the inclusion of greenery in the form of a sky garden and triple-volume sky terraces that will be filled with bamboos. The sky terraces are accessible every three floors, says Jackie.

“I want people to love coming to work because a lot of people dread coming to work. So, if you have a conducive environment at work, that helps,” says the former accountant turned housewife turned property developer.

She adds that the green spaces are intended to have a calming, meditative effect on occupants who need some time away from the office.

Arvind V Menon, deputy discipline manager of mechanical and engineering works at Ranhill Bersekutu, says the building has been designed to reduce power consumption to 150kW per sq m, which is 30% lower than the average office building’s usage.

Among the energy-efficient features is the single-destination lift system that directs crowds to their respective floors. This system was implemented in One Sentral, an office building in the KL Sentral integrated development that was also designed by Veritas.

Under the system, building tenants will be issued cards that are programmed to their specific floors, ensuring efficiency of energy usage and waiting periods, as well as security, Arvind says.

The lifts will also be installed with a flywheel that will help to generate power as the lifts go down, reducing power usage by 30%, he adds.

Upon completion, there will be three car park lifts and six lifts for the lower zone — from the ground floor to the 22nd floor, and to the higher zone from the 22nd floor onwards. Meanwhile, the office tower is expected to contain about 460 parking bays.

The air-conditioning system will feature a top-of-the-range central water-chilled air-conditioning system, which will receive incentives from the Malaysian Industrial Development Authority’s Environmental Management programme, says Arvind.

The building will also introduce a variable air volume system, which allows temperatures to be individually adjusted every 600 sq ft, maximising thermal comfort, he adds.
The family's home, before it was delished in , was located in the bustling Kuala Lumpur city centre.Dr Chua Boon Teck and wife Khor Joo Salk with sons Dr Chua Seong Seiw (left) and Chua Hooi Siew at the family home.
Flexibility is another bonus as areas such as server rooms can maintain the required coldness without having to rely on central air-conditioning for the entire floor, thus reducing cost.

Similarly, the lighting is adjustable in blocks of spaces 1,100 sq ft wide, accompanied by light sensors in the building periphery that turn off lights as the day gets brighter. The building will also feature motion sensors along toilets, bathrooms, corridors, car parks and other common areas that will trigger the lights when movement is detected.

“The car parks will be monitored by CCTVs. Access to the car parks will be controlled because all doors will be electronically locked and you will have to enter through the main lobbies,” says Arvind. Water-saving features include dual-flush bidets and low-usage taps.

Project manager David Hong says KJS has plans to allow up to two tenants per floor on the first 11 floors, although the company prefers tenants to occupy whole floors.

“The upper floors command a better premium. We want bigger tenants to take up more space on the upper floors,” he says.
The gross floor area is 473,000 sq ft while the net lettable area is 333,000 sq ft. The gross floor plate size is about 16,000 sq ft.

Guan-Hock says KJS is in discussions with some potential tenants, comprising multinational as well as local companies. “The marketing agent is Jones Lang Wootton. Rents will be very competitive despite the excellent location,” he says.

KJS also consulted feng shui expert Joey Yap and some amendments were made to the plans after receiving his feedback.

The company aims to split the retail space on the ground floor of the building into two, with a bank as the preferred anchor tenant taking up one half and the other half ideally occupied by food and beverage outlets.

Guan-Hock says there are plans for a gym on the premises. “We spend a lot more time at work than we do at home, sometimes,” he points out.

Menara Binjai is slated for completion in 4Q2011. However, over the next four years, some 10 million to 15 million sq ft of new office space is expected to come onto the market. Real estate consultants seem to be at odds on the best time for a project to come on stream.

Henry Butcher Marketing Sdn Bhd CEO Tang Chee Meng expects the bulk of new office space supply to become available in 2012.

“This means that any new office building completed in 2012 will face stiffer competition,” he tells City & Country.

“By being green-certified, Menara Binjai will have an edge over other buildings when it competes for multinational tenants committed to environmentally sustainable business practices. However, at this stage, tenants may not be prepared to pay a premium for such buildings,” he adds.

According to Tang, office rents in the the Kuala Lumpur city centre and Golden Triangle area, excluding the Petronas Twin Towers, range from RM5 to RM7 psf. KL Sentral office buildings command RM7 to RM8 psf, while central business district rents are anywhere from RM3.50 to RM5 psf.

“We see a possible increase in vacancy rates and softening in rents when the new office buildings are completed over the next three years,” he says.

However, CB Richard Ellis (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd executive director Paul Khong paints a more optimistic picture.

“It is still considered to be relatively timely to have new offices coming in 2011 and 2012, but anything after 2013 onwards will be very challenging,” he tells City & Country.

“Menara Binjai should fare reasonably well as it has the advantage of being located in a prominent part of Jalan Ampang and  right  next to the best LRT line which services KLCC and KL Sentral. A pre-leasing exercise will be crucial to secure a major anchor tenant upfront prior to its completion,” he says.

“Rents now range from RM4.50 for an older office building along Jalan Raja Chulan to about RM6 to RM6.50 psf for a new building in the KLCC-Jalan Ampang vicinity,” he adds.

“Rents peaked during 1H2008 and have dropped 10% to 15% since. Rents have now stabilised but with new supply coming through, we do not see much northward movement in the near future.”

As for the Chuas, what do they hope their elders will think of Menara Binjai?

“The family’s vision is that Menara Binjai will be a landmark ‘green’ office tower that pioneers cutting-edge sustainable features and design. Our aim is to attract progressive and forward thinking tenants.

“Our father, uncle and grandmother would be proud and happy that we are realising their vision and hard work,” says Guan-Hock.


This article appeared in City & Country, the property pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 821, Aug 30- Sept 5, 2010.

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