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Top Tips! Living The High Life

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No terrace? No yard? No problem. With a carefully decked-out balcony, you can enjoy time outdoors year round [PHOTOS COURTESY OF Adobe Stock, Hong Kong Outdoor Furniture & Everything Under The Sun]

Usable terraces and rooftops in Hong Kong come at a premium, and functioning yards are few and far between, even in Discovery Bay. Nonetheless, it seems everyone wants a little bit of the outside to come in – even when accompanied by the dulcet tones of jackhammers. Older buildings are hit and miss, but developers are increasingly building apartment blocks that include balconies.

How much a balcony is used comes down to a number of factors. How comfortable are you 101-storeys up? Is there any sort of view? Is it a good size or just a sliver suitable for waxing poetic with a dude in pantyhose? Either way, a balcony is a valuable bit of space that’s easy enough to exploit with a little thought and at a variety of price points.

If you own your flat, depending on the size and placement of the balcony, you could knock down a few walls and incorporate the space into the fundamental layout. This can be done assuming you meet specific requirements. First, you need to arrange for an authorised person to do the submission to the Buildings Department (BD) for Alteration and Addition work, which states the change of the outlook of the building and function of the balcony to that of a domestic area. If passed by the BD, you then need to have further approval in order to change the appearance of the building and you must assign a registered contractor to carry out the work. Also? No heavy loading where the original balcony was.

A balcony can be redesigned illegally of course – and on the cheap. It’s common enough but the downside is getting caught by the BD and being compelled to reinstate the balcony to its original state. No one is suggesting you try this in DB.

If you want to go down the legal route then you can enlarge the opening or windows, assuming the wall onto the balcony is not a structural wall. Visually that makes the apartment feels bigger. This involves calculating the spare allowable gross floor area, which often comes to a whopping zero, and then submitting plans to the BD. This is an option for owners as the process can be expensive. It will cost upwards of HK$70,000 for a trained accredited professional to do the plans and submit them.

Tenant or owner, the first step is always determining the end goal. What goes onto a small- to mid-sized balcony, how many uses the space will ultimately have and even considering which way it faces will solve those problems. And then it’s time to think about buying a few key pieces.

Traditionally, those 15, 25 or 50 square-feet have been put to totally prosaic ends: small balconies were used simply for hanging clothes or as a kids’ play area. It’s clear that functionality and size are interlinked but even the tiniest outdoor space can be better utilised. If your balcony is really cramped then you can add a small extendable table, one or two chairs and some plants to at least create a comfortable place to sit and relax. Go with your gut instinct – it makes perfect sense not to over-design miniature balconies, especially in rentals.

Hong Kong has one of the harshest environments in the world (a deadly cocktail of heat, sun, humidity and pollution), meaning you’re limited in your use of natural materials. Since maintenance and cleaning are issues, quick-dry foams and Sunbrella fabrics are your go-to. Fortunately, you can take a hose to almost all contemporary outdoor furniture, with synthetic rattan and weaves, synthetic leathers by Ferrari and so on. We’ve come a long way from plain old white plastic.

And the good news is that many existing pieces, that have perhaps become redundant inside the home, transfer well to a balcony. Myriad materials exist just as easily outdoors as in: the spectrum ranges from bamboo and cement, to rattan and wicker. If you like a timeless look, wood, particularly teak, which was originally used on boats, is a good bet. Let it weather to its natural silver grey, and it will last forever.

Arguably, no outdoor space is complete without a barbeque and happily, they now come as small as you like. Scads of websites and shops will bombard you with tips, but the key to choosing a barbeque comes down to the basics. First, go with gas not charcoal. Second, purchase brand-name items that come with strong product warranties, good customer support and are easily assembled. Third, choose a grill with at least 400 square inches of cooking space. There’s nothing worse than staggering too many items for larger gatherings, or making people wait during intimate dinners. Lastly, don’t get suckered by bells and whistles: select features that are essential, like stay-cool dials and adequate storage. Preparation surfaces are nice, but if space is limited, simply do your chopping in the kitchen.

If you’re lucky, light will spill outside from whatever room the balcony is accessed, but lighting, heating and cooling sometimes need to be considered. A licensed electrician can often rig a power source to run a small fan or space heater, helping you out in the dog days of summer and dead of winter. As for light retailers, you can unearth understated wall-mount lights inexpensively from IKEA or your friendly neighbourhood hardware store.

A novel alternative, providing both light and heat, is a fireplace. Yes, a fireplace. Safretti makes eco-friendly, space-saving fireplaces that do not require a power source, outlet, piping, or chimney. While the single-burner models are purely decorative, the regular models are strong enough to serve as outdoor heat sources. Check out the stackable, floor-standing Cube fireplace and the classic, wall-mounted Gaya: both are simple, elegant and compact.

Likewise, fire-pit tables are a chic al-fresco feature, giving off much-needed heat in the winter months. The perfect spot for friends and family to gather around and chat, they are also a great tool for toasting kebabs and of course, marshmallows. Taking it to the next level, Guy Ritchie’s Wild Table 4, which doubles as an outdoor grill and heater, provides a wow-factor focal point and is compact enough (1.22 metres long, 1.05 metres wide) to sit on even the smallest balcony.

If a little heat is all you need, however, there are plenty of stylish, free-standing, weather-proof heaters to choose from. Look to Hiland’s range of 360-degree radiant heaters that can be easily moved around and provide multi-directional, adjustable heat wherever needed. Stunning looking when lit, they’re guaranteed to make a statement without overpowering a small balcony.

And overpowering might just be a balcony decor’s cardinal sin. Don’t overcrowd it. That’s the biggest thing. At the end of the day, you won’t use it and it won’t be inviting. Go smaller rather than bigger and you’ll actually enjoy it more.

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