In Singapore, the award-winning House of Trees with a 'living' facade of greenery
L Architects planted 12 trees and bountiful plants in front of two conjoined houses to block off bustling six-lane traffic.
When people walk past this house, they do a double take. The atypical facade is curtained with trees and plants, flourishing wonderfully in planters such that it is hard to tell where the windows are.
“Even passengers in passing cars and buses would do the same,” said one of the owners, Steve Tay. The entire verdant composition actually belongs to two conjoined semi-detached houses.
Architect Lim Shing Hui of L Architects, together with her architectural assistant Tse Lee Shing, conceived their facades to look like one house. Steve lives with his family in the left wing and his brother Tay Boon Kim lives with his family in the right wing.
The brothers grew up with three other siblings in a bungalow built in the 80s. A few years ago, their parents bequeathed it to them. They subdivided the land to build the semi-detached houses in order to increase the necessary square footage for the extended family. Their parents now live with another sibling but have their own room here when they visit. Each house now has five bedrooms and an open terrace at the top for future expansion.
It's called the House of Trees and it recently garnered a merit award for a residential project at the Singapore Institute of Architects Architectural Design Awards 2022. It was one of three awards given to L Architects, which was also joint winner for Design of the Year (for the kitchen appliances store A Brick & Mortar Shop).
The green facade was birthed from context. The plot faces a six-lane carriageway, which meant the occupants were beholden to perennial traffic noise and dust. Obviously, the view was nothing to speak of.
“We acknowledged that it was challenging to bring a spirit of respite, livability and tranquility into this house, and knew that we had to come up with a design strategy that could better respond to its undesirable surrounding than to create a hermetic shell. So we asked ourselves this question: Can we create a great indoor space without having a great outdoor?” said Lim, who is also the designer of The House Apartment.
The architect enjoys incorporating landscaping into her work as if it were a building material such as glass or marble. “Practicing in the equator means that we have so much rain and sun to work with. I wanted very much to create a vertical garden for this house; a green buffer that shields part of the east- and west-facing sun, the traffic and undesirable views, but most importantly, to create great indoor spaces,” she elaborated.
There are no token potted plants here. Lim integrated planter boxes into the facade, some of them with balconies fronting the rooms. There are 12 trees on the facade. “We chose to house an equal proportion of trees on the facade to shrubs or plants because we think that tree structures and forms are visually a lot more interesting. With a sectional interplay of the planter positions, you get to appreciate the trees at varying heights – sometimes at the crown, sometimes at the trunk – and you even get to see the underside of certain leaves of which some species have different colours and patterns compared to their fronts,” said Lim.
The selection includes the Cornocarpus – a slender tree with white silvery leaves that lends a sheen to the entire foliage – as well as the Tabernaemontana tree, chosen for its sculptural form, white flowers and ability to be grown in partially shaded conditions. Its less aggressive roots will also not choke the drainage system. Another is the Diospyros tree. “The tips of the leaves are pale green so they feel lightweight. We think they would sway in the most poetic way during a thunderstorm,” described Lim.
Her father seeded her love of nature. Hikes in the more wild areas of Singapore are a weekly family activity. The hardworking architect was meticulous about how the foliage would appear not just from the front but also from the rooms behind, and tested various formations in sectional drawings. “When we were drafting the upper planters, I actually did some physical experiments in my office by taping the heights of the upper plants on our office doors to see how that would feel, if the headroom is sufficient, how the plants would drape over,” shared Lim.
The composition includes a tessellation of perforated aluminium portals that mitigate glare and offset the heaviness of the main concrete frame that could not be made anymore slender due to structural constraints. The deep concrete frame shelters the balconies so they are usable even in light rains.
Lim designed the experience of the facade to coincide with daily domestic life. “If you are taking your clothes from the walk-in wardrobe or walking down the stairs, you can catch a glimpse of nature,” she said, on strategically placed windows. On the second storey, she inserted a courtyard accessible by the two families. “When you are in the courtyard, the traffic noise is no longer audible so to have a quiet respite within this house is actually not impossible,” said Lim.
A large sliding door on the first storey separates the dining rooms of each house, so the cousins can run in and out. “Since we moved in, we have never locked the sliding door. During the weekends, everyone from our big family of five siblings would gather here for a meal, so having the flexibility of opening up the dining area when needed is so important for us,” said Steve Tay.
The brothers admit to not having green fingers before this but now lovingly tend to their landscaping. Lim had made it easy to maintain with a self-watering system and by ensuring all the trees and plants could be accessed from the balconies and windows.
“We want the homeowners to be more engaged with these natural elements and immerse themselves in the process of gardening. They shouldn’t see it as a chore. In fact, when the trees and plants flourish, there is a sense of pride that they have taken good care of their house, and they get to enjoy the fruits of their labour as the adjacent spaces are so calming and beautiful,” she quipped.
The pandemic also contributed to the brothers’ green fingers. “Since we were not able to travel and most weekends were spent at home, we would spend our time tending to the garden and facade. Because of this, we have discovered many interesting things – for example, a bird setting up its nest and laying eggs within the foliage,” said Boon Kim.
His father occasionally brings more plants and edible seeds like ladies fingers, chilli and vegetables to add to the existing planting. “So it’s like having a community garden for the family. We consume some during our gatherings,” added Steve.
The gardener only comes in every six months to do a hard prune. “Besides doing the weekly light trimming, monthly fertilising and removing fallen leaves from the balconies, we do not need to do anything more to upkeep this facade. The trade-off is definitely worth the effort because most of the important rooms like the master bedroom, study and our parents’ room benefit from this green view,” said Boon Kim.
House of Trees is a result of Lim’s relentless pursuit for reinvention and innovation. “We try to ask deeper questions with each project, and that means to stretch our abilities to do more inventive work. I believe in designing responsibly and not formulaically, to respond accordingly to how I feel about the context and decipher the spirit of the place,” she said.