Twinning the concepts of luxury homes and sustainability may seem paradoxical.
On the one hand, owning luxury homes seems the exclusive domain of those who take immense personal pleasure in filling one room with antiques and another in designer furniture in a fully air-conditioned home, a self-indulgence that’s non-sustainable.
On the other, sustainability is often wrapped around frugality to save the environment through reduce, reuse and recycle.
But there is more to sustainability than simply switching off air-conditioners and using LED bulbs, according to Paul McGillick, author of ‘Sustainable Luxury, The New Singapore House Solutions For A Livable Future’.
“Obviously, environmental sustainability is an urgent issue, which we know about, and everybody has to chip in and do their bit to create a healthier environment that could sustain itself into the future because that’s our responsibility to our children and future generations,” he says.
But sustainability is not about purely dealing with environmental concerns, he adds. It is also about social, cultural, personal, economic and even spiritual sustainability – elements that are interconnected when designing and building a residence.
“Sustainability is not a single issue. Sustainability is a complex issue,” says McGillick. “I take a holistic view of sustainability. I think it’s less about money and more about the ideas and principles behind it.”
McGillick underscores this point by showcasing 26 recent residential projects in Singapore, which have successfully merged luxury and sustainability by applying simple, imaginative design strategies.
“Some emphasise environmental needs while others are more concerned with sustaining cultural traditions or supporting societal and personal needs” writes Sydney-based McGillick, who has worked closely with architects, interior designers, and product designers, with a specialisation in residential architecture and workplace design.
Sustaining multi-generational families
Extended families are the norm in Asia. In Singapore, for example, it’s not always been easy to keep a growing family together because of limited space, which can lead to tension within the family.
“It’s not just the extended family of old because we live in a new era. Younger people want more independence and may still want to stay with the family. So how do you design a home that allows them to come and go, have their own privacy and yet still enjoy the communal benefits of being with the family? That’s a kind of aspect of social and personal sustainability,” s McGillick points out.
Economic sustainability also comes into play because of affordability and the rising cost of living. In Singapore, for example, young people simply can’t afford to buy or rent a flat, thus, this is encouraging families to live together.
Nothing illustrates this better than the Holland Grove House, which is “an excellent example of how a multi-generational house has been designed to be economically, socially and personally sustainable”.
From the outside, it looks like one house. It has two entrances and the shared spaces include a water garden, a front garden, a deck and a basement carpark.
The owners wanted a home that will allow them to live happily together, looking after each other while keeping their own privacy.
Having lived in the original house since the 1980s, they thought of building, essentially, a new semi-detached house. Two separate yet connected houses where the married son lives with his young family in one house, while his parents live next door and the still single younger brother lives in “a cool pad in the attic”.
The two houses are connected but separate. A sense of privacy and independence is present. More importantly, the idea of separate yet connected can be achieved as the families bond and build more memories together.
Preserving the ‘kampung’ spirit
Located in the eastern part of Singapore, Joo Chiat is a residential conservation area and sits between Geylang Serai and Marine Parade Road.
Joo Chiat, which was gazetted as a conservation district in 1993, is principally symbolic of Singapore’s Peranakan (Straits Chinese) heritage. As a result, the architecture – shophouses and bungalows – reflecting styles of the turn of the 20th century have been preserved. The area is also known for eateries that specialise in Peranakan food.
But as could be expected of old, pre-war neighbourhoods, time and humid climate conditions took a toll on a lot of the antiquated properties.
Ong Chin Hwee, who is in the shipping trade, acquired a run-down shophouse at No. 24 Crane Road. His idea was to transform the property to house his multi-generational family while at the same time nudging his neighbours to improve the conditions of the community where many timeworn shophouses were showing signs of distress or neglect.
“When we embarked on the project seven years ago Crane road was not the way it looks now. It was very neglected, the houses were pre-war, built between WWl and WWll,” says Ong. “Nostalgia. I wanted to do something in an area I knew well. I have feelings for it. This is a beautiful area, a mix of Chinese and Malay culture.”
Architect Mark Wee remembers meeting Ong and seeing shophouses on Crane road for the first time. (The row of shophouses in that particular area was not yet listed for conservation at the time. They have since been classified for conservation.)
“The conservation houses were very plain looking, not glamorous,” Wee recounts. “And yet it was in Joo Chiat, which we find still very charming. I’m quite happy that the Conservation Department re-zoned it.”
While Ong hoped to capture the old Singapore, he also wanted to reflect the changing demographics of the country.
Taking inspiration from Joo Chiat’s kampung (village) model, the house was designed to encourage “chance encounters and an ongoing sense of community” balanced by privacy. And instead of demolishing the old infrastructure, they chose to restore and rebuild.
After completing No. 24, Ong acquired No. 22 next door and built it as an extension to the first house.
“We designed the house to look like what it used to, but absolutely adapted it to the way we live today. We made sure that there are individual compartmentalised units within the same building… [so]different generations can live together close enough but not stepping on each other’s toes,” Ong says.
Ong’s Crane properties has been well-described by McGillick: “The units form a community with an internal ‘street’, a vibrant blue steel diaphragm wall with attached stairway that connects them. The wall incorporates plants, objects and Peranakan tiles that conceal LED lights. It sits in the courtyard, forming a vertical internal connection for the whole complex, drawing in light, and providing shade and home to a herb garden and other green elements.”
The result: a restored two-storey original shophouse and a three-storey addition with attic at the rear, exhibiting ‘a microcosm of the Joo Chiat neigbourhood within the site through three different housing and spatial types’.
“I think that increasingly people are beginning to understand innately social and cultural sustainability because of a sense of connection to the community. People want to hold on to their identity,” says Wee, director of Experience Design Studio Ong&Ong.
“When we did No. 24 we hoped that it would somehow nudge the neighbours into cleaning up the neighbourhood. That happened,” Ong says with a smile.
The whole project took about six to seven years to complete at a cost of S$5 million. Last year, he bought No. 20 as well.
Open space concepts are nothing new. But one that has caught McGillick’s attention is the open bathroom, which is fast becoming associated with wellness in tropical countries.
“There is a growing enthusiasm for open bathrooms, which is partly a sensual indulgence involving the pleasure of bathing in outdoor tropical luxury but partly a pragmatic anti-mould strategy for airing the wet areas of the house,” he observes.
“It’s really good for tropical countries because you can leave the bathroom open all-year round. You can get really lush greenery that helps preserve privacy in the bathroom,” says the former editorial director of Indesign Media.
Open dry kitchens are becoming more prominent than ever before in Southeast Asia. Rather than separating the kitchen from the dining space, increasingly the kitchen has been transformed from simply a place where food is cooked to a hangout spot where people gather.
And the next new frontier? Noise pollution, says McGillick, who has always had a strong interest in urban issues.
“There is a mounting scientific evidence to show that noise pollution is very bad for people, and very bad for the economy,” he believes. “How to reduce noise so that people don’t become dysfunctional as a result of the stress caused by noise.”
How can you live a sustainable life in the city without being driven mad by noise or air pollution? How do you plan for that? How do you help people live sustainable lives particularly in cities? These are issues that will impact architecture and design to achieve long-term sustainability for city dwellers.
All photos by Masano Kawana
‘Sustainable Luxury, The New Singapore House Solutions For A Livable Future’ (Tuttle Publishing) is available in leading bookstores in Singapore.