Published October 12, 2012

Balcony design in tune with nature

Homeowners are remaking the balcony, often using plants in the process

By zeinab yusuf saiwalla

[SINGAPORE] Balconies provide a perfect transition between the indoors and the wilderness while adding a marvellous architectural element to an otherwise enclosed space. More homeowners here are making a concerted effort to transform the space into a well designed and useful area, a far cry from using balconies as simply a viewing gallery.

And plants tend to often be the primary element in such a transformation.

"Greenery and nature in its various elements have a very powerful effect, but need to be used in the right way," explained Colleen Wu Ying, managing director of Consis Engineering Pte Ltd, whose firm has constructed various types of green walls in residential and commercial properties here.

"People have always loved plants but as we see in many HDB alleyways, potted plants all over can be very messy," she added.

In a bid to overcome the logistical challenges posed by potted plants, Ms Wu's firm has developed a patented system that allows plants to be potted against a vertical wall and for each pot to be fitted with an individual drip tube to facilitate easy watering. The result is a neat and organised garden structure called a green wall, often used in commercial buildings but now slowly being adopted by private home-owners in their balconies.

One such user is architect and facade specialist Kelvin Kan, who recently transformed the balcony space in his apartment by installing two vertical green walls so as to create a neat garden without compromising on space.

A dedicated proponent of sustainability, Mr Kan wanted to ensure that green walls would provide a greater benefit than just having a decorative quality and hence positioned the green walls to act as a curtain, shading the living room from the sun's rays.

The more commonly seen balcony designs that essentially entails a platform protected by balustrades or a rail is due to the fact that balconies have historically been used as a soap box or stage, to hold ceremonies or public announcements changes.

However, this traditional look is giving way to more creatively designed structures that encompass an aesthetic value alongside a useful purpose, especially in urban areas where space is a constraint.

This has led to balcony spaces doubling as a reading and relaxing area or as a service space to dry laundry. Furthermore, with the growing affluence of residents here, more homeowners are making the special effort to ensure that their balconies exude a sentiment in synchrony with the theme of their home - be it Balinese, naturalistic, or modernistic.

For Seetoh Kum Loon, one of the partners at Formwerkz Architects, incorporation of natural elements is his firm's signature style, and evident in the various balcony spaces the firm has designed.

A project by the firm entitled The Changi House has a balcony constructed with curvilinear timber slate screen which led to the transformation of the balcony space into an extension of the living room, a trend that has caught on among many home owners here, architects observed.

Explaining the concept behind the design, Mr Seetoh said: "The homeowner wanted a private space that still allowed for a visual interaction with the surroundings hence we designed the curvilinear timber screen to facilitate that."

Similarly, a project by Aamer Architects also saw the living room of a terrace house at Jalan Jintan merge tastefully with the balcony while still keeping a distinctive difference between the two spaces.

"The timber balconies give a nice resort feel to the space while the space below the timber deck can also be used for storage," explained Aamer Taher, principal of Aamer Architects

According to Mr Seetoh, most balconies today are designed generally with natural timber and marble, owing to the durability of such materials when exposed to the changing conditions of the weather.

It is not unusual to find a balcony completely covered in plywood in which the space is then transformed into a spare room or even a home office.

The Apartment House Balcony, another project by Formwerkz Architects, saw the incorporation of a sliding movie screen and concealed bath within the balcony to meet the client's request of extending the master bedroom to encompass nature.

Although requests for such elaborate uses of balcony spaces are not that common, Mr Seetoh noted that most people are receptive to the idea and are willing to spend on sprucing up the balcony with plants and outdoor furniture.

Some homeowners, however, prefer to be their own architects when it comes to designing the balcony space to incorporate the changing needs of the family.

For Zanariah Ahmad, the balcony space which she has transformed into an outdoor dining area with the help of a contractor has become the highlight of her apartment.

"We wanted a patio with a garden feeling so we installed wooden fencing to provide us with more privacy while not curbing the feeling of openness."