Dark, dingy and grim aren't usually the criteria a househunter puts on his wish list, but for married couple Chin Sing Ping and Sharon Tay, looks didn't matter in their quest to buy a shophouse.
"We love shophouses and didn't want to move into one that was already restored and renovated," says Sharon, a homemaker. "We wanted one that was old so that we could redesign it to our preferences."
That was how their property agent took them to see a dilapidated shophouse on Onan Road that had previously been used as a workers' dormitory. Needless to say, the couple fell in love with it.
As their pre-war shophouse was gazetted in 1993 as part of the Joo Chiat Conservation Area, it had to follow the Urban Redevelopment Authority's (URA) conservation principles of maximum retention, sensitive restoration and careful repair.
Tasked with that responsibility was Keith Khoo of EZRA Architects, who not only helped the couple breathe new life into the shophouse and the neighbourhood, their efforts earned a Special Mention at this year's URA Architectural Heritage Awards.
Under conservation guidelines, the shophouse facade had to be retained.
The original windows were kept, and the front glass door was replaced with a wooden one, modelled after an archival photo. The entire facade was given a coat of white paint to best showcase the simple aesthetics of its original architectural features.
The five-foot-way outside the shophouse was also kept, its original terracotta floor tiles given a thorough scrub down.
In the living room, the plaster on the existing party wall was removed to expose the original bricks, which although not uniform in size, have their own beauty.
The timber rafters on the living room ceiling were fixed up and given a fresh coat of varnish.
Meanwhile, on Sing Ping's wishlist was a floating loft in the bedroom that the lawyer could turn into a home office. During a site recce, Keith discovered an empty space between the roof and the false ceiling in the bedroom.
It became the perfect spot to house this loft. "A loft is the ideal spot to appreciate the high interior volume of the shophouse's original architecture," he says.
But building this loft wasn't so simple. "The challenge was to design the new structure to be as inconspicuous as possible without disrupting the existing party wall," says Keith. A pair of slim steel columns was conceived to support the lightweight timber floor loft.
A skylight in the loft makes the space brighter, while glass panels provide safety and giving the impression that it's floating.
While conservation guidelines emphasised preserving as much of the original shophouse, they allowed for the addition of an extension block at the back so that the couple could have more living space.
Sharon loves her new courtyard, where she can grow indoor plants, and her second favourite spot is the five-foot way outside.
In the evenings, the neighbourhood kids scoot up and down the passageway, and sometimes passerbys take a breather on a bench outside her home. "Sing Ping and I also enjoy sitting here chilling with some wine," she says.
For Sing Ping, who has always had a passion for conservation, he says the project allowed him to "show how the old and the modern can come together."
This article was first published in The Business Times.