Post-WWII Tiong Bahru Walk-Up Gets Makeover After 72 Years
While it has been updated for modern-day living, most of the apartment’s original features were kept intact.
Interior Firm: Authors • Interior & Styling
While it has been updated with features that are comparable to those of a modern-day BTO flat’s, the bones of Alex and Claire’s (@36mgt) cosy contemporary Tiong Bahru walk-up apartment are much older, seeing as to how it’s located within a Moh Guan Terrace housing block which dates back to 1949.
Moh Guan Terrace at Tiong Bahru.
The flat’s spare bedroom in its original state.
“Compared to the other units that we saw, this one was the closest to what they would have looked like in the 1940s. The rest had already been renovated or gone through extensive refurbishments,” says Claire. “The previous owner left it exactly the way it was when she inherited it from her parents.”
And just like its last occupant, Alex and Claire were keen to preserve the apartment’s original features, but at the same time give it the upgrades they needed. So, what stayed and what went? To find out the details, we spoke to the couple who worked with Authors • Interior & Styling to pull off this home makeover.
About themselves and their home
The communal area, pre-renovation.
Alex (A): Whenever we travel, Claire and I’ll tend to look for Airbnb rentals in rustic neighbourhoods where there’s lots of heritage. And Tiong Bahru is basically Singapore’s equivalent of that – it’s why we like the area so much. So, when we started looking for a home in November last year, we actively looked for a walk-up apartment in the vicinity.
Claire (C): Surprisingly, the process wasn’t as taxing as we thought it would be. We were able to find this unit that had its slatted windows and panelled doors all in one piece. I feel that such fixtures are worth preserving because they can’t be found in HDB flats anymore, and almost all the other flats we viewed in this area had theirs removed by this point.
The layout of this unit was also kept intact by the previous owner, and we like it a lot; there are little corners in the house that we can retreat to whenever we need privacy. I’d say that’s the biggest benefit of keeping the original layout.
The floor plan of Alex and Claire’s home, post-renovation.
The age of the flat is 72 years old. It was built in 1949, but the lease was extended by HDB in 1973, which means there’s about 50 years left.
Other than that, we aren’t too sure about the history of the flat aside from the fact that it was developed by the SIT (Singapore Improvement Trust), but is now managed by HDB, and that it was the previous owners’ childhood home. She’s in her late 60s now, so we’re sure this place holds plenty of memories for her.
WATCH: Authors • Interior & Styling designer Eleven takes us through the apartment's renovation process
On the entryway and living room’s makeover
The main entrance before the renovation
C: One thing that we kept completely intact is the main door – it’s in good condition for its age, but one thing that it doesn’t have is a functioning peephole. There were so many layers of paint covering it that we gave up on trying to scrape them off.
The tiled half-wall between the entrance and the kitchen was an idea that our designer from Authors, Eleven, came up with. It’s the only feasible way to fill this space up. The entryway is quite narrow, so we wouldn’t be able to accommodate any storage fixtures here even if we wanted to. As it is, the movers already had a hard time bringing in our washing machine and fridge.
Also, we were very lucky that our large appliances managed to fit through the main door because we didn’t measure how wide they were before buying them. And that’s why, for me, the most anxious part of the entire [home makeover] process will always be the afternoon when these items were delivered. (laughs)
The living room, pre-renovation.
A: The living room is basically a space for us to relax. It’s a Netflix corner that’s just right for two people. If we have guests, there are side chairs that we can pull out so that everybody can gather in front of the TV.
For the TV console and sofa, we deliberately looked for ones that were made of wood because we knew that they’d stand out against all the concrete surfaces. Claire really likes curves and lines, so she chose this rounded TV console. For me, I prefer furniture with mid-century modern vibes like our pencil-legged sofa. Both pieces are from Rooma.
About the home office’s new look
The passageway leading to the home office, pre-renovation.
A: This workspace was a must-have that we had in mind even before our first meeting with Eleven. When we first came in to look at the unit, we knew at once that there was potential for this space to be a home office/chill-out area, mainly because of the unobstructed view of the surroundings.
We told Eleven about our idea, and he suggested building a customised workbench that can function as a laptop desk in the day and as a bar table at night. It’s the reason why this is our favourite space in the house – the entire set-up looks and feels like a window-side seat in a café.
“Another thing that we wanted were bamboo blinds,” shares Alex. “We didn’t want curtains because they wouldn’t match the theme of our house, and considering the size of our windows, they’d probably be harder to maintain.”
Aside from the slatted indoor windows and the transoms above the room doors, we also kept the master bedroom’s original floor tiles, but not all of them.
I think the previous owner had a childhood friend whose family owns a tile factory, so she was able to collect unwanted pieces, which she then pasted on the master bedroom’s floor across the years. During the renovation, the Authors team salvaged some of the loose pieces and embedded them into the supports of our work bench to give it more character.
On making over the dining area
C: The dining table was entirely Eleven’s idea. I wanted to have an island, but there wasn’t enough space for one, so he suggested the idea of a built-in [table] that could also be used for food prep. This concept resonated with us because such a table could also be the focal point of our entire home.
One of the table’s supports is made entirely of bricks that are coated with micro-cement, and we had the contractor carve away one of the sides to leave them exposed – it’s a representation of our belief that not everything in our home must be clean-cut and that there’s beauty in imperfection.
Wood-look laminates keep the flat’s existing concrete ceiling beams and new overhead aircon trunking concealed.
About renovating the kitchen
C: The kitchen used to be a closed-off space that didn’t have a stove, or any cooking appliances installed inside. I believe all the previous owner had was a portable electric cooker.
There was plenty of hacking done for this part of the house. First, the kitchen entrance had to be demolished, but we requested to leave some of the original raw bricks at the sides to mirror the design of the dining table’s support. The fixtures were next to go, such as the kitchen sink and stovetop, and finally the flooring – which posed the biggest challenge of the entire renovation.
The kitchen before it was renovated.
Due to its age, when the waterproofing layer of the floor was removed, it caused water to leak into the unit below, and that was something that we definitely had to remedy quickly.
Also, another notable challenge that we faced was with the protruding structural beam beside our cabinets. It wasn’t reflected in the floor plans that we were given, which meant we couldn’t follow through with our original idea to keep the fridge flushed with our built-ins.
About reconfiguring the common bathroom
The common bathroom prior to its renovation.
A: The common bathroom is the only bathroom in the entire house, and it used to have two cubicles on the inside, one for the shower and another for the WC. We didn’t see the point of keeping such a layout because of how claustrophobic it felt.
Most of our sanitaryware is black to match the matcha green tiles in the shower. I like how there’s some variation in the colour gradient of the tiles. And in a way, that’s sort of a recurring theme throughout our house; there isn’t much uniformity because we like having diversity in design.
C: I’m not a fan of glass shower enclosures. I find that they’re hard to maintain because of how easily water stains accumulate on them. Also, in our previous home, there was plenty of moisture and very little air circulation within the bathroom, which led to a build up of mould all the time.
So, to avoid encountering the same issue here, we asked Eleven to create a glass block partition that would not only prevent water from spilling over into the dry areas, but also keep the wet ones well-ventilated.
The sink in the common bathroom used to be located in the yard, but to accommodate our washing machine and heater, we had it removed and got Eleven to build a new vanity here.
But due to the size of our bathroom, the vanity could only be built in the corner, it’s in the only spot where it wouldn’t pose an obstacle to movement between the entrance and the WC.
The apartment’s service yard where the utility sink used to be.
On the master bedroom’s new look
The master bedroom and its mosaic tile floor before the renovation.
A: In terms of bedroom furnishings, we went no-frills with just a minimalist bedframe and an open-concept wardrobe system that we bought from IKEA. Even for lighting, all we have is a pair of hanging exposed bulbs, just to keep things simple. The logic is that this room is just a place that we use to rest, so it doesn’t have to be especially nice or fancy.
The positioning of our bed wasn’t intentional, having it face the windows was just the easiest way to deal with the challenge of figuring out an optimal room layout. That said, it’s something we welcome because there’s plenty of natural light and ventilation coming in from the yard, which is located just right outside our bedroom.
To sum up
C: I’m a light sleeper who doesn’t enjoy getting roused before it’s time to wake up, especially on my off days. So, considering how Tiong Bahru is a busy area during the weekend and that I’m still able to get ample rest, we did make the right choice in choosing this unit.
A: Claire recently told me that she feels like she’s staying in an Airbnb and I find it hard to disagree. I think Eleven and his team did a great job in capturing the rustic vibe that we wanted, as well as preserving many aspects of the flat’s original architecture.
Although the remaining lease is an issue that our peers have pointed out, we don’t think that it’s a big concern to us, simply because we see this place as a long-term home and not an investment. Just like the previous owner, we’re planning to stay here for as long as we can! (laughs)
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