In addition to a solid boundary wall and gate, the outer skin of the building is almost entirely made up of brown exposed brick, which means there is hardly a single pane of glass in sight.
More remarkably, there are precious few openings on all its four sides, so not only are its inhabitants shielded from the eyes of passers-by, but also the neighbours’ too.
Wilder imaginations might associate it with a high-security installation or military black site, despite its location in Orchard, but Yip Yuen Hong, principal of the architectural practice has a much simpler explanation.
“The owners are an elderly couple, who come across as very shy, so I thought to create a very introverted house for them,” he explains.
The decision to not plaster over the bricks is Yip’s way of adding “a twist”, as he is inclined to do with his projects, to make them stand out.
In this case, it also gives the house a handcrafted, artisanal quality. “Even though it is quite massive, because of the brick work, it feels very intimate and warm, with a human scale,” he adds.
Closed up but open
Being an introvert does not mean lacking in character and thanks to Yip, the house has it in spades.
Its opaque, monolithic appearance cloaks an interior woven with courtyards, landscaped terraces, a skylight and even a Juliet balcony. Smack in the middle of it is an astounding fair-faced concrete staircase.
“The staircase is very, very acrobatic, not just for the sake of being so. We wanted something of a talking point in the house,” he reveals, of the decision to design it such that it dances and twists up the full three floors.
It also has a secondary function: For the owners to walk up and down it as a form of exercise.
Consequently, Yip had to customise both the height and depth of each step for safety reasons. “Because of its acrobatic style, at every single point, they have a different perspective of the house and so it becomes a very interesting journey,” he says.
And there is plenty to see. On the ground floor, there are two internal courtyards.
One of which is located at the rear corner with a double-volume height that also acts as a buffer zone against the afternoon sun. Additionally, large cut-outs in the building’s exterior open up to views of the garden and help with ventilation.
The third internal courtyard is located on the second floor and leads to a bedroom suite situated in the front of the house. Two other rooms on this floor overlook the rear internal courtyard on the first storey.
En route to the attic sits the Juliet balcony that peeks down into the terraces. At the top of the staircase, a circular skylight with a checkerboard design brings daylight into the house. The resultant shadow is reminiscent of the concrete breeze blocks found on the facade.
Here, the master suite takes up the entire floor, wrapped with terraces that while are not open to the sky, use a combination of breeze blocks, cut-outs and skylights in the facade skin to let light and air in.
“In creating all these terraces, balconies and courtyards — I call them the lungs of the house — it is for the house to breathe, without the owners needing to venture out. This allows them the feeling of being outside, without having to be in extreme sunlight or inclement weather,” says Yip. “I also see them as intermediate spaces that protect the inner sanctum.”
Built by hand
Unwittingly, there is another more important thing that he is protecting with this project: the craft of building. In choosing to use bricks to construct, he eschewed huge heavy machinery to pour concrete and pollute the air with noise and fumes.
“To me, bricks are the best building material. Two men can put a whole house together. With one hand, you slap, dash and lay it and make all kinds of patterns. It’s beautiful. But because it is labour intensive and expensive, it is not efficient, so we lose it and that saddens me,” Yip explains.
As easy as he made it sound, it was anything but. He and his team had to plan the brick works meticulously, while ensuring they minimise wastage, since they were imported from Germany. Despite the significant amount of thought and time required, he was happy to do it.
What also encouraged him was how the bricklayers got very involved in the discussions, “To me, it is very fascinating. We don’t really appreciate them anymore.”
The other team he enjoyed working with was the one behind the sculpting of the spiral staircase. Even when he had his doubts about the feasibility of his design, the form workers were very reassuring, going so far as to counter-propose solutions. The two-way dialogue and contribution was something he found inspiring.
“After working for so many years, a lot of these workers lose that sense of pride and enthusiasm because what they do is not really valued. But once in a while, when the job becomes a bit more complicated and we don’t know how to do it, you see their eyes sparkle because they know how to do it.”
The result is a house of bricks that is made from just one material and looks like a distinctive sculpture — a boon for the neighbourhood.
There is even a timeless quality to it, courtesy of the raw finish of the brick. That it won the Merit Award (Residential Projects) at the SIA Architectural Design Awards 2023 also proves that when you do judge it, closed up as it looks, you’ll be hard-pressed to ignore it.
This article was originally published on The Peak.