D+A / Filling the Voids

Architecture, Print Articles
44-47 HABITAT jalan mariam house 4PP P-2
DA85 Cover3_320
Issue DA85 April/May 2015

Filling the Voids

The strategic carving out of voids in the massing of a two-generational home encourages connectivity between family members while introducing nature within.


Homes designed for multigenerational living in Singapore is a perennial practice, reflective of the scarcity and exorbitant cost of land, as well as the Asian culture of mutual care provided by different generations of a family living together. With regard to house design, architects have oft late been put to the test in exploring the potentials of a brief that requests for privacy for the different generations while not losing the interaction among family members.

Architect Lim Ai Tiong (his eponymous firm was formerly named LATO Design) faced this scenario in a recently completed project. The solution for the detached house in a sleepy residential neighbourhood in Jalan Mariam was an interesting solution involving nature.

The concept is highlighted clearly in the project’s name: Four Connecting Nature Voids. This is, Lim highlights, a summary of a much longer title – “One House, Two Blocks, Three Levels, and Four Connecting Nature Voids” – that provides a more in-depth explanation of the design.

“Although it’s for two generational living, ultimately, it is for one [large] family,” says Lim on the “One House” descriptor. On the first storey are the common areas, while the second storey is given entirely to the parents, and the third to the son and his wife. On each storey are also guestrooms (or future bedrooms for a third generation).

The second descriptor “Two Blocks” refers to the expression of two interlocking zones on the exterior, which are finished to delineate their hierarchy. On the right, the ‘master’ wing containing the bedrooms of the parents and son is articulated in a warm timber tile-cladded volume, while the volume on the left where the guestrooms are located is finished with a more reticent pale grey SKK spray texture. Lim has decided on the position of the master wing on the right for it to get access to the more favourable Eastern sun.

While the third descriptor of “Three Levels” is straightforward and requires no further explanation, the fourth and final descriptor “Four Connecting Nature Voids” is where the heart of the design lies. “Because land is so expensive in Singapore, the client wanted to try to maximise the floor area. So the house is built to the maximum set back allowed. Then the question goes: how do I bring nature into the house, because it is not left with much land after these set backs?”

Lim’s solution was to carve out four square-shaped, double-volume voids in the house’s massing – two connecting the first and second storeys, and another two connecting the second and third storeys. This parti is simple but results in an enriching experience while solving a host of problems.

First of all, is the incorporation of nature that the intense built up of the house removed. These take the form of gardens and water features within the four voids. One encounters the first of these at the entrance, with the sound of softly trickling water providing a soothing welcome. The double volume height of this space cuts into a space in between the parents’ bedroom and a guestroom above. “This is what I meant by interconnected spaces; when there are guests coming into the house, the occupants can look down from the second storey,” Lim points out.

On the first storey, a second void anchored by a luscious Ficus tree connects the living and dining area on the first storey, and the parents’ room on the second storey; a second void with another Ficus tree connects the parents’ room on the second storey with the son’s bedroom on the third storey. The last void containing a water feature is found at the back of the house between another guestroom and the son’s bedroom.

On plan, these voids are found at the edges of the house, which make them useful as visual buffers to the proximity of the neighbouring house. Aside from privacy, the views out to the water features and gardens also afford the occupants green relief. This is all the more delightful in spaces such as the bathrooms in the master wing that are located next to the garden voids; taking a bath or washing one’s face with the window open is akin to the feeling of being in a spa with the gentle rustling of leaves and views of nature close by.

As Lim describes, “The leaves filter the light and the occupants can appreciate the nice view of the trees. Also if you open the window, breeze does come in.” More importantly, he adds, “I’m trying to give both generations privacy hence the split in two levels but at the same time, I’m trying to connect them though the views.”

In the middle of the house, the leitmotif of cut outs continues in the form of two voids puncturing the floor plate through from the first to third storey. A skylight with timber screens running through the length of the house between the master and guest wings provide additional natural illumination.

The choice of finishing in the house is straightforwardly neutral in creamy beige, white and chestnut tones. It’s not the most inventive or inspiring but one could argue that it allows the spatial experience and views created by the connecting voids to become the focus. Perhaps what would be more interesting is if the differentiating material palette of the facade was carried through into the interior instead of remaining superficial.