12 trees are planted on the façade of House of Trees by L Architects to form a buffer
What do you do when the residence you’re asked to design sits directly in front of a bustling, six-lane road? For L Architects, the solution was to use trees and green landscaping to create a visual and auditory buffer. The result is House of Trees, a property composed of two, conjoined semi-detached homes.
Located in Kovan, the home, which has three levels split into two wings and an attic, was designed for two brothers and their families. The plot where it presently sits had formerly been the site of the brothers’ childhood home and had been gifted to them by their parents. The brief was for two semi-detached dwellings to look like a single detached house with shared parking spaces and interiors that can be connected and opened up for social events.
In response, L Architects subdivided the plot into two lots that each have their own address; they accommodated the brothers’ need for connectedness with shared common areas and a large sliding door at the first-floor dining area.
“Almost every weekend, the brothers have extended family gatherings here. That is when they need the flexibility of combining both dining spaces to cater to more people,” says L Architects’ founder Lim Shing Hui.
The idea for trees on the façade was a solution to the challenge of the property’s location along a busy road – which was not the most conducive environment for creating an atmosphere of respite, liveability, and tranquillity. Rather than a hermetic shell, Lim came up with a design strategy that creatively addressed the problem of outdoor traffic, and that overcame the site’s less-than-ideal surroundings in a more integrative way.
She and her team asked themselves, “Can we create a great indoor space without having a great outdoor space?” In doing so, they went beyond their clients’ brief to fulfil a series of requirements that they felt were critical for this project.
Firstly, they decided on the strong, singular idea of a green façade that would change the context of the site through nature and structural design, while at the same time beautify the neighbourhood streetscape. They constructed a façade frame made out of cantilevered steel RHS structures that are lightweight, slim and enable flexible connectivity.
After this portal was assembled, Lim felt that externally, the steel members were still too thick. To reduce the heavy look, she and her team attached perforated aluminium sun shading fins between the structural members, which resulted in a lighter looking portal frame system that also helps mitigate heat gain within the house.
Taking advantage of Singapore’s tropical climate, Lim decided on a biophilic design that would use plant life as the “building blocks” of a porous, living façade. The plants there also serve as excellent shade against the harsh sunlight entering the eastern- and western-facing sides of the house.
Landed houses typically have a predictable appearance where one is able to deduce the number of levels simply by looking at the position of windows. In order to break this predictability, Lim varied the placements of the façade planter boxes. This created interesting ambiguity in the facade.
“With the differing planter heights, you are able to appreciate different parts of the tree, such as the crown, trunk and underside of certain leaves, which differ in colours and patterns when viewed from the top,” says Lim.
She and her team were very involved in the landscape design and were responsible for selecting the trees and plants used. They had a clear idea of the type of look and feel they wanted for the façade and interiors, and so were very specific in their plant selection.
In doing so, they incorporated 45 trees within the 600sqm plot – 12 trees were used for the façade, 30 trees on the ground floor, two trees in the courtyard, and one in a bathroom.
For ease of maintenance, they selected trees and plants that did not shed easily. “In general, we chose plants with large leaves, and roots that do not grow so aggressively that they might clog the drainage or break through the planter boxes,” said Lim who decided on species like monstera, hibiscus tiliaceus purpurascens, conocarpus, variegated alpinia zerumbet, tabernaemontana, and diospyros.
“If we brought all 45 trees down to the ground floor, we would have filled up the entire site, making it look like a forest,” she jokes.
On the first level is a landscaped entrance, carpark and backyard that are shared between the two families. The social areas there are split into two wings – one for each family. Each wing has its own staircase and elevator, and open-plan living, dining and kitchen. Between the two dining zones is a large sliding door that can be opened to connect the two dining areas.
On the second level is a shared internal courtyard that opens up to the sky, and that draws in sunlight and increases natural ventilation. Each wing contains five bedrooms, five bathrooms and a study room. The master bedrooms for both the left and right wing are located on the third level, and both bedrooms open to plant-filled balconies.
“There are no shared spaces on the upper levels, but from the void of the courtyard, both wings are visually connected. On the right wing, one of the master bathrooms has a small garden within it. We included pockets of green spaces within the house to bring the outdoor elements inside,” says Lim.
Above the third level is an attic with open-air terraces on the front and back. “The brothers have plans to develop this attic level at a later stage, so we just brought the staircase and lift core up to this level for their future plans,” says Lim.
The trees and plants throughout the property are fed with slow-release fertiliser four times a year. Besides an automated irrigation system, no other “high-tech” systems are used.
“The upkeep for the green façade is kept simplified without any sophisticated irrigation systems. Taking a long-term view, we feel that low-tech interventions that enhance human comfort while reducing energy consumptions are very often the best solutions,” says Lim.
“House of Trees is a simple reminder of what can be achieved through architecture that is mindful and that grounds itself in its context. Our biophilic approach is refreshing because it uses simple passive principles to drive human comfort and wellbeing while prioritising sustainability,” she says.