- Renee Zecha and her husband Christopher Wood spent 10 years building a clifftop villa in Bali.
- It was a difficult plot of land: The site was split by a 15-meter-deep gully.
- Today, Uluwatu Estate is a sprawling set of interconnected walkways and villas that lead through the grounds.
Renee Zecha and her husband Christopher Wood first set eyes on the plot of land in 2002. They were in Uluwatu, one of the most remote parts of Bali. The plot of land in question was arid and inaccessible, perched at the top of a cliff. But when Zecha and Wood reached the end of the country road, they discovered the site’s true beauty.
“There was nothing to indicate there might be something special at the end of it,” said Zecha. “But when I saw it, I was blown away. The view is a million dollars.”
Zecha, a former investment banker, had stumbled across the plot of land by accident.
“It was a poor and arid region of Bali. Nobody wanted it,” said Zecha. But to Zecha, who was born on the island of Java, Uluwatu was something special: It was a piece of the Bali she remembered as a child.
“Bali has become quite built up. But Uluwatu was the only place in Bali where nothing had really developed, except for a few surfing huts and beach cafes,” Zecha told Insider. “We thought there won’t be much opportunity to buy land on the coast in Bali for much longer, so we grabbed it.”
A difficult beginning
As an Indonesian, Zecha was able to buy the land, but as she was building a home in Switzerland and renovating a home in Singapore, she waited until 2009 to break ground. She declined to share how much she purchased the land for.
The plot of land was not without its complications. For one, the clifftop site was split by a 15-meter-deep gully.
To design the home, Zecha worked with architecture firm Tristan & Ju. Architect Juliana Chan said the length of the site was the biggest concern. “The most stunning part of the plot is at the end where it overlooks the Indian Ocean,” Chan told Insider. “The challenge for us was how to plan the spaces, so that one can enjoy the journey of going through the villa without feeling the sheer length of the site.”
Zecha’s biggest wish for the property was that she wouldn’t lose the view.
By terracing the land and placing the villa on different levels, the design team made sure the ocean was visible from every room, including from the back of the house. That’s how Uluwatu Estate became a sprawling set of interconnected walkways and villas that lead through the grounds and across the gully to the clifftop view.
The real work begins
When work first began, the plot didn’t have electricity or water, so the construction team had to install a generator and water mains. Large construction vehicles couldn’t make it up the winding roads that led to the clifftop site, so the rocky limestone landscape needed to be cleared with small vehicles — and even manually.
The excavated limestone didn’t need to travel far: It was repurposed in the villa’s walls and foundations.
Palimanan stone from the volcanic isle of West Java was used to line the walkways and solid teakwood was carved into furnishings. Traditional Balinese tools were turned into art installations for the walkways, and 400-year-old mercury jars that had been salvaged from shipwrecks in Java were used to create statement lights in the home.
While Zecha declined to share how much the build cost, she admitted they spent much more on the furnishings than they did on the 5,000 square meters of land they bought. “The land was good value back in the day,” said Zecha.
It was seven years before Zecha and her family could live in the property, and a further three years before it was complete. “I was being very Indonesian,” Zecha said of the unhurried process. “You go with the flow.”
A build in three stages
At the beginning of the build, three giant volcanic boulders were shipped from East Java, then craned and cemented into the courtyard. The home grew around them.
“The rocks had to be big in order to stand out amongst the big trees,” said Chan. “We wanted their form to be unusual so that they serve as sculptural objects in a landscape gallery.”
During the first four years of the build, the team created the living areas and four bedrooms. They also built a bridge across the gully in the garden and perfected the infinity pool.
Zecha knew she wanted to share the villa, which is why she built four more bedrooms — and a spa — in the second phase. Each bedroom became a specially designed apartment, from the Tosari Suite with its koi carp-filled ponds that wrap around the room, to the teak-filled Bromo Suite with its frangipani-scented courtyard.
In the third phase of the build, a two-story building was created at the back of the house with space for a games room and an office for staff members.
A giant runway to the ocean
Before the pandemic, Zecha would visit the villa every two months and stay for up to four weeks at a time. Now she can’t wait to return. “Once I am there I don’t want to leave,” said Zecha. “It is very peaceful and the view is magical.”
When Zecha isn’t in Bali, she rents the villa to guests. Angelina Ypma, consultant and former managing director for Bulgari, stayed at the villa with her family when it first opened.
“It was like discovering a hidden gem,” said Ypma, who lives in Hong Kong. The pared-down luxury aesthetic appealed to her, as did the villa’s soundtrack, created by the rhythmic pounding of the waves on the shore.
Ypma also embraced the drama of the home’s layout. She told Insider: “Uluwatu Estate is like a giant runway leading all the way to the edge of the cliff.”