Shrinking HDB void deck leaves empty feeling

Madam Heng (standing, in white), 69, a cafe corner staff member, chatting with residents Chong Siew Heng (middle), 81, and Lim Bong Chee (right), 80, at a cafe corner at Block 291B, Compassvale Street, on Friday. The cafe corner, an initiative starte
Madam Heng (standing, in white), 69, a cafe corner staff member, chatting with residents Chong Siew Heng (middle), 81, and Lim Bong Chee (right), 80, at a cafe corner at Block 291B, Compassvale Street, on Friday. The cafe corner, an initiative started in 2012 by the North East Community Development Council, provides free hot drinks and biscuits every morning for residents.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

It is smaller in new HDB blocks to 'optimise land use'; some residents miss the bigger area

The spacious void deck, an iconic feature of Singapore public housing, is no longer a given as Housing Board blocks in newer estates see tweaks in their designs.

As a result, the void deck has been shrinking in area or feels smaller than before. In its place are landscaped roof gardens, pergolas and precinct pavilions - stand-alone sheltered areas of about 200 sq m.

Said civil servant Tony Lim, 31: "When I was younger, I remember fondly that the void decks were really 'void'. It was where I'd play soccer with my friends.

"But now, you can't play there any more, and there are a lot more fixtures and facilities," added the Toa Payoh resident, who grew up in the estate but moved to a newer block two years ago.

The Ministry of National Development told Parliament in a written reply earlier this month that newer blocks are generally designed to be taller and more compact, with fewer units on each floor.

"While this optimises land use and provides residents with greater privacy, the trade-off is a smaller void deck space under each block," said the ministry.

When void decks were first introduced in the 1970s, slab blocks - with units lining a long corridor - were a common configuration.

This allowed a section of the ground floor to be kept open to be a "large flexible community space that could serve a wide variety of uses", said an HDB spokesman.

For those who were newly resettled from the kampungs during that decade, void decks served as a substitute gathering place.

But over the years, void deck spaces have been progressively set aside for social and community facilities, such as childcare and daycare centres for the elderly.

While some residents lament the reduction of the communal space, which is seen in most of the country's 10,000 HDB blocks, others feel that it has simply evolved to meet the needs of society.

Retiree Vejeyah N., 68, believes that these changes have brought about more convenience for residents. She said: "What's the point of keeping (the space) empty?"

And for some, there are still plenty of opportunities to gather and interact with neighbours.

At Block 291B, Compassvale Street, residents gather at a cafe corner at the void deck for free hot drinks and biscuits every morning.

This is part of an initiative started in 2012 by the North East Community Development Council. There are now 133 outlets catering to about 4,000 people a day.

Ms Chris Koh, a cafe corner regular, enjoys the cosy feel to the place. Said the retiree, a former teacher who is in her 60s: "It is a nice start to my day. Over the years, I have also made some good friends here."

Still, heritage experts argue that it is crucial for void decks to retain their informal quality, where residents are able to "colonise" the empty areas naturally.

Said Mr Theodore Chan, the immediate past president of the Singapore Institute of Architects: "The void deck acts like the 'living room' of the entire block. Once you are too formal... it loses its potential. People will have less attachment to it if they can't make it their own."

While the HDB has been creating more common spaces over the years in the form of pavilions, landscaped gardens on carpark roofs and sky gardens, these may not have the same effect as void decks.

These spaces are seen as a "destination" and may not encourage chance encounters, said Singapore Heritage Society executive committee member Mizah Rahman.

Kallang resident Song Jang Siew, 68, who moved into a new build-to-order block a few years ago, said he seldom visits the garden on the seventh floor of his block. "I like sitting in the void deck so I can say hi to my neighbours or chit-chat with them."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 15, 2017, with the headline 'Shrinking void deck leaves empty feeling'. Print Edition | Subscribe