It was not your usual house-rebuilding project – one where you have a piece of land, hire an architect and build your dream house. Firstly, there was 70,820 sq ft to build on.
There was an old colonial building in one corner that was rented out until the tenants left in 2013, leaving a structure too small, too rundown and too insignificant to restore.
When you have this much land in the gentrified green lung that is King Albert Park, the choice seems obvious – carve it up, build a few giant houses and sell them to the highest bidders. Done deal.
Except that this project fell into the hands of Grace Yang, who had no intention of doing anything of the sort.
Perhaps it helped that Grace, 32, had no real idea what she was getting into when her father – who owns a plastic manufacturing business – entrusted his middle child with the development of the land that had been in her family since her grandfather bought it in the 1960s.
At the time – four years ago – the engineering graduate was in between jobs and helping to manage some of the family’s properties which were rented out. She would eventually go full time into it as the general manager of K16 Services, which was set up in 2016 to manage commercial and industrial properties, and also the houses that now stand on the gently undulating land of 18, 18A, 19 and 23 King Albert Park.
But back in 2013, she was a wet-behind-the-ears fledgling property manager who had to convince Vista Realty – the property investment firm owned by the extended Yang family – to let her follow her own vision for the land. That included over-riding the decision to hire another architect for the job, and appoint the one of her choice, Yip Yuen Hong of ipli Architects.
Even though he was late to respond to them, Yang insisted he was the right choice because “Yuen Hong’s approach to things were fresh”. While it would have been easier to build four cookie cutter houses and put them up for lease, she wanted something more. She wanted a design that was close to nature, with large pitched roofs and generous verandahs; minimalist yet of high quality; individual sanctuaries without unnecessary embellishment or loud gestures.
All of which was right up the alley of Yip, 58, a four-time President’s Design Award winner and the personification of minimalist architecture. While he was drawn to the King Albert Park Space – his largest private property project requiring him to design four very unique houses at the same time – he was a little wary about working with Yang, his youngest client.
“I was afraid she might be a spoilt brat,” he admits. But she surprised him with “her thirst to learn, sieve through ideas and ask questions”. And while “she sometimes gets agitated, she has a sense of maturity – Grace is an old soul.”
In turn, Yang says, “Yuen Hong can be so stubborn sometimes. And he’s not easy to work with.” Midway through the project, she even had second thoughts about working with him, but is glad that working through their differences on design and how things should be done has been worth it. “You don’t want someone who just says ‘yes’ to everything.”
Exactly what they fought over they no longer remember, but Yip says, “It was always for the good of the project. I feel that if you don’t do something right the first time, it would be too much trouble to make changes later.”
The site’s undulating nature, while an attractive attribute, posed the biggest challenge for Yip, who had to figure out “how to connect the four houses when there are no fences in between”. He adds, “Manipulating the ground levels was difficult because of restrictions on how much we can shave the land. Another challenge was that we wanted the four houses to be like a village, hence the physical connection was important. We wanted them to be of the same architectural vocabulary but with each having its own character.
“What we didn’t want were houses that were all different and screaming for attention.”
On her part, Yang had her own heart-in-mouth moments when the project was threatened with construction delays and budget cuts mid-way, so they had to be more resourceful about sourcing for materials and creative in decorating the houses.
But in the end, Yang and Yip worked so well with each other that they’ve since gone on to work on refurbishing an industrial property and a black and white house together. And Yang is well on her way to make the switch to property construction. With her background in engineering, she studied for a diploma in construction management from the Building and Construction Authority. And with Yip’s encouragement, she also did her MBA.
If it feels like the duo went to a lot of trouble to design homes meant only for rental, Yip says it was because he didn’t want to do something “middle of the road”. But, “at the same time, there is no need for fancy architecture, as that will get boring very quickly.”
Yang too fully appreciates Yip’s understated style, even though “they were harder to rent out as these four are not the traditional, mass-market type of houses.”
She adds: “It was also more difficult because the houses do not reflect the traditional definition of luxury. For these homes, there is luxury more in space, and in the little details and raw materials than in everything looking new, shiny and expensive.” She declined to reveal construction costs for the houses.
For her, there was never the worry of not being able to rent them out. “We just needed to target a specific audience,” she says. At any rate, all four houses are already tenanted out.
It has been a long and arduous journey working on the King Albert Park houses, but rather than relief, Yang feels a strong sense of pride.
Text: Tay Suang Chiang/The Peak