A terraced tower in a unit in Hillion Residences makes for a brilliant small condo design idea by Metre Architects

A terraced tower in a unit in Hillion Residences makes for a brilliant small condo design idea by Metre Architects

A terraced tower in a unit in Hillion Residences makes for a brilliant small condo design idea by Metre Architects

OCTOBER SPECIAL | Small apartment interior design series, story 3 of 3

For civic authorities, sociologists, urban planners and architects alike, answering the evergreen question of how much domestic space one needs gained even more currency during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. Entire families were confined for the greater part of the day within the literal four walls of their homes – where they were expected to not just sleep, work, play, raise and educate children, and socialise, but also to hold on to fraying tempers and unravelling mental issues. 

Those pressures notwithstanding, these designers would still argue that the desire for large homes – especially freestanding ones that push into precious agricultural land – is economically, socially and environmentally unsustainable. It is far more effective, they say, to buy small and harness imaginative architectural and interior design solutions to create additional space.

In this context, what is remarkable about Gradient Space – a 463sqft one-bedroom apartment in Hillion Residences, a particularly leafy part of Bukit Panjang – is that both its ideology and execution took place in 2018 before the pandemic.

A varied lifestyle in a compact space

For the then-newly minted studio, Metre Architects, this was one of the very first projects that came in and its planning was a head-scratcher on several fronts – not least because the owner had a long list of requirements. She wanted a space to cook, storage for winter wear, a deep sofa to allow a full recline when relaxing in front of the TV after a long day’s work, or to work at on a laptop for both short and extended periods – all while being able to host regular social events with friends.

Hillion Residences small apartment interior design by Metre Architects, tv and console
The tower is positioned so that the owner can relax in front of the TV after a long day’s work.

For Metre’s founding partner Woon Chung Yen, the brief raised two fundamental questions. The first was whether an apartment as small as this could support a lifestyle as vivid and varied as those in larger spaces. The second was how much of life’s spectrum of activities – from introverted retreat, to extroverted entertainment – could be embodied in a compact space.

Many architects would probably have defaulted to a compressed layout and space-saving furniture, such as Murphy beds and foldaway tables. Woon’s solution was to take advantage of the height of the room and build a boxy tower that literally cuts the volume into a sequence of terraces clad in blonde timber laminate. Each serves a function, beginning with daily tasks, such as work and dining on the lower levels and ascending in steps that turn into platforms for a sofa and ultimately, the bed at the peak of the “hill”. 

“We raised the sides and back of the bed in diagonals,” Woon says, “To create two corners that shield and protect it with a sense of intimacy. This allowed us to demarcate a bedroom space without segregation.”

If nothing else, the design of the bed space reflects an unusual level of intellectual rigour and thoughtfulness that pervades the entire tower – a veritable thinking-out-of-the-box solution to a seemingly intractable problem. As Woon goes on to explain, “When you move up or down this slope, the space changes, the function changes. There is openness at the base of the slope to meet friends; there is intimacy at the top of the slope to rest, to be alone.”

Playful, childlike, transcendental 

Functionality is built into the design. Every step, Woon says, every tilt, every indentation, every protrusion, has a purpose and while the final result looks simple enough, the manipulation of the gradient functions was not. “The biggest challenge we had was how to assemble the steps, drawers, coffee table, platform bed, sofa and so on, in the most ergonomically sound and aesthetically pleasing way, while allowing ample storage space beneath the bed.”

The result is an unexpectedly playful, even childlike, space that transcends its physical limitations, as Woon insists that both the owner and her friends in the apartment “feel as if they are reclining on an open yet intimate landscape”.

He adds, “We really worked hard to infuse a sense of poetry into the design, to trigger the imagination of the dwellers in a way that allows them to immerse in an experience that transcends the physical confines of the small space.”

In the intervening years since Gradient Space was completed, Woon’s remit continues to explore space, his bijou studio of two interns and a technical staff are currently working on designing a terrace house, while planning the interiors of a condominium penthouse, and an equally small, new one-bedroom apartment. 

“We don’t particularly seek out small apartments,” he says, “And yet, we do not shy away from them, as design ought to cater to different scales and types.” It’s a sentiment that resonates particularly as it taps into a broader realisation that while a mindset adjustment is required, it’s actually not all that difficult to live well in a small(er) home.