Gary Fell on tropical villas, inhabited landscapes, and green design

Gary Fell on tropical villas, inhabited landscapes, and green design

Beyond the drawing board

Text: Denise Kok

Image: Samujana

Where less is more

Gary Fell is no stranger to villas. The founder of Gfab Architects has birthed a flight of award-winning villas across Thailand, Indonesia, and India, all of which take form under his keen eye for all things contemporary. Forget villas that fete the 'exotic orient' from façade to interior, Fell's creations are informed by a cool, clean aesthetic the Patrick Batemans of the world would approve of. Our recent visit to Samujana, a luxury villa estate in Koh Samui, brought us face-to-face with his architectural genius: calculated views that sweep straight into the sea, lines of measured beauty, and interiors that segue gracefully into the landscape. Fell lets us in on his method and madness.  

The villas you design bear a distinct style underscored by clean, geometric lines. There is also a generous sense of space, featuring indoor and outdoor areas merging with the landscape. How did this come about?

The project was constructed over a long period of time — the first phase actually began in 2003. The site was dotted with magnificent rock outcrops and mature trees, so from the beginning, we wanted to have a sense of "living with" these lovely landscape features by incorporating them into the villa design.

Gary Fell of Gfab Architects on Samujana villas

Given a kind climate, it was a logical extension to create villas which were all about openness and the relationship with nature. This extended into an approach which prioritised passive cooling, which in turn lead to the landscaped roofs and pronounced cross ventilation. Rocks excavated from the site were used as part of the cladding and the strong geometric aspect of the villas was intended to form a counterpoint to the landscape. The concept was always that such lines were seen in the background though, attenuated by planting and seen through the leaves of trees. For us, the project is essentially a landscape rather than a series of villas.


While the villas on the estate sit in relatively close proximity to each other, all you see from each are the magnificent views of the sea and surrounding greens. How did you manage to achieve that? 

We modeled the whole project to ensure there were no overlooking issues and great views were possible from all villas. Right from the beginning, we decided to develop the site as what might be termed as an "inhabited landscape'', featuring the prevailing use of green roofs and water bodies. This effectively guarantees that no views are blocked by pitched roofs and what can be seen of other villas is confined to landscaped roof gardens.

Tell us more about how you integrated environmentally-friendly features into the design of your villas.

Our approach was to focus on passive cooling techniques through the basic layout as well as design, and have the pools and gardens double up as roofs. In terms of technology, we took the "KISS" (Keep It Simple Stupid) approach; Koh Samui isn't terribly well developed from the infrastructural side and we opted to simplify things to what might be seen as quite basic, allowing the owners and guests to simply enjoy their villas without worrying about complex systems malfunctioning.


Which is by far your favourite villa?

This is a question I find hard to answer. The phrase "can't see the wood for the trees" comes to mind; we are far too close to the project to be meaningfully picking out favourites. 
In the same way a composer might describe his music, I see the villas as a series of variations. I tend to consider them as a whole, rather than a collection of individual parts. However, some villas stand out over others. The newer buildings, such as villas 28, 21, 26 and 30, all have unique qualities I enjoy. Villas 1, 5, 6, 7, 8, 14 and 18 from the phase-one build are my favourites too; some are very early villas and have a sentimental value. 


What are you reading at the moment?

What an interesting question! I read a lot and believe it's essential as a means of broadening one's perspective. As I read extensively for work, on my days off, I tend to read things which are not related to the job. I juggle a few books at the same time: novels, history books or biographical tomes, and always something relating to my profession. Lately, I've been reading the novels of Lars Kepler (I love Scandinavian authors!) and Peter Ackroyd's History of England

To learn more about the villas designed by Fell, click here

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