Published May 15, 2008


Live and work under one roof

Multiple-usage buildings bring commercial and retail conveniences closer to their residents and is an approach that urban planners in land-scarce Singapore is encouraging, reports JOEL CHUA

MOST of us relate to the necessary evil that is the early-morning commute through snarling traffic to work and the evening one back home.

Now imagine if work was just a ride on the lift down from your apartment. Another journey on the lift after work to de-stress with some retail therapy at the mall located just a few floors below the office, and a final one at the end of the day - back to the apartment for a good night's rest. An entire day's work and play carried out without even having to leave your building of residence.

While that may be somewhat of an exaggerated depiction of modern living that will probably remain in the domain of the distant future, it is not an entirely inconceivable one either. With more multiple-usage (or 'multi-use') buildings being built in Singapore, there is an unmistakeable trend in that direction.

And at least one aspect of that prospect has already become reality. Such integrated buildings not only introduce lifestyle conveniences to its occupants in a unique manner, but also make for more efficient use of land.

One prominent example would be Ion Orchard, the highly anticipated development currently being constructed next to Orchard MRT station. While eight of its eventual 56 storeys will be assigned retail space, the rest of the floors will be designated as luxury residential apartments.

The prospect of high-end shopping without having to change out of your bedroom slippers will undoubtedly be appealing to some. But even though Ion Orchard represents the latest upscale development along this trend, the concept itself is not entirely novel. Ion's precursor predates it by almost four decades.

The first structure to be recognised as a multi-use building in Singapore is the People's Park Complex in Chinatown. When it opened for business in 1970, it pioneered the concept by integrating shopping, commercial, residential and parking facilities within a single building structure. For the first time, a ride in the lift or a short walk down the stairs was all that kept residents from their shopping and marketing needs.

And it was a groundbreaking construction endeavour in more ways than that, as it was also the first structure to be built in the podium and tower block design, as well the first significant public building project that involved the private sector's participation. Today, it still manages to retain the rustic charm of a bygone era.

Since then, more buildings that combine traditionally separate uses of space - typically residential with commercial - have been built.

While such buildings bring commercial and retail conveniences closer to their residents, there is also the urban planning case to be made for this trend.

Assigning more uses to a single building means that less land would have to be freed up for otherwise separate developments. In land-scarce Singapore, this is the approach that urban planners are encouraging.

And it's not just the residential-commercial integration that is becoming popular. New public amenities such as community libraries no longer occupy their own buildings, but are being built into shopping malls and other existing buildings.

Police and fire stations are being housed in common operating bases. Community centres are also beginning to accommodate permanent tenants, such as childcare centres and offices of other social welfare organisations. These trends give an insight into what the all-in-one building of the future may look like.

While such combinations of public amenities and spaces undoubtedly make good planning sense, combining residential with commercial spaces is rather trickier.

While some may relish the idea of living above a shopping mall, not everyone may be sold on it, especially when you consider certain problematic implications.

According to Yan Kum Seng, the past president of the Singapore Institute of Building, there is one obvious lifestyle drawback associated with such an integrated building.

'When it comes to residential (spaces),' he says, 'people may prefer to be more private instead of being exposed to the public.'

It is a valid concern that also has to do with security and noise pollution. While having the world at your feet can be great, it also means that the world will be able to look up at you, whether you like it or not.

Still, smart architectural design and utilisation of specialised building materials to maintain privacy and keep out noise pollution can go some way in mitigating those concerns with residents.

Then there is also the potential problem of a future en bloc sale. According to Mr Yan, who has 30 years of experience in the building industry, if you think that a regular residential en bloc process is a hassle, requiring agreement among sometimes fractious neighbours, the process for a multi-use development with a residential component can be even more of a headache. This is because it is far more difficult to apportion the evaluation shares of both the commercial and residential property owners.