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Conserve facade, owners of pre-war units told

Some new residents living in conservation flats in Tiong Bahru who have had work done to the exterior of their flats may find themselves in a bind.

This, after the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) stepped up efforts to ensure renovation guidelines for the exterior of the 20 pre-war conservation flats and some shophouses are adhered to.

Notices were posted across the estate earlier this year informing and reminding both old and new residents to seek permission from the URA before works on the facade of their units are carried out.

Some of the guidelines, for instance, do not allow new awnings and planter racks to be added.

Letters have been issued to residents for flouting the guidelines.

The ramped-up effort comes a decade after the flats were awarded conservation status for their "rich history, unique architecture and familiar streetscapes" in 2003.

Residents said the delay in enforcing a standard look has resulted in some confusion.

Retiree Chan Chi Tin, 65, said it will be tricky to settle on a standard appearance for the blocks as older residents made alterations before the flats were even conserved.

Financial analyst Ben Gan, 29, who moved into the estate five months ago added that the approval process for his conservation flat meant that renovation took six months instead of three.

"It's a tricky balance for the agency. It needs to work towards a uniform look to preserve these one-of-a-kind pre-war flats while managing the expectations of owners," he said.

Built in the 1930s by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), the HDB's predecessor, these Art Deco-style flats make up Singapore's first public housing estate.

They come with separate rear service blocks, internal air-wells and signature spiral staircases.

These blocks are located in Tiong Poh Road, Seng Poh Road, Chay Yan Street, Eng Watt Street, Eng Hoon Street, Guan Chuan Street and Tiong Bahru Road.

A URA spokesman explained that efforts were ramped up "as more people move in and out of the estate".

"We thought that it was timely to create more awareness and remind owners about our conservation guidelines for the Tiong Bahru conserved blocks," she said.

Architect and art and design educator Tia Boon Sim, who has been sketching the neighbourhood since 2010, agreed.

The course manager at Temasek Polytechnic's School Of Design said she has noticed a 20 per cent rise in the number of units flouting guidelines, especially with more yuppies and young couples flocking to rent and buy units in the upmarket enclave.

According to the URA, the external facade and all key architectural elements of the flats must be retained and restored but owners have the flexibility to adapt the interiors to suit their needs.

Its spokesman added that guidelines are highlighted to home owners through several means, including information in HDB home renovation permits.

The agency also conducts periodic inspections of the conserved buildings and takes a case-by-case approach for home owners who flout the rules.

Owners who carried out renovation works before the blocks were gazetted for conservation can retain them for now, said the URA's spokesman. However, they are required to comply with the prevailing guidelines the next time their homes are renovated.

But some residents argued that more room should be given to customise the appearance of these flats, which come with a hefty price tag of about $1 million.

"Some of the modifications beautify the old buildings," said retiree Tony Tan, 65, who has lived in Tiong Bahru for 30 years.

While owners are allowed to replace the original mild steel- framed glazed casement windows on the facade of their homes, their size and proportions must remain the same. Vents must also be retained though owners can choose to seal them on the interior with plasterboard, glass or perspex.

Save for some corner flats, air-conditioning units are not allowed at the front of these blocks.

Graphic designer Alice Farmer, 33, who has lived in Tiong Bahru for two years, said she has kept renovations to a minimum. "Part of the appeal of these flats is that it's a heritage site. We should therefore continue to preserve the character of the estate."