D+A / Connect the Blocks

Architecture, Print Articles
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Issue DA86 Aug/Sept 2015

Connect The Blocks

How to create a home that harnesses the tenats of simple and comfortable living? The house at JM by OWMF Architecture is a case in point.



OWMF Architecture is a young practice established by Yong Sy Lyng and Tay Yew in 2013. Both had met studying architecture at the National University of Singapore and later furthered their studies abroad – Yong in The Cooper Union, New York, and Tay at the Mackintosh School of Architecture in Glasgow.

After returning from their studies, Yong worked with various offices in New York, China and Singapore, including Shigeru Ban, SOM New York and Arc Studio in Singapore, while Tay gathered experience at RMJM and Ipli Architects. The firm is currently working on several residential and hospitality projects in Singapore and the region.

One project that has recently been completed is the House at JM, a semi-detached dwelling that caters to a small family of three. Interestingly, the client’s aim was not to maximise GFA. They also did not want to install air-conditioning and a lift as most homeowners are wont to do these days, but being located near the nature reserve and the seaside, requested that the design prioritise living spaces that are connected to the environment. Additionally, they wanted a home that gave them privacy, security and dealt with the issue of birds flying into the home while being easy to maintain.

“As the buildable footprint is very small, we could not fit the living, dining, kitchen, household shelter and a bedroom on the first storey as in a conventional layout,” says Yong. “So we took the opportunity to create split levels and stagger the spaces instead of stacking them on top of one another, so that the house is connected vertically.”

This means that one enters the home into the dining area, with the kitchen and services behind. A staircase on the side leads to the first split level, which contains the living area that opens up to a linear balcony, and from there, to a study room on another split level that hovers over the dining area. Finally, the last split level contains the master bedroom that is visually connected to the roof terrace via a row of adjacent dormer windows.

The division of the spaces into two distinct datums is the key idea of the house and one that the architect has taken great care at articulating in order to address the client’s challenge to have “an open yet private and protected house.” The first is a set of three volumes that contain spaces requiring more privacy such as the bedrooms, study, bathrooms and kitchen. These have small windows for privacy and are painted a crisp white, with structures dutifully concealed to maintain their volumetric forms. A warmer material palette comprising timber floor tiles defines the interior.

The second datum is a framing language defining the in-between and more social areas like the stair core, dining and living room. These are kept as porous as possible and sheltered from the elements with generous overhangs. A distinctive mesh with hexagonal-shaped perforations is a secondary layer beyond the glass windows to address the issues of privacy and intruding birds. These elements are painted grey, matched by black, rectangular floor-to-ceiling windows for maximum natural light and ventilation to enter. On the floor, a cooler palette of grey floor tiles is used, while structural elements – for instance, staircase handrail detail and the beams supporting the large, cantilever RC carporch roof – are exposed.

On the façade, this treatment is echoed with the respective paint colours, resulting in a clear reading of the interior programming. “The side elevation of the house is expressed with staggered, floating volumes supported by grey framing while the front façade is kept low-key [in white] intentionally,” Yong describes. Weather friendly paint was also selected for easy maintenance; even after a year where most abodes show signs of exterior staining, the House at JM still appears clean and new.

During a visit, the house feels sufficiently cool despite the scorching sunshine outdoors. This is a result of Yong’s efforts at making this work as a tropical house, though she points out that the design takes on a modern form. “We wanted to develop a new expression for the tropical house – a more geometrical, abstract for rather than a vernacular-looking one with a clay pitched roof or modern tropical house with timber louvres and excessive glass.”

Designing the house to work passively with the tropical climate is one of Yong’s priorities. This not only fulfils the client’s request for a low-maintenance abode but also makes the interiors pleasant to live in. “The vertical void and the stairs located in the middle section of the house is critical [for this],” Yong responds. “During the tropical storm, they maintain cross ventilation [while] ventilation louvres right below the roof allow the hot air to escape. The windows placed on opposite sides of the rooms and the hexagonal mesh [layer] also help to provide cross ventilation.” The mesh also acts as screen for additional shade.

Meanwhile, skylights are strategically placed such that they provide indirect illumination and not harsh glare. The aforementioned large roof overhangs also help in this aspect while allowing the windows to be opened for breezes to enter during rain. As Yong describes of breezes that she experienced one day at noon while sitting on the staircase, “we expected cross ventilation but not breeze! It is always a few degrees cooler in the house even in the afternoon. It is all concrete, but it is a tropical house.”

The House at JM is a house best experienced on site. It is hard to capture the split-level connection or the interior comfort in photographic stills. The former gesture encourages the family members to engage with one another as the spaces look across to the adjacent rooms. It also injects the home with a lively, playful character. The sounds of daily living can be head throughout the day, from sounds of meal preparation in the kitchen, to the television in the living area on the second storey. The living room, positioned unconventionally on the second storey, makes it a place for cosy retreat, while the dining room is a subtle invitation for casual conversation over a snack.

“To create something unique and that works better using accessible standard local craftsmanship within the client’s budget [while not ending up] like the homogenous Design & Build houses of the same budget,” is how Yong describe the key challenges for this project.

What this means is quality and thoughtful design that can be simple but is made for good living. “To achieve the basics in architecture that everyone knows but increasingly has forgotten, how to create spaces that are liveable without air conditioning, how to reconnect to the environment – it’s a landed property after all – how to make every brick, structure, element work in terms of functionality and aesthetics as opposed to cladding and decoration [is our goal],” Yong affirms.