A terrace house by Freight Architects in Serangoon Gardens is inspired by shophouses and the Japanese concept of “oku”

A terrace house by Freight Architects in Serangoon Gardens is inspired by shophouses and the Japanese concept of “oku”

A terrace house by Freight Architects in Serangoon Gardens is inspired by shophouses and the Japanese concept of “oku”

It certainly looks like someone parachuted a shophouse into a row of terrace houses in Serangoon Gardens. Even without hearing from the designer, Freight Architects, the architectural language of the residence clearly proclaims its inspiration. While the usual elaborate ornamentation found on them may be missing, the proportions, use of columns, simple pediment and spatial depth are all apparent. 

“This house is a re-imagined shophouse,” confirms Kee Jing Zhi, one of the co-founders of Freight. “Elements of a typical shophouse were abstracted to their most basic forms.” Specifically, he sought direction from those in Penang and Malacca, as the owners had bought the long and narrow 340sqm plot after being reminded of them. 

But Kee did not just let that define the project. He added his own spin to it to mitigate the living constraints of such types of land by turning to the Japanese spatial concept of “oku”. This is where a three-dimensional space is discovered and appreciated the further someone moves within it. 

“We adopted the principle to create layers of pauses in a very deep terrace house,” says Kee. “As one moves through, there is always something in front, and human curiosity dictates that people keep moving forward and search deeper.”

Grey and green

Before plunging into its depths, it is worth admiring the exterior of the aptly named Oku House. Part of the brief was to keep the frontage low, resulting in it appearing like a two-storey building. 

Grey bricks made in Germany are a dominant material, chosen because Kee could specify the exact shade of the colour. To counterbalance the monotony, he introduced slim balau wood columns, “We wanted to add a bit of warmth as well as give it the feel of having shutters. These are common features of a shophouse.”

A Juliet balcony extrudes from the centre of the second storey, accessible via the master bedroom. Kee was careful that it kept to the façade proportions of a shophouse. When standing there, the owners get a lovely view of their garden below, which has a pond dotted with water lilies and generous planting. 

Upon closer inspection, a liminal entrance foyer separates the garden from the house, giving the façade a sense of spatial depth. Here, a pair of Leopard trees are planted on either side of the pedestrian gate. “It forms a threshold between inside and outside,” adds Kee. It also mimics the five-foot way commonly found on the ground floor of a row of shophouses. 

Layers of pauses 

Immediately before the living room is a customised shelving system that displays the extensive collection of ceramic ware that the owners have amassed through the decades. Kee’s decision to design it this way was also inspired by how shophouses tend to have a big painting or screen at this same location. 

The gaze is then quickly distracted by a well-landscaped internal courtyard that is open to the sky. In addition to letting in daylight and the breeze, it also separates the house into two wings. 

The front has the living room and master suite above it, capped by a discreet attic bedroom that is almost invisible from the front. The rear is a three-and-a-half storey structure encompassing the dining room, kitchen and a slew of rooms. 

This is the embodiment of oku, Kee will tell you, “It’s kind of like a storybook that is unfolding.” 

A long pause beckons to be had in the internal courtyard, marked by soaring walls on three sides and on the fourth, a view of bridges that connect the front and rear wings on two floors. One of the walls is covered by hand-trowelled rough plaster and paint, and another, made of balau wood screens to “give a bit more texture to the space and have that play of light and shadow”. 

Functional upper levels

Once past the courtyard, things start to get a little more complicated. The staircase to the upper floors is tucked behind a second display unit. To give it some variety, the flights get different treatments, such as open-tread and a half-spiral that “hugs the wall”. 

The second floor of the rear wing is occupied by a family area, its cosiness enhanced by a lower ceiling of 2.6m. On its balcony, a second spiral staircase wends its way up to a rooftop garden. A suite of apartments occupies the third and attic floor, the living quarters of one of the owners’ children and her family. 

Special mention has to be made of the bathroom in the master suite, which is partially open to the sky and adds another layer of porosity to the house. In fact, because of the way it has been designed, the sense of permeability pervades the entire home. 

Everywhere you turn, there is a breeze dancing in the background, or a plant happily growing (the owners have very green fingers). Complementing it are the colour tones in neutral, natural shades that are incredibly soothing. While you very quickly lose the sense that you are in a “a re-imagined shophouse”, it is hard to forget oku is the anchor, so that the home forms the perfect backdrop for growth and discovery.