House tour: A cave-like home in Singapore designed for the simple life
This house for a couple is modest in scale – there is only one bedroom – but it offers rich encounters, thanks to its windows, air wells and skylights, among other architectural devices.
When the owners of this house, a retired couple, were looking for a new residence, they had very specific requirements. It had to be elevated and detached, located on a corner plot and offer the uncomplicated, quiet life they craved for in this phase of their lives.
The search for the perfect site took a year-and-a-half, and they found it in a mature residential estate in northeastern Singapore.
When it came to the architect, they wanted someone brazen. “Quirky, even,” quipped the wife during our house tour. They had seen the works of Yip Yuen Hong, the founder of ipli Architects and winner of several President’s Design Awards, and found his poetic, inventive tropical house designs intriguing.
But they did not appoint him immediately. “We got to know him first through a few meetings, having tea together, for him to understand us and for us to know how he thinks. After three months, we decided he was the guy,” said the husband. The couple gave Yip full artistic license, requesting only for a simple house for two people.
Grey, blockish, chiselled in some aspects but voluminous in others, the house is a minimal sculpture writ large. “The homeowners live a spartan lifestyle and the architecture reflects that,” said Yip. They wish to peacefully indulge in their artistic hobbies. The wife enjoys Chinese painting and calligraphy, and the husband, watercolour painting.
The raised topography places the basement garage at road level. Elevated, the first storey is shielded from passersby. Yip shifted the former entrance from the main road to the quieter perpendicular lane for additional safety and privacy.
In the basement, a courtyard heralds the house’s embrace of nature. Stepped planters draw the eye upward to a wall of trees at the first storey whose foliage sends down dappled light. A staircase leads to the first storey, where ample apertures extend vistas outward to gardens.
The house is not large but the open plan lends a spacious feel. Tall slide-fold timber doors segregate the living, dining and staircase foyer should the need arise, although the couple leaves them open most of the time.
This strategy is echoed on the second storey, where the house’s sole bedroom can either segue into, or separate from, the painting studio and study. Yip initially conceived of this compartmentalisation to reduce noise travelling to the building’s innermost parts. Additionally, it contains air-conditioning to certain parts of the house.
A one-bedroom house is an anomaly in Singapore, where homeowners are wont to maximise square footage and chock up rooms for future proofing. The land area is 4,200 sq ft (390 sq m) but the house’s footprint makes up less than half of that.
In line with their ethos of simple living, the couple only wanted the essentials, even doing away with a guest room. Not having an attic enables soaring ceilings in the second storey.
“The homeowners live a spartan lifestyle and the architecture reflects that.” – Yip Yuen Hong
In plan, the house reads as three main zones linked by a central air well. Service spaces such as the wet kitchen on the first storey and wardrobe upstairs placed nearer the road buffers noise. “Where we formerly lived at Pasir Panjang Hill, it was very quiet. So we told Yuen Hong we were sensitive about noise, especially when we sleep,” shared the appreciative husband.
This purposeful approach also informs the architecture’s unusual window sizes and positions. “For example in the bedroom, a large window placed low gives a sense of intimacy and closeness to one sitting at the bed’s edge or a low lounge chair,” said Yip.
This lowness further enables the trees upfront to act like a screen, thereby resolving privacy issues without curtains and blinds. On the contrary, similarly large windows in the studio are positioned higher for proper illumination when the wife is painting.
In the living area, a massive timber door leads to the patio. When opened at an angle, wind deflects inward. Even with no fans, the interiors feel comfortable due to well-designed passive cooling. Yip likens the house to a cave, where the couple not only retreats into symbolically from the cacophony of modern society, but also physically from the elements.
“Despite the cave-like appearance and atmosphere, the design works in the same way as a typical tropical house with deep roof eaves for strategic shading and rain protection, openings located at opposite ends for cross-ventilation and stack effect ventilation through the vertical light well,” Yip highlighted.
Skylights illuminate the house’s heart, minimally sized to reduce direct overhead heat and glare. One looks into the air well, where small windows feed light and wind sideways into the second storey. “We do not need to switch on any lights during the day,” said the husband on the effective illumination.
In the master bathroom, the ceiling peels open above the shower to introduce sunlight, and a mirror in another corner reflects light around. “This is suggestive of light spilling in through gaps, breaks and crevasses seen in natural geological formations. We hope they form an illusion of intimacy with nature during the cleansing activity,” said the husband.
These corner features add to the house’s quirks. It also manifests in small, 45-degree windows throughout the house, whose indirect angle allows views further out instead of across at neighbours.
A charcoal palette and unpolished textures accentuate the cave imagery. Rough granite tiles carpet the first storey, extending into the sheltered terrace to amplify indoor-outdoor connections. The master bathroom, clad homogeneously in stone tiles, meld furniture and structure; depressions in the counter and shower area become washbasin and bathtub, respectively, while a portion of the floor rises as a bench.
The staircase and second storey’s unvarnished timber flooring offers tactility underfoot, with potential stains adding to the charm and bearing witness to the couple’s lives. Paradoxically, accepting that the unprotected surface is prone to little tarnishes by daily activity gives the owner peace of mind from worrying about maintenance, said Yip.
He designed the house for nominal upkeep in line with hassle-free living. Rough-textured plaster walls on external and internal walls negate the need for habitual repainting. Same too for the exposed concrete ceiling, featuring subtle gunnysack imprints that add depth and soften reflected light.
The couple rejected all the technological bells and whistles of modern homes such as electronic light switches and remote air-con systems, having witnessed friends spend excessive time and money on repairing faulty mechanical parts.
To fit all her clothes into the humble wardrobe, the wife went on a cathartic de-cluttering spree. “My husband commented that the more space we have, the more things we buy,” she laughed. In the studio, painting paraphernalia is predominantly tucked away in cupboards.
“Despite the cave-like appearance and atmosphere, the design works in the same way as a typical tropical house.” – Yip Yuen Hong
The only aspect of the house requiring extensive care is the garden, which has over 40 trees. This little Eden frames the couple’s everyday living; they are often found on the sheltered terrace surrounded by the bucolic scenery, and lemons from a lemon tree is picked daily to flavour their water.
During the "circuit breaker", the husband replaced most of the ground-covering plants with gravel as the gardener could not come and they were wary of harbouring dengue-causing mosquitoes. The spatial emptiness accentuates the trees’ slender trunks and leafy crowns, exuding the contemplative feel of a Japanese garden.
The couple is happy with their retreat, whose intended seclusion meant their lives were for the most part unaffected during the circuit breaker. Life here is simple but not boring. “It is these interesting corners that make up the house. Even after living here for two years, we are still discovering new things,” said the husband.