Saturday, January 30, 2010

HDB’s tall stories

Ask a Singaporean to name a building that is distinctively local, and ‘an HDB block’ is most likely to be the answer.

Head out into the heartlands and blocks of public flats built by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) fill the landscape.

The HDB celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and also at some point during the year, it will have built its one millionth flat.

It was set up in 1960, at a time when most residents were living in unhygienic slums and crowded squatter settlements that were packed in the city centre.

Its task in taking over from its predecessor, the Singapore Improvement Trust, was to solve Singapore’s housing crisis. The first pressing issue was to build a large quantity of public flats at a low cost.

And build them, it did. In less than three years, the HDB built 21,000 flats.

By 1970, it had put up more than 100,000 flats, successfully housing more than 35 per cent of the population in its flats.

Today, 84 per cent of Singaporeans live in such flats.

While public flats remain largely high-rise ones, their look has changed over the last five decades.

The early flats were designed with minimum room sizes in mind. Costs were kept as low as possible to make them affordable. The early designs were one-, two- and three-room flats.

Exteriors were also kept basic – rectangular blocks with single corridors on each floor giving users access to flats.

Dr Milton Tan, 54, associate professor of architecture at the National University of Singapore, describes flats in the 1960s as simple and functional.

He explains: ‘They were slabs, as the HDB had to build them fast, and there was no time for redesign.’

He adds that with the slab blocks, the HDB had created a kind of template that it ‘rubber-stamped’ over the island.

Indeed, pictures of early housing estates such as in Queenstown and Toa Payoh show flats of this kind.

In the 1970s, with more neighbourhoods being built, flats took on a different look.

To differentiate one new town from another, new block shapes were introduced.

The late and former national development minister Teh Cheang Wan wrote in the 1975 book, Public Housing In Singapore: A Multi Disciplinary Study, that rather than traditional rectangular slab blocks, newer blocks took differing forms and in shapes such as L, U, pin wheel, Y and square or point blocks.

In the 1980s, the precinct concept was developed to provide more conducive settings for community interaction. Smaller clusters of housing blocks were served by facilities that promote neighbourliness.

‘The focus here was more on creating neighbourhoods, with playgrounds and park-like settings among the blocks rather than just on the block level,’ says DrTan.

In the 1990s, the Design and Build scheme involving the private sector in design and construction was introduced.

Among the first blocks built under this scheme were 620 flats in Tampines Street 45, spread over three linked octagonal blocks, each sporting a courtyard in the centre. They were completed in 1994.

Veteran architect Alan Low, 67, a director at architectural firm P&T Group who headed the project, says of the design: ‘It opened up people’s eyes that there was more than one way to design the blocks of flats. Block design doesn’t have to be so rigid.’

With the completion of the Pinnacle@ Duxton last year, the look of HDB flats has changed dramatically: Built in Duxton Plain, where the first two HDB blocks in the area were built, it is the board’s first 50-storey development.

Public housing looks set to become more exciting with upcoming projects.

For example, at the upcoming Treelodge@Punggol, HDB’s first eco-precinct, the blocks here will have features such as vertical greenery, where plants are grown in vertical spaces, rather than just on the ground. The project will be completed by the end of this year.

The now sleepy Dawson estate is set to come alive with two new 40-storey housing blocks due for completion in 2015. Called SkyTerrace@Dawson and SkyVille@Dawson, these have more elaborate facades and landscaping, with features such as sky gardens, small pockets of greenery built on the intermediate floors, where residents can gather.

Mr Wong Mun Summ, 47, co-founder of Woha which is designing SkyVille, says: ‘We looked at ways the architecture could bring back the kampung spirit and built this community idea into the design.’

Singapore’s first waterfront public housing project will be launched later this year. These will be 1,200 flats featuring sky terraces, roof gardens and panoramic views of the Punggol Waterway.

These blocks of flats, which are expected to be ready by 2014 or 2015 and whose tiered layout echoes hills of rice terraces, are designed by international architectural firm Group8asia and local firm Aedas.

Mr Tony Ang, 56, managing director of Aedas, says HDB flats have ‘grown taller, are more colourful and have better built quality and public amenities’.

HDB’s head of design policy and coordination Jeremiah Lim, 33, says when it comes to the design of public housing today, ‘we work to keep up with the trends and aspirations of home seekers’.

The board will be holding an exhibition of its last 50 years at the HDB Hub in Toa Payoh, starting today, till next Sunday.

Life! takes a closer look at how public housing has changed over the past 50 years.

Slab-like blocks to condo-type flats

An ongoing exhibition at HDB Hub traces the board’s history and milestones. Here is a quick look at how its flat designs have changed in the last 50 years.

Early flats in Queenstown

When the HDB was set up in 1960, its task was to solve the nation’s housing crisis. Homes had to be built fast. The first flats were built in Queenstown.

The slab block look

Flats then were built in slab blocks, with a central access corridor on each floor. This was the most economical way of arranging the flats.

Variety in block design

Over the years, the designs of blocks changed to include more variety in their appearance. This included varying the heights, colours, columns, facade detailing and roof treatments.

First Design and Build flats

In 1991, HDB introduced the Design and Build scheme, which involved the private sector in design and construction. The first flats built under this scheme were 620 units in Tampines Street 45. Built by architecture firm P&T Group, the flats were spread across three linked octagonal blocks.

Condo-style HDB flats

In 2005, HDB launched the Design, Build and Sell Scheme, allowing the private sector to design, build and sell HDB flats. The result is The Premiere @ Tampines – its first condo-style flats. They came with glass-panelled private balconies, which were not found in normal HDB flats.


HDB’s first 50-storey development, which was completed late last year. It consists of seven blocks linked by skybridges on the 26th and 50th storeys. The blocks are designed in a hook shape, so no resident looks into his neighbours’ flats.


Launched in 2007, this is HDB’s first eco-precinct and will be ready by the end of the year. The flats will have green features such as solar-powered corridor lighting and common areas that will be cleaned using recycled rainwater, as well as vertical greening, where plants are grown on the higher floors.

First waterfront public housing project

These flats in Punggol will line the 4.2km Punggol Waterway. Its unique design are its blocks of flats that will ’step down’ towards the water like terraces and have solar panels on their rooftops to supply power to common areas.

SkyTerrace@Dawson and SkyVille@Dawson

Launched for sale last month and scheduled to be completed in 2015, these are two towers of flats that are more than 40 storeys high. Designed by award-winning firms SCDA and Woha respectively, these boast more elaborate facades and sky gardens.

Source: Straits Times, 30 Jan 2010

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