Lessons (re)learnt from our past work

I like to revisit projects that I have had the opportunity to work on in the past. Even when I was just a wide-eyed junior architectural designer at Surbana Jurong, or Surbana International Consultants, as it was known back then.

I recently visited a Housing and Development Board (HDB) public housing project completed almost 8 years ago. With a modest budget and comprising solely of 149 single-bedroom apartments of approximately 35-45sqm in size, it was part of a short lease scheme which back then was catered for the senior generation approaching their 60s who wished to downgrade from their existing larger apartments. This was one of the first projects when I was trusted to be the main designer. I was involved from concept up till the early stages of construction.

Befitting of a public housing project, the development is fully open and visually integrated with the neighbourhood. Through the lens of a fair bit more years of experience now as a fully qualified Architect, I have a new sense of appreciation for how the residents have taken ownership of the communal spaces that we had, years ago, attempted to plan for. I will try to share some of my observations below.

Ground floor Community Garden.
The community garden plots that we integrated with the exercise equipment at the ground floor have now blossomed to have vegetables and herbs.

I do not know who or how this is maintained but it seems the community cat approves of the garden, patiently accompanying me as I stroll through it.

Semi-Outdoors Living Rooms.
t the upper floors, we designed the lift lobbies to be more spatially generous. We placed benches there for residents' comfort whilst waiting for the lift to arrive. We specified railings instead of solid RC parapet walls to maximise the amount of natural ventilation and light to come into the lobby. We were careful to also have generous overhangs just above the openings to mitigate water ingress during a typical tropical rainstorm.

It now seems that the naturally ventilated lobby is not just a mere transitional space. The residents have creatively transformed it into a gardening space (some take gardening as a very serious hobby!).

This appropriation of space is prevalent at almost every floor. It feels like a semi-outdoors living room. 

Where we can improve.
here are some misses too despite our best intentions in design. The communal corridors can perhaps have small 'pop-outs' at regular intervals facing the entrance doors, not only to break the visual linearity, but also to create niches to create opportunities for 'doorstep' gardening or tinkering nooks. etc. Maybe it will encourage more residents to spend more time out of their apartments in the communal areas.

Likewise, we designed the ground floor seating as an integral part of the low parapet walls defining a large common space. On hindsight, they can be more sensitively done for improved comfort. They do not seem to be used as much as what we had envisioned years ago.

Despite this being one of my earliest projects, and despite it being a public housing project which is a far from glamorous genre of architecture, it still left a mark on me. Public housing projects introduced a young architecture designer to a design process in which the end users' immediate needs and requirements are very clear and direct with very targeted budget. We tried to the best of our abilities using design fundamentals like proportion, honesty of material use, to fulfil this need.

Revisiting the project now, I am reminded of what truly matters in architecture.

And that is a lesson re-learnt.