Building a $16 mil gem on Emerald Hill - 30 July 2017

By Cecilia Chow / The Edge Property / July 30, 2017 8:30 AM SGT
Tags: Emerald Hill

Homeowner Justine Toh talks about what it takes to create prized real estate that can be passed down through the generations

Toh’s double-storey terraced house on Emerald Hill Road

The conservation area of Emerald Hill Road, located off Orchard Road and Cairnhill Road in prime District 9, has just 150 terraced houses. Many of them were built at the turn of the 20th century by Singapore’s aristocracy and nouveaux riches, that is, the wealthy Chinese and Straits-Chinese merchants.

The Emerald Hill terraced houses reflect the shifts in architectural fashion that took place in the early 1900s, from the Transitional, Late and Art Deco Shophouse Styles to an architectural hybrid referred to as “Chinese baroque”, which features ornate doorways, plaster work, intricate wood carvings and ceramic tilework. URA declared Emerald Hill a conservation area in 1985 and gazetted it four years later. It includes Peranakan Place, a row of six double-storey conserved shophouses built in 1902 and fronting Orchard Road.

Singaporean Justine Toh, who owns a terraced house on Emerald Hill Road, likens the area to the Left Bank of Paris.

Deceptive exterior

Toh’s house is located near the top of Emerald Hill Road and looks like the other conserved terraced houses in the area. Once you enter the gate to the driveway lined with well-manicured plants and walk up the three steps to the entrance of the house, however, you are greeted by a cavernous living room with walls of silver travertine, limestone flooring and double- volume ceiling height.

Beyond the living room is the koi pond, with a massive skylight overhead and a flight of steps leading to the basement, which has been converted into a spacious home study with en suite bathroom. The second level of the house has two wings — the private wing at the front contains a master suite with en suite walk-in wardrobe, master bathroom and a loft that can be turned into an additional wardrobe area. Adjoining the master suite is the private gym. The public wing contains the dining room and kitchen on the first level, and a junior master suite and guest bedroom on the second level.

“A lot of people cannot visualise the size of the interior from the outside,” says Toh, who lives in the house with a helper and three huskies. “I like to build houses that give you the perception of space, with the high ceiling, skylight and muted colour palette.”


Toh, a self-taught home builder, interior designer and art collector, named her firm Artigiano (Italian for “artisan”). She started as a purveyor of well-crafted Italian furniture and antiques, and used her home as a showcase to help cus- tomers visualise how they could display them in their own homes. “But many would come back and ask me to help them display the pieces in their own homes,” she says. “And that’s how I ventured into interior design.”

One day, a client of many years asked Toh to speak to his architect on his behalf, as he did not like the way his house was being designed and built. She says, “I worked with the architect and enjoyed the process so much that I decided to become a builder.”

Toh was a partner in one of the largest Singapore and US law firms, specialising in banking and finance for more than 20 years before becoming senior counsel and global head of legal and compliance in Fortune 500 companies and financial institutions. When she was working full-time, interior design and home building was a passion she indulged in only on weeknights and weekends.

Toh had been investing in property for more than 20 years, though, focusing exclusively on homes in prime Districts 9 and 10. She purchased the terraced house on Emerald Hill Road in July 2008. This was just before the global financial crisis, when luxury condo prices were still at their peak and four-bedroom units in luxury condos in the Orchard Road neighbourhood were still going for more than $7 million. “That was when I stopped investing in condominiums because I just couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I could buy a freehold house in prime District 9 for the same price,” she relates. “So, I decided to buy and develop landed property instead.”

Patience rewarded

Toh was patient in her house hunt and knew exactly what she wanted. She had her eye on two units on Emerald Hill Road and asked her agents to approach the owners. After two years, one of the owners relented. The house was in a state of disrepair — the roof had been eaten by termites and it still had squat toilets.

The purchase also marked Toh’s maiden venture as a builder in a conservation area. “The typical conserved terraced house is usually quite dark, as there’s not much daylight coming in,” she says. “It’s therefore better to buy a unit whose interior can be remodelled for modern-day living.” And that was exactly what she did.

Construction of the house took two years because a year was spent securing regulatory approvals, particularly for the basement. The Building and Construction Authority (BCA) was concerned about the soil condition of Emerald Hill Road, as the area was originally plantation land before it became a residential neighbourhood in the early 1900s.

Toh and her architect bore three holes and found that the house was sitting on bedrock. As BCA was still unconvinced, they bore 10 other holes in various parts of the house, with the same results. It was only then that BCA was willing to approve the plans for the basement level. Excavation work cost about $250,000. “But when you’re sitting in the living room looking at the space, it is well worth it,” she says.

Luxury finishing and fittings

When it came to the silver travertine on the walls, Toh visited the quarry in Italy that produced it. She had to buy two slabs — one for each wall. They were cut and bookmatched, resulting in no visible break line throughout the two walls. The travertine had been shipped from Italy to the factory in Singapore, where it was cut again, and then transported to the house. The travertine cost about $250,000, and Toh estimates that it would cost $400,000 today.

Even the marble slabs in the bathrooms are larger than normal and also had to be bookmatched. Toh opted for limestone flooring for the ground and basement levels as it is porous and helps cool the house.

The latticework panels and privacy screens in the house as well as the doors and windows, staircases and flooring on the second level are of Burmese teak. Even the air-conditioning units are concealed by latticework panels of Burmese teak.

No detail has been overlooked. In the kitchen, the wood panelling and cabinetry are of Santos Palisander wood, an exotic South American wood. For Toh, no ordinary ceiling fan could adorn the living room — only a $5,000 Boffi one
would do. The house also boasts an audiophile sound system.

Even though the original terraced house was not a conserved property, Toh decided to have the façade designed in keeping with the conserved terraced houses in its vicinity.

All in, she spent about $3 million building the house. Today, if a homeowner were to replicate the building of the house using the same materials, it would cost closer to $5 million.

Toh: I’m happy because the house turned out exactly the way I had visualised it ‘Sense of space’

“I’m happy because the house turned out exactly the way I had visualised it,” she says. “I built this house so that I could come home to a calm place after work. And I love the fact that people have the same sense of space and tranquillity when they come in.”

Having enjoyed living in her house for eight years, Toh is now itching to embark on her next project. “I’m looking for a suitable site to build a Good Class Bungalow, and I already have an architect in mind,” she says.

Toh’s house sits on a freehold land area of about 2,450 sq ft with built-up space of around 6,000 sq ft. It is one of just 20 to 30 terraced houses in the Emerald Hill neighbourhood that comes with private parking.

“The houses with odd numbers on this side of Emerald Hill Road are prized for their private parking space,” says K L Goh, associate agency head of Century 21, exclusive agent for Toh’s house. “It’s also relatively quiet on this side of Emerald Hill Road, unlike some of those on the opposite side, where the rear end abuts the Central Expressway. Owing to the rarity of the houses on Emerald Hill Road, they appeal to collectors who want to buy and hold for the long term.”

The most recent transaction on Emerald Hill Road was that of a house sitting on a land area of 2,626 sq ft that fetched $10.8 million in February, according to a caveat lodged with URA Realis.

Meanwhile, the price tag on Toh’s home is $16 million. “Every house on Emerald Hill is different,” says Century 21’s Goh. “Her house was specially designed with imported materials.”

Toh concurs. “The buyer of this house will be getting a premium product.”

This article appeared in The Edge Property Pullout, Issue 790 (July 31, 2017) of The Edge Singapore