Traditional hanok gets modern makeover inside

SEOUL • From the outside, Mr Kim Sung Jun's house is as traditional as it gets, with a tiled roof, brick walls and a carved wooden door.

The interior, however, has all the trappings of a modern home - bedrooms with an attached bathroom, floor heating and air-conditioning.

Mr Kim, 52, lives in a traditional Korean house, or hanok, in the Seochon area in central Seoul. It was passed down to him by his parents, who live in another hanok nearby.

Traditional homes in their neighbourhood are getting modern interior makeovers, thanks to renovation grants offered by the Seoul Metropolitan Government.

Since 2001, Seoul has disbursed almost 21.8 billion won (S$26.4 million) in grants to 716 hanok owners, who are required by law to preserve the exterior of their homes. It has raised its budget from June to provide up to 180 million won per hanok, to offset the high cost of preservation works.

"Hanok are important (to Korea's) heritage and vital for the preservation of housing diversity and the identity of Seoul as a city of history and culture," the Seoul government said in a press statement.

Built from the time of the Chosun dynasty (1392-1910), hanok are single-storey houses made of wood and stone, featuring tiled roofs, wooden pillars, paper windows, a small courtyard and floor heating. They started disappearing in the 1970s and 1980s, during a period of rapid urbanisation marked by a big shift to multi-storey apartment living.

Hanok that remain in Seoul today can be found in conservation zones located in five major districts. For instance, Bukchon and Seochon, located east and west of the main Gyeongbuk palace in Jongno district, are home to about 1,500 hanok.

Interest in hanok has been growing in recent years, with many of them turned into hotels or guesthouses. From 437 hanok hotels nationwide in 2011, the number jumped to 767 in 2013.

The western port city of Songdo boasts the country's first luxury hanok hotel by an international group. Rates at the Gyeongwonjae Ambassador Hotel start from 210,000 won a night for a deluxe double room.

Another luxury hanok hotel is to be built in Seoul by the upscale Shilla hotel chain by 2020.

The eastern coastal city of Gangneung is building a hanok village by this month to attract tourists.

Individual buyers, a small but growing group, are also buying hanok to live in.

Mr Kim, whose house is now worth 690 million won, hopes more people will learn to appreciate the joy of living in a hanok.

The baby-naming specialist gave his 76 sq m house a modern makeover in 2013. It cost him 170 million won, but almost 60 per cent of the bill was paid by a grant from Seoul.

"A hanok is traditionally cold in winter and hot in summer. We had to add three layers of insulation to the walls and install air-conditioners," said Mr Kim, who lives with his wife and 24-year-old daughter.

The courtyard is perfect for barbecues in summer, he added. "It's important to preserve tradition, and it'd be good if my daughter's children can also grow up in a hanok."

Chang May Choon

Take a peek into Mr Kim Sung Jun's hanok

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 02, 2016, with the headline 'Traditional hanok gets modern makeover inside'. Subscribe