Bringing the old back to life

Visionary new developers are helping to preserve Bangkok's historic buildings by converting them into quality boutique hotels

House No.114 in Soi Damnoen Klang Tai, near Democracy Monument, was once the kind of place that gave passers-by goose-bumps. Neither painted nor decorated, the teak wood colonial-style house exuded an air of desolation. But despite its age, the foundations were strong and solid. Built in 1945 in the reign of King Rama VIII, the house belonged to the late ML Ditsaphong Noppawong Na Ayudhaya and his wife Salee.

Baan Noppawong, before and after renovation (below). PHOTO courtesy of Baan Noppawong

Photo: Pawat Laopaisarntaksi

Now that eerie image is a thing of the past. The house got a new lease of life when the daughter of the owners decided to renovate it and turn it into a boutique hotel. The renovation is the family's labour of love. Kantasom Noppawong Na Ayudhaya, ML Ditsaphong's nephew and at that time a graduate from architecture school at King Mongkut's Institute of Technology, took care of the redesign and renovation work that began five years ago.

Mon Lodge & Yoga Don Muang. Photos Courtesy of Mon Lodge and Yoga Don Muang

"My parents just spotted the opportunity," said Kantasom. "The home is in Rattanakosin Island, one of the world's most famous tourist spots, and our house has cultural and historical value to offer." Kantasom is now the manager of Baan Noppawong boutique hotel, a handsome place that was once a dilapidated relic. His effort is an example of an emerging trend of what's termed "commercialising conservation", in which people renovate old houses into commercial property while preserving historical and architectural value. During the past five years, individuals have redeveloped old houses, neglected buildings and rundown town houses into boutique hotels or B&B accommodation. The model adds value to the place as well as to the urban landscape, and seems to help find new meaning for properties that are forgotten and waiting to be torn down. Usually, mainstream property development demolishes old buildings in order to construct new ones. But the commercialising conservation renovation trend, however, tackles two hot-button issues at once. There is a concentration of old-house-turned-boutique-hotels in the old quarters of Bangkok. Ban Dinsor, Sam Sen Sam Place, Old Bangkok Inn and Kantasom's Baan Noppawong are prime examples of how the old-fashioned has become cool — without the cost of destroying the past. These small, family-run hotels feature a small number of rooms, nostalgic decor, and most of them are recommended in the popular travel website TripAdvisor.

"The challenge of renovating old houses is about how to preserve highly valuable details and how to add new functions into an old house," said Kantasom. The house that became Baan Noppawong hotel was built with high quality materials, some derived from imported materials from Japanese military warehouses. Despite this, precious elements such as wood stencils, handcrafted by Chinese craftsman from Shanghai, still remain. Kantasom paid attention to every detail to ensure all valuable elements from his grandfather's time are well preserved.

The 27-year-old appears reluctant to be called a "hotelier". He sees himself working in "a creative economy".

"What we do is just add value from what we already have through the means of creativity," said Kantasom, who has now opened a new business offering consultant services on renovation of Thai vintage houses and also lectures on boutique hotel management. In the past year or so, the trend has spread to other, less glamorous parts of the city.

"At first, I thought about knocking the old building down and rebuilding a new one. We are accustomed to think that it is better to build new things, aren't we?," said Chotirat Apiwattanapong, owner of Yim Huai Khwang, a boutique hotel in the non-touristy destination of Soi Pracharat Bamphen, in Huai Khwang. Chotirat found the building two years ago when he surveyed property to open a boutique hotel. It was serendipity. Among many new buildings in the area, it was this neglected two-storey building, a few minutes walking distance from the MRT line, that caught his attention. Chotirat said the building has its own charm. Built during the 80s, the front has a huge facade and some design elements such as the rooftop, air ventilation space and welded iron panels for windows and hand rails were too quaint and cute to be torn down.

Baan Tepa boutique hotel, built during the reign of King Rama VII, was restored at a cost of 2 million baht. Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill

Supermachine, a famous architecture firm that designed modern buildings for Bangkok University, was commissioned to bring new life to the old, deserted building that once served as a sales office for a condominium project. Once it was done, almost every design and architectural magazine in Thailand ran the story and photos of it. The place also received rave reviews in travel websites and is now well-known among young travellers, from Asia and Europe.

What does it take to convert old homes into chic hotels? Nostalgia and cash, apparently. But like Kantasom said, this is a creative business that requires imagination and good design sense. Investment is essential, but with smart design skills and good eyes, it's possible to bring magic to what's written off as useless.

Santi Booncharoen and his business partners spent 2 million baht to renovate an 80-year-old colonial house in Sri Ayutthaya Soi 9 into a boutique hotel named Baan Tepa. The house was built 80 years ago during the reign of King Rama VII. A few years back, it was in a sorry state and about to fall apart. With a limited budget, Santi renovated the structure, gave it a facelift and gradually developed new facilities.

"People said we should complete the whole renovation before opening the hotel, but I think the renovation of old houses is like an ongoing story in itself," said Santi.

This shophouse was turned into the ultra chic Yim Huai Khwang Hostel. Photo courtesy of Yim Huai Khwang Hostel

Guests will sometimes find Santi installing new paintings or carrying out some minor decoration work.

"Some guests do not like it but others see it as something unique, like they're present when something is being transformed," he said. Despite the do-it-yourself character of the place, Baan Tepa has received the 2014 certificate of excellence from TripAdvisor. 

What if you do not have a cool vintage house or a few million baht to start with? Then the success of Mon Lodge & Yoga, an up-and coming B&B opposite Don Mueang airport, might inspire you. Located in an old-style community — again in an unglamorous and non-touristy part of town — the two-storey house looks ordinary. The business idea started four years ago when two daughters decided to turn their 30-year-old home into a B&B by seeking advice from experts. The renovation cost around 800,000 baht, to create a modern look and add one bedroom, from the original three to four. 

"I do a lot of simple construction work such as installing some panels or shades. I shop a lot at IKEA," said Napaphat Iamcharoen, the youngest daughter of the family, who runs the hotel and also teaches yoga. 

"The B&B looks a lot like home, and guests still need to use the shared, immaculately clean bathroom. I do not want it to look like a hotel because it is still home and I look at those guests as my friends."

Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill

Stories of ingenious renovations from these creative entrepreneurs might inspire anyone to jump into this industry. And if the trend continues, the winners are not just those investors, but the city, community and local businesses, said Woraphan Klampaiboon, architect and owner of Samsen 5 Lodge, and expert on developing old houses into boutique hotels.  

"Converting old houses into a boutique hotel helps to add value to a property and helps improve the environment of the local community," said Woraphan.

"Boutique hotels need to look pleasant and developers must have good relations with the community. You will see that any community with boutique hotels look better."

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