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Modernism Meets Heritage in This 1960s Tiong Bahru HDB Flat

June 11, 2018
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Although Sarah and Gabriel started their hunt for their dream home in the East – an area that the couple were familiar with – little did they know they would land an apartment in one of Singapore's hippest enclaves.

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The property in question? A dingy, circa-1960s three-room flat, which required plenty of work before it would reflect its current “light, airy, and modern” aesthetic. “We saw the potential, but there was a lot to be done because the house was in its original state when we bought it,” Gabriel shares.

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home renovation tiong bahru
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The balcony (top) and bedroom (bottom) before the renovation

Eight months – and one approximately $60,000 renovation – later, Sarah and Gabriel now live in a fully-refreshed home that they can truly call their own. Thoroughly transformed, every space in the house now features modern-contemporary design elements including clean lines, natural elements, and of course, the couple's preferred palette of white-and-wood.

“I guess we are very lucky to own this flat. Because it’s an older property with plenty of usable space, it definitely feels bigger than current four-room flats or ECs, even though it’s a three-room HDB,” says Sarah about her rejuvenated home. “We definitely love how it looks right now.”


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Qanvast (Q): How did you know that this house was the ‘right one’? What made it different from others?

Sarah (S): It was a just a hunch, we just felt it (the house) was the right one, even though it left quite the impression on our first visit.

The entire place was in a poor state and smelled funky, but even so it was clear that there was plenty of potential because of the amount of usable space. I also found it interesting that the windows are taller than those in newer HDBs.

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Q: Did you have any concerns moving into a 50 year-old property?

S: We didn’t have any major concerns, both our parents were pretty chill about it too.

G: I think the only consideration was the limit on how much of our HDB home loan could be paid using CPF.

If I recall correctly, we were told that payments up to the 8th year could be made using CPF, but the rest had to be paid in cash because this is an older property.

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Q: Prior to the renovation, did you have any ideas of what your home would look like in the future?

S: We knew from the start that the (slatted) windows would be kept as part of the new design. Also, because the house was quite bright during the day, we wanted the design to be light and clean – that is our preferred aesthetic.

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Q: Did you enlist any designer(s) to remodel your home?

G: There’s a bit of a twist to the story of how we found our designer.

While doing our homework, Sarah and I came across a France-based interior design company that we liked. However, we were told that the cost of their designer's flight to Singapore would have to come out of our pockets, and we changed our minds.

A few months later, the same company contacted us again, telling us that they completed (renovations for) another house in Tiong Bahru recently, and that they could hook us up with its owner for a home tour. Turns out, she (the owner) is a part-time designer for the company, so we ended up hiring her.

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Q: That’s an interesting story! What was your initial design brief like?

S: We wanted plenty of storage. Gabriel has a vinyl collection, and I needed a way to keep my books organised as well.

On top of that, we wanted a dining/hosting area with an open concept layout – because we have friends who visit quite frequently – as well as a private study and an exercise corner. Based on these requirements, our designer then did some space planning and segregated the house into the clearly-defined zones that you see today.

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Q: On the flip side, were there any design elements and/or styles that you wanted to avoid?

S: We didn’t want the house to look an industrial-style café, so exposed piping was a no-no. Also, there isn’t much light wood because Scandinavian wasn’t the style we wanted.

We intended to do up the kitchen backsplash in Peranakan tiles as well, but the idea was abandoned in favour of a glass layer. Gabriel and I are going to be living here for a long time to come so it’s best to keep things practical.

Q: If any, what were some of the lessons that you learnt from this renovation?

S: Yes, we definitely learnt a thing or two. For example, the designers taught us how lighting could be used to create a cosy environment, and it’s the reason why we now have cove lights installed in the false ceiling.

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Q: What would you say is the big-ticket item of your renovation?

G: Actually, we aren’t exactly sure what the most expensive item is. We were charged a lump sum of $60,000 for the entire renovation, but I believe it's a fair price since we got $90,000-plus quotes from other designers that we approached.

Q: Last but not least, could you tell us which part of your new home you spend the most time in?

S: Definitely the recreation room. Our designer suggested that we should have our TV tucked away in there instead of the dining area, which is our main living space. Because of that, we spend plenty of time in the recreation room watching TV shows and whenever we have friends over for movie nights. We even have our meals in there sometimes! (laughs).

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