Pre-war shophouses get modern makeover while retaining charm

The shophouse, a reminder of architecture past, is a common sight in neighbourhoods such as Joo Chiat, Emerald Hill and Tanjong Pagar.

Earlier this year, the Urban Redevelopment Authority put out an online guide to the shophouse, noting that Singapore has more than 6,500 conserved shophouses, which were built between the early-1800s and mid-1900s.

You can tell which era these old beauties were designed and built in just by looking at their facade and detailing.

For example, the first shophouses here were short, with one or two timber windows on the second floor and little decoration on the outside.

Later in the 1930s, Art Deco-styled shophouses, which used Shanghai plaster and had column orders and arches, came into fashion.

Today, many young home owners are giving these houses new leases of life, remodelling the interiors and restoring the faded facades to their former glory.

Life goes inside two shophouses.


Gem of a find after three-year search

After looking at more than 40 shophouses, husband and wife Yian Huang and Jaelle Ang knew they had hit gold when they saw a pre-war unit in Emerald Hill.

It was a three-year search for their dream shophouse, which has "good bones and good light", says Ms Ang, 35, a real estate developer at the Thai-listed Country Group Development. Other shophouses they had viewed had either poor natural light or ventilation.

Their 4,000 sq ft home, a stone's throw away from the Somerset area, has two floors, an attic and a half-basement. They live there with their daughters, aged one and three.

Pairing their styles - Mr Huang, 43, a photographer, prefers the industrial vibe, while Ms Ang wanted a luxe feel - they set about returning the house to its roots, removing the modern fixtures the previous owner had installed. The renovation took about three months.

For example, a 15m-long lap pool in the living room had to go. They had it filled to get more floor space. Mr Huang says: "A bit of heritage is important, so having a pool inside doesn't go with the theme of a shophouse. Form arises from function, so we wanted to design a house that would work for us."

The resulting bare concrete floor - they also removed the patterned marble floor tiles next to the pool - appealed so much that they left it as it was. It was a practical option too, as Mr Huang often drags his heavy photography equipment as he shoots subjects in the home.

I like being able to hear the children and I don't mind if they walk in when I'm working. But Yian likes to be away completely, once he's shut the door to his office. It's like going off to the office.''

MS JAELLE ANG on how her working style at home differs from that of her husband Yian Huang

Says Ms Ang: "I like the rawness of it and that concrete is not a precious material. Even if the kids spill something on the floor, it's fine."

The home's open-concept plan blends the living room with the dining space, which also has a dry kitchen for less heavy-duty cooking.

Guests often gather around the long acacia wood table with bronze legs, decorated with mismatched chairs. A small kitchen is carved out from the remaining space and separated from the other spots by cool grilles with a Chevron pattern.

The couple are adamant about not child-proofing their house with drawer locks and safety gates at every corner. Instead, they have taught their children to appreciate the features of the old house.

Mr Huang says: "It's not easy for us to accept ugly stuff in the house. There aren't any child-safety features. They have got to integrate with the space and the things we have put in. And they respect the space."

Family time is precious in this household, but the couple, who both work at home often, have their own break-out spaces. And each space, in different parts of the home, reflects their personalities.

Ms Ang has a quiet nook in the master bedroom. Neat and cosy with a view of the quiet backstreet lined with trees, it is a relaxing workroom for her and she can hear the children play too.

Head down to the basement and you will find Mr Huang often holed up in his man-cave, which is decorated with a saddle chair from British label Timothy Oulton, a leather couch and a Triumph Bonneville motorcycle, which he rides.

The exposed copper pipes along the walls, unhung photos and a photographer's softbox over a backgammon table add to the industrial feel. The door to the room has been widened so that Mr Huang can hop on his two-wheeler and ride out.

Explaining their different working styles, Ms Ang says: "I like being able to hear the children and I don't mind if they walk in when I'm working. But Yian likes to be away completely, once he's shut the door to his office. It's like going off to the office."

Even though this shophouse was built before the couple were born, the elegant abode fits their lifestyle.

Ms Ang says: "We've never had any trouble with the old house and tried to stay true to its origins and conserve what we can."

Go to for a video of Jaelle Ang and Yian Huang's home.


Gorgeous light touches

Architects behind this pre-war shophouse in the Blair Plain conservation area had their work cut out for them when they had to turn a warehouse space into a house.

Husband-and-wife team Diego Molina and Maria Arango, shophouse specialists from architecture studio Ong&Ong, worked their magic on the once cramped and dark space. The couple also had Mr Tomas Jaramillo Valencia from the firm as their project architect.

Over a year, they gutted out the interiors and turned the space into a bright, two-storey home with a roof mezzanine and added a three- storey service block rear extension. 

Ms Arango, 39, who has worked on 20 shophouses with her husband, says: "When it was used as a warehouse space, there were no windows. The rear access to the pantry and toilet didn't have much light or natural ventilation."

It did not help that elements that were supposed to be conserved had been changed. For example, when they removed the carpets, they found that the floor boards had been replaced. As a requirement from the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the floor structure had to be made of timber, so the architects made plans to put back similar flooring.

The courtyard with a vertical garden and artificial grass. PHOTO: AARON POCOCK

The shophouse - now home to a French-Singaporean family of four, including two children - is part of the Blair Plain area, which was gazetted in 1991 for conservation.

The architects were eager to bring back elements of the original design, while making the shophouse modern. For example, they exposed the wooden roof beams and rafters - a hallmark of shophouses. 

Natural light was also an important requirement guiding their design plans. Hence the roof was raised by 600mm. It was a small adjustment, but it brought in much needed light.

A statement staircase, which separates different spaces on the various floors, is a stunning new creation. Curvy and with handrails carved into its body, the open staircase is illuminated by natural light from the glass roof above.

Other chic additions include a courtyard on the ground floor with a lush vertical garden on one side. The owners wanted a gardenscape, so a tall tree centres the area.

Covered in artificial grass, the courtyard is a good space for the children to play.

Another special spot is the master bedroom, which takes up the whole mezzanine in the old building.

Turn right at the top of the stairs on this floor and you step into the huge bathroom - a calming alcove, with a sloping skylight and a view of a garden. Besides a bathtub on an ornately patterned floor of cement Peranakan tiles, there is also a standing shower and a toilet.

The exterior (above) of the shophouse in Blair Plain. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

An interesting feature is a 9m-long French limestone tabletop, which starts from the bathroom and ends before the bedroom's entrance.

In the bathroom, the tabletop is used for his-and-hers washbasins before being reappropriated as a worktable in the hall. Ms Arango says: "It has continuity and helps maximise the space."

The clever designs are hardly flamboyant and the white-and- wood palette lets the owners' artwork take centre stage.

Ms Arango says: "Many people are turning shophouses into high-end residential spaces, where they have state-of-the-art amenities. So we need an extra element to make it special."

  • This story first appeared in the October 2015 issue of The Life e-magazine in The Straits Times Star E-books app, with the headline "Modern shophouses".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2015, with the headline 'Old and chic'. Subscribe