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House Tour: Redesigning this corner terrace in Serangoon Gardens for retirement

The underground bedroom. PHOTO: UPSTAIRS

When senior IT veteran Koh Sim Hock retired a few years ago, he didn't celebrate by getting a new car or take off on a leisurely round-the-world cruise. Instead, he decided to completely rebuild his ageing corner terrace, located near Serangoon Gardens.

Creative director Dennis Cheok, of design firm UPSTAIRS_, was given the task of crafting a brand-new home for the family of seven. Mr Cheok says he not only had to take into account the diverse lifestyle needs of the large family, the design also had to incorporate Mr Koh's deep roots in Chinese culture.

But what sounded straightforward on paper wasn't the case in reality. For example, when the walls of the 40-year-old home were demolished, Mr Cheok discovered that the old structural frame was in such a state of disrepair that a redesign of the reinforcement structure was required.

The exterior is made up of bricks and moveable timber screens. PHOTO: UPSTAIRS

Meanwhile, there were also the family's high expectations to take into account. Mr Koh, his wife, their son and his wife, a daughter and her partner and another daughter had grown weary of the old home. "Each family member saw the renovation as a chance to fulfil their aspirations for the home," says Mr Cheok.

As the family often entertains, Mr Cheok configured the ground floor as a series of open and interconnected spaces. Exterior walls were removed, and replaced with sliding glass doors and moveable timber screens, making the living room look like a private space, or an open pavilion.

Stairs leading to the underground suite. PHOTO: UPSTAIRS

Even before the house was rebuilt, Mr Koh's son was already living in the basement. But since he was getting married, he asked for it to be re-designed as a self-contained apartment. As basements tend to be dark, Mr Cheok had the perimeters of the bedroom tucked back to allow slivers of natural light to fall into the lowest level of the home.

The other bedrooms are on the second floor, and Mr Cheok injected subtle personal touches in each of them. For one daughter who loves animals and nature, he created a semi-outdoor space for her pets and also placed a tree trunk in the middle of her room, which appears to grow from the floor, and up through the ceiling.

The top-most level, is where Mr Koh has his own space, which is accessible only from his bedroom. Affectionately termed the 'Sky Room', the space opens out to an outdoor terrace, which overlooks the neighbourhood. "We designed the space specifically for Mr Koh himself - where he can enjoy moments of solitude over the course of his retirement years, with his large collection of books and mementos," says Mr Cheok.

Even though each family member had different wants, Mr Cheok says it was imperative to maintain the house as a unified, singular vision. "Otherwise, given the complexity of the site, brief and multiple users - it could have resulted in fragments," adds Mr Cheok.

To give the home a coherent look, Mr Cheok cladded the facade in bricks. Not ordinary bricks, but 100-year-old clay bricks reclaimed from demolished villages in Northern China, which were shipped to Singapore.

The living area, which is now more suited for entertaining. PHOTO: UPSTAIRS

Mr Koh originally wanted his home to have a Chinese aesthetic, which his children were not in favour of. Mr Cheok also questioned the value of doing so within a modern-day Singapore context. The problem was solved when Mr Cheok stumbled upon a single piece of the antique brick, and decided to use that for the house.

The grey bricks were extraordinarily brittle, heavy and had an unusually flat profile, compared with modern local red bricks. Mr Cheok and Mr Koh both loved the antique bricks for their aged patina. Mr Cheok explains that every crack, paint stain, or coal-burnt mark on the brick surface tells a story of its origins. "Such historic nuances would be challenging to duplicate with modern materials," says Mr Cheok.

The sky deck which overlooks the neighbourhood. PHOTO: UPSTAIRS

While the antique bricks look beautiful, their brittleness made it difficult to build an architectural shell out of them. "We were forced to consider replicating the antique bricks with modern lightweight materials, an alternative which was, thankfully, resisted by Mr Koh," says Mr Cheok.

For his efforts, the house, which took over three years to complete, won Mr Cheok a gold award and a luminary award in the residential category at the Singapore Interior Design Awards 2017.

Mr Koh says he is extremely fond of his new home. He especially loves the varied wall textures formed by the antique clay bricks, which complement the natural textures and tones of timber and granite throughout the interior spaces.

"This marks the beginning of my retirement years," says Mr Koh of the completed house. "It's been two years now and I've spent much of my time at home, enjoying the comfort it brings me. The house feels timeless, elegant, serene; close to nature and yet without losing touch with modernity.'"

This story was first published in The Straits Times. Click here to read the original story. 

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