Bricks form the anchor feature of this semi-detached house by Genome Architects in Bukit Timah
Piers of bricks on the side façade, two sets of staircases and generous views of the sky. These are the major highlights of a semi-detached house in Bukit Timah that was recently completed by Genome Architects. Motley as they sound, each in fact goes towards mitigating the conundrum of a long and narrow site in a densely packed neighbourhood.
Specifically, the 370sqm plot measures 46m by 7.6m, making it almost as long as an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Hemmed in on two sides by neighbours who have maximised their GFA, the house also has no views to speak of. While the obvious route would have been plenty of well-landscaped internal courtyards and planter boxes lined with evergreens, the brief dictated to shy against that due to “no green fingers”.
Those familiar with Genome’s work will know that none of this would have fazed its Founding Director, Wu Yen Yen. Fond of leading her team through phases where they test different ideas in residential projects, she took the opportunity to experiment with introducing bricks as a design feature. This led to it being christened Brick Pier Courtyard House.
Wu also boldly proposed two sets of staircases – one each at the front and rear of the house – to minimise the need for the family of four to waste time walking up and down its length to get to different parts. “People don’t understand that it’s the main spine of distribution. Once you have a creative way of doing this, the spaces that benefit from that difference add value to the rooms,” she explains.
Same structure, new functions
What makes this project even more remarkable is how all these solutions were found without rebuilding the semi-detached house. In fact, it is categorised as a “reconstruction”, where the structural columns, roof, original staircase and flooring were all kept intact.
“I read that in 2024, the ethos of architecture is reuse and recycle, because construction costs are so high. There’s going to be a lot of these projects where you have to work within existing structures, and try to completely redefine what it used to be, without tearing it down,” she says.
Wu has certainly done a lot of redefining with this house. In maximising its GFA, there is practically no space left for a garden. Yet, retaining a connection to the outdoors remained important to the owners. Cue bricks in soothing oatmeal honey tones. “I thought that was something that we’re not harvesting enough,” she adds.
Featured on parts of the front and side façade, the material is sometimes a solid wall or wrapping a column. Other times, they are what she calls “brick piers”, because of the way they are stacked to form slim fingers of varying widths and angled to mimic louvres for privacy and light play. Its natural, handmade nature, which hints at craftsmanship, and its tactility, also make it an ideal choice.
“We also thought that its innate ability to suggest the outdoors should be tapped for this project that needed to create views,” Wu points out. Rather than push the living spaces right up against the walls and piers of bricks, she added a buffer zone on the upper floors. In the rooms, these are balconies and what ties them together is a porosity visible from one end of the house to the other.
The result is the illusion that the bricks are part of a prettier outdoor view for the residents, even as they actually form part of the enclosure of the building, making it part of the indoors.
On the actual interiors, once past the living room, a triple-volume void yawns open, soaring 6m high. The façade side is covered with floor-to-ceiling doors and motorised windows.
“We designed this space as if it was an open, indoor air well. It’s very private, so nobody knows there is this huge three-storey void on our site. At the same time, it affords wonderful diagonal sky views, so it doesn’t feel like they are so close to the neighbour,” says Wu.
Set along one edge of the void is the first set of stairs. The second (retained from the original house) is located beyond the dining room and kitchen but before the family room tucked at the back. These serve to break the house up into three sections. Both lead up to level two and the attic, though they do not necessarily provide access to all the rooms on the upper floors.
This, explains Wu, is the advantage of having two sets of staircases in such a site, “It shortcuts a lot of walking and gives a certain circularity. Because the house is so long, it allows the middle block to be liberated.”
What this means is that the front staircase provides access to the study in the front of the house, passes the son’s room on level two, and the master suite in the attic. The rear staircase also leads to the son’s room on level two, as well as the daughter’s room in the back of the same floor. Likewise, it connects to the master suite too.
With no need to provide corridors alongside the rooms for circulation, all of them get to occupy the full 5.5m width of the house, maximising their sizes. “A lot of people think it is a waste of resources but if you focus on the real estate that is liberated, which is the corridors, that gives even better space usage,” says Wu.
Of all the rooms, it is the son’s that stands out. A window inserted above his study table affords him panoramas of the triple-volume void and, beyond that, the sky. “His was the most fun room with views of the two staircases and the sky. He has a connection to the rest of the house that the other rooms don’t. It felt like we were really unlocking his room’s potential, even though the room in the middle is often the most challenging,” she adds.
While she talks about maximising the possibilities of a room, Wu has, in fact, done more than that for this type of house commonly found across Singapore. We say its slew of innovative features could even be considered for incorporation into the residential playbook, benefiting occupants and neighbours alike.