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Handcrafted homes

When it comes to design, Sim Boon Yang believes in the personal touch.

SIM BOON YANG isn’t the kind of architect you can just randomly call and hire to design your home. Chances are high that he will simply turn you down.

Not that he’s being a prima donna. “It’s like a dating game,” he says.

“The client and I have to be compatible,” explains the 59-yearold veteran who founded eco.id Architects in 1996 and became a poster boy of Singapore architecture with an impressive portfolio of chic residences and resorts around the region.

He adds, “I don’t like designing speculatively, so we have to be aligned in our vision.” He has to get to know more about his potential clients – how they live, what their passions are and their aspirations for their home.

David Low, CEO of Futuristic Store Fixtures, knows Mr Sim’s strict criteria only too well. “I’d say we interviewed each other. He was careful about taking on clients, and I was also very selective in my choice of architect. Building a house is a long journey and if the partnership isn’t right, it would be disastrous,” says Mr Low.

“Matchmade” by a friend of Mr Sim, it was as if the duo had found their design soul mates.

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Mr Sim says: “We are both obsessive-compulsive. And I appreciate that David comes from a craftsmanship background and he understands about craft and building, which is rare.” And the fruits of their relationship? A Good Class Bungalow (GCB) near the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

The modern, 17,000 sq ft two-storey GCB is designed in a U-shape, with one wing housing two dining rooms and the kitchen on the first floor and the master bedroom on the second. The other wing incorporates a tea room on the first floor, and bedrooms for Mr Low’s daughter and mum on the second floor. Connecting the two wings is the living room on the first floor with his and hers seating areas, another family area on the second floor, and a rooftop garden.

The gym, spa and entertainment room are located in the basement, and a lap pool is accessible from both wings. The house is posh, as befits the neighbourhood, but that wasn’t Mr Sim’s plan.

Such houses, he says, tend to be “dressed nicely and the client just moves in.”

He, on the other hand, has a different take. “Houses ought to be a platform for the owner to populate with their own personality.” The colour palette of Mr Low’s home has been kept neutral – largely light coloured flooring and a mix of concrete and dark coloured walls which are a canvas for the art, furniture and little touches such as Mrs Low’s ikebana pieces to stand out.

Creating a home is more than just putting a box on the land and for Mr Sim, the design is secondary. “GCBs are so valuable, and you only have one chance to build it well from the start, because of the time and cost invested in it,” he says. “It is about how you amplify the value of the land, this is more important than the design.”

He calls it “laying down the bones”, where there is much thought on the placement of the house to optimise its value, and yet still offer privacy and good views. In the case of Mr Low’s home, it is sited in a way that makes the land look even bigger than it is – a fair distance away from its neighbours and the upper levels manipulated in a way to optimise views.

It also reflects eco.id Architects’ design style, which he describes as “very modernist, both as a style philosophy and a methodology of design.”

For him, it’s about applying a commonsensical reasoning to design, and follows the old adage of form following function. “We apply that rigorously, not just to the way the house looks, but how you choose materials and organise spaces. There’s also ergonomics, how you move around, entertain and want to live your daily life which all structures the design.”

Mr Sim’s personal design style is one that highlights the beauty of handcrafting. And in this case, it is his choice of using fair-faced concrete for the walls and a timber screen that has been charred black for texture. He explains that not many might accept charred timber in their home, or can accept the imperfections of fair-faced concrete. Because Mr Low understands craftsmanship, he didn’t bat an eyelid.

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Mr Sim rarely designs homes personally nowadays, and Mr Low’s project is one of the few he has done.

Yet he is still sought out by clients despite the high rate of rejection. “They want something beyond what’s in the market,” he says. “There are many good architects out there doing very nice houses but I do them in a particular way that’s a bit more personal.” By that he means putting his touch on the landscaping, right down to rugs and table settings.

He may seem like a control freak, but Mr Low doesn’t think it’s overkill. “It is a shame if the interiors and exteriors don’t complement each other. So we let Boon handle everything.”

A large part of eco.id Architects’ projects are designing hotels and resorts overseas. Some of its recently completed projects include the Hard Rock Hotel Maldives, InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau and the Four Seasons Resort on Desroches Island, Seychelles.

“We were designing homes when the firm started. And when you understand how people live and you design homes well, the logical expansion is into hospitality,” says Mr Sim.

He adds the firm has been very successful designing hotels and resorts because they fully grasped the concept of identity. “You have to understand the operator’s brand identity and also the place.

So if you are designing in Bali on a mountain top for a certain brand, you really must have a feel for the place and context,” he says. “What we build needs to sit nicely but be culturally correct as well, and that sensitivity gives that final solution to the product.”

Mr Sim says that the hospitality projects have been “great” for the firm’s growth and corporate reputation. But he recalls the early days when he would be fully involved in smaller projects.

“Now when I work on homes, it allows me to go back to my first love, where I’m very much involved in the crafting, which larger projects don’t really allow anymore. So in some ways, my career has come full circle,” he says.

Like many other industries, the firm has also felt the effects of the pandemic. Ongoing projects have stalled and new commissions have slowed down.

Mr Sim says they are taking this time to slow down and recalibrate. “We are extremely careful about the work we do now, being paid on time and making sure that the staff are productive.”

In fact, he feels happier now with the firm’s productivity and output. “I get to be involved in many things in detail now because I enjoy it, and it is also faster. I have fewer people doing the same amount of work.”

The slow down has also allowed him to pursue art. Mr Sim recently showed some giant metal and wood hand sculptures at an exhibition. He is also working on sculptures for Mr Low.

“I believe that if we age healthity, we can have multiple phases in our career,” says Mr Sim.

He is now interested in how art and architecture can be integrated, and “bring grace and beauty into spaces.”

“Working on my sculptures lets me craft visual ideas into reality,” he says. “The more I do that, the more I’m able to build things well.”

He adds, “In architecture, I always revel in the creative process like it is my very first project.

I then enjoy the anticipation and delight as the project gets completed, often finding something fresh in the result that was unforeseen.”

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This article was originally posted in The Business Times.