After 20 viewings, foodie couple call 'industrial grunge' HDB flat home

They say good things come to those who wait, and that buying a property is kind of like searching for a life partner - you'll know it when you find 'the one'.

For first-time homeowners Mint, 40, and Noelle, 30, the hunt for their perfect home saw them viewing more than 20 flats over one and a half years.

Finding their unit of choice was a serendipitous encounter, as they were supposed to view another flat within the same block.

An old-school retractable metal gate affixed at the entrance to Mint and Noelle's 4-room HDB flat. PHOTO: Fifth Avenue

Noelle recalled: "We were about to head home, when our property agent mentioned that there was another unit upstairs which was not listed on the market yet, but being put up for sale."

While it was not love at first sight due to its original design aesthetic, the 4-room resale flat met the criteria of their desired home - a corner unit on a high floor, with a squarish layout.

After much consideration, Noelle and Mint decided to put in an offer, and officially moved in to their new home last June.

Industrial grunge with a splash of izakaya

The couple chose "industrial grunge" as the interior design theme of their home. In Noelle and Mint's case, this translated into exposed piping, textured walls, concrete floors, and a big neon sign in the living area. The couple also wanted to vary the design aesthetic for different parts of the house.

A main highlight of the flat is the kitchen, a place that is dear to Mint because it is where he learnt to cook with his mother and late grandmother. He also calls it "the heart of the house".

The couple's kitchen strongly resembles a Japanese izakaya, complete with a bar top, as the idea was for it to be a gathering spot for their guests. Mint believes that their guests often gravitate naturally towards the kitchen because of its unique vibe.

PHOTO: Fifth Avenue

"When hanging out in our kitchen, our friends and family often get the impression that they're in a cafe, as opposed to being in an HDB flat," Noelle added.

To realise their vision for the kitchen, the couple sourced for items overseas, including buying the light fixtures for their kitchen from Malaysia. Gesturing to the kitchen wall where a sign in Japanese hangs, Noelle shared: "We also got this (the sign) in Japan at a flea market."

Much thought was also put into the selection of tiles for the kitchen floor. From far, it looks like your typical matte black-and-white checkered flooring. However, a closer inspection will reveal that they are weathered-looking tiles.

"It's supposed to look dirty," Noelle joked, as she explained that the usual pristine black-and-white tiles would not have matched the look they were going for.

From the kitchen tiles to the unevenly textured walls in the living room, it is clear that Noelle and Mint were not aiming for a harmonious, polished design for the home.

The textured wall used in their living room. PHOTO: Fifth Avenue

The eclectic style is intentional as the couple wanted to incorporate the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, an aesthetic defined as beauty in imperfection. They were also keen to avoid an overly mainstream look and feel for their home.

In fact, Noelle had explicitly conveyed this desire to her interior designer. She said: "When I first met him, I explained I didn't want subway tiles because they're difficult to clean. I also didn't want any brick-look tiles. I feel that one of the trends for home interiors over the past two years has been exposed brick walls inspired by London train stations, and I wanted something different."

When a HDB is not a HDB

In achieving the desired look for their dream home, some changes had to be made to the original layout of the house.

A wall was knocked down to create the current entrance to their kitchen. The service yard and common toilet that are usually found in the kitchen were also sectioned off. Most interestingly, the bathroom was carved out into its own space and hidden behind a bright yellow door that looks like a vending machine in the living room.

"The vending machine door is just ornamental," Noelle explained, revealing that she had sourced for the drink bottles that are on display within the glass front, and she can switch them out whenever she wants to.

The vending machine which hides the bathroom. PHOTO: Fifth Avenue

Make no mistake, hiding their bathroom in plain sight was an intentional and ingenious move.

Mint said: "The common toilet in older flats is typically located at the back. Most of the time when I visit my relatives' homes, we end up in the kitchen when we want to wash our hands. The problem is, there may be a lot of personal items like laundry at the back of the kitchen, and we didn't want to go through all the hassle of tidying up whenever we invite guests over."

"So, we moved the entrance [of the toilet] from the back to the front. By shifting the entrance, we also wanted to hide it, so that it looks aesthetically pleasing from the living room."

In addition to the changes made to the kitchen area, the couple merged one of their guest rooms with the master bedroom to create a walk-in wardrobe connected to the bathroom and vanity area, which also gives the illusion of a larger bathroom space on the whole. They knocked down the wall between the two rooms to achieve their intended design.

They knocked down the wall to merge the guest room and master bedroom. PHOTO: Fifth Avenue

The couple also installed glass sliding doors that open up from the master bedroom into the walk-in wardrobe and bathroom area to give it a "hotel feel". They had initially considered incorporating a jacuzzi, but eventually decided on having more floor space for their wardrobe instead. 

Calling Tampines home

When it came to choosing the location for their home, Mint and Noelle were sure that they wanted a place close to the East. They had considered various neighbourhoods, including Chinatown and Marine Parade, but eventually found the right flat in Tampines.

Their block is located in an area with amenities, such as a coffee shop at the foot of their block, and a warm and genuine community. As foodies, it is important for them to be in a location where good food options are easily accessible.

Mint explained: "In general, the East side is known for its good food. Two of the best places that we go to often are Simpang Bedok and the market at Tampines [Street 11] which offers plenty of local food."

A custom-made table (bottom right) was ordered to accommodate large social gatherings. PHOTO: Fifth Avenue

The couple run a burger joint together at the Bedok Marketplace in Simpang Bedok, so commuting to work from their home is fuss-free.

Staying in Tampines is also a bonus as their parents live in the same town too.

"Having our parents within close proximity is really good as they're getting older, and we'll need less time to get to them if anything were to happen," Noelle said, adding that HDB's Proximity Housing Grant "really helped a lot".

For the uninitiated, the Proximity Housing Grant allows singles, couples (married or engaged) and families to enjoy a grant of up to $30,000 when buying a resale HDB flat to live with or close to each other for mutual care and support.

Aside from the Proximity Housing Grant, they were also eligible for other CPF Housing Grants, which helped subsidise a portion of the $440,000 price tag that came with the house.

Tips for saving money

With renovation costs potentially taking up a sizeable part of one's budget — Mint and Noelle spent $150,000 on their renovations — what cost-saving tips do they have for potential buyers?

PHOTO: Fifth Avenue

Firstly, prioritise what is important to you and distinguish between what you need and what you want. The couple decided that their flat's windows were still in decent condition, so they opted to replace only the handles to improve the aesthetic.

Secondly, you can take time to source for cheaper alternatives for furniture or decorations that you really want. For example, Noelle and Mint's DIY (Do-It-Yourself) coffee table was cobbled together from wooden pallets, and it was something the couple chose to source on their own instead of just buying.

Noelle said: "It took me a while to find the pallets, lacquer them, and put the table together. Most people spend at least $200 to $300 on [their coffee table], but ours cost us only about $100."

Their industrial-luxe bedroom. PHOTO: Fifth Avenue

Lastly, sometimes brands do not matter, unless there is a difference in terms of the technology for electronic products, or if you are looking for a specific function, shared the couple.

"For example, we decided it doesn't matter what brand our TV is, as long as it works," said Noelle, sharing that they purchased one from a less mainstream brand that was "almost half the price of TVs from other more popular brands in the market".

"Ours is a 70-inch — from any other brand, it might have cost up to $2,000 to $4,000. We got it at a steal at about $1,000 instead," she added.

This article is brought to you in partnership with the Housing & Development Board. Visit the MyNiceHome website for fresh design ideas and useful guidelines on renovating your HDB flat.