Hot and bothered over condo's cooling towers

The saga behind a resident's fight to save Leonie Towers' central air-con system

View of Leonie Towers (white) from the Rivershire, on March 17, 2017. Tower A is nearer to camera and Tower B is on the right.
View of Leonie Towers (white) from the Rivershire, on March 17, 2017. Tower A is nearer to camera and Tower B is on the right. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

In 1979, Madam Yap Choo Moi moved into the Leonie Towers condominium off Orchard Road.

Over the past four decades, the businesswoman has never installed air-conditioning in her home. Instead, she has relied on the condo's central air-con system, which is serviced by cooling towers on the rooftop.

When the vast majority of her neighbours decided to have the ageing towers dismantled last year, Madam Yap, 67, objected - and hired a lawyer to fight her case.

She won.

In an interview with The Sunday Times last week, held in her well-furnished living room, Madam Yap, who is also known as Ms Lee Lee Langdale, said: "I've been very happy with the system and have been using it for years... If there are any problems with it, it should be fixed."

Leonie Towers' central air-conditioning system - serviced by cooling towers on the rooftop - is used by 40 per cent of residents. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI


She got her wish when the Strata Titles Board (STB) earlier this month blocked the management corporation's (MC) bid to dispose of the cooling towers.

The saga began last September, when the MC held an extraordinary general meeting about removing the system.

It had existed for almost twice its estimated service life of 20 years.

Consulting engineers had found, among other things, that the system's steel piping had corroded, requiring expensive replacements.

Its water quality was poor, meaning that there was the likelihood that the water droplets contained bacteria that, when breathed in, could cause a type of pneumonia known as Legionnaires' disease.

At the meeting, unit owners were told that major repairs would cost $520,000 and a replacement system would cost $750,000, while removing it would cost only $85,000.

Leonie Towers comprises 92 units in two 25-storey tower blocks. Each tower is serviced by two central cooling towers.

With just 40 per cent of residents using them - the rest had installed their own air-con units, the majority decided that the towers should just be dismantled. The MC's proposal was backed by 82 per cent of unit owners.

The unit owners then enacted a by-law under the Building Maintenance and Strata Management (BMSM) Act to empower the MC to proceed.

But Madam Yap applied to the STB to invalidate the by-law, and succeeded. Now, the cooling towers will stay put.

"We went to the STB because that was the only thing we could do if the condo is doing something that we think it shouldn't be doing," said Madam Yap's husband, Mr Roger Gaimster Langdale, 81, a retired accountant.

  • Keeping cool in the heat

    •In general, cooling towers extract waste heat to the atmosphere. In air-conditioning systems, they chill water to run the air-con.

    •Part of the maintenance fees that Leonie Towers' owners pay goes towards the upkeep of the cooling towers. But each owner's electricity bill depends on how often he switches on the air-conditioning.

The couple, who did not want to be photographed, declined to say how much they spent on legal fees, and whether ties with their neighbours have been affected. Mr Langdale is part of the condo's management council.

Madam Yap had told the STB that she relied on the cooling towers and removing them would require her to install a new system, which would "lower her quality of life". She declined to explain further.

Another unit owner who wants the system retained, a housewife who wanted to be known only as Mrs Wu, 70, told The Sunday Times: "The central air-con system was something we always had. It's working well, why demolish it?"

The board ruled that no provision in the BMSM Act or the Land Titles (Strata) Act allows for an MC to dispose of common property.

"It is noteworthy that even when this could be done, it could only be done by way of a unanimous resolution," it added in judgment grounds issued on March 3.

The MC will be holding another extraordinary general meeting on Friday to decide if it should appeal and, if so, pay the legal costs - estimated to be up to $60,000 - using management funds.

Another battle looms.

Mrs Wu said of the MC's plan to appeal: "Why would we use our own money to fight ourselves?"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 19, 2017, with the headline 'Hot and bothered over condo's cooling towers'. Print Edition | Subscribe