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Weird buildings? It’s about higher quality living: Ole Scheeren

The architect behind provocative designs like The Interlace in Singapore and MahaNakhon in Bangkok answers critics – and talks about how Asia can lead the way in building cities that change the way we interact.

He was just 18 when he drained his savings to buy a tiny car in order to drive across Europe, scoping out buildings and spaces while analysing which designs worked and which did not.

That experience challenged the way Ole Scheeren thought about architecture, making him one of the most influential architects today who is finding new solutions to high density living.

The German-born 45-year-old is the brains behind some of the most talked-about buildings in Asia, including the China Central Television Station (CCTV) building in Beijing, the Mahanakorn in Bangkok and the Angkasa Raya in Kuala Lumpur – all of which sport unusual designs which, he says, represent how we can find better ways to live in the city.

The confrontational nature of his designs makes people either love them or hate them, and has even drawn comments from President Xi Jinping, who described his CCTV building as “weird architecture”.

In Singapore his project The Interlace – a large-scale residential development by CapitaLand and Hotel Properties which won World Building of the Year at the World Architecture Festival – directly opposes the “straitjacket of the tower”. Instead, 31 apartment blocks stacked hexagonally form dynamic outdoor spaces for people to interact, a veritable “vertical village”.

Says Ole: “When I was young I took one fundamental decision which is that I mistrusted any mediation of reality – I did not want to look at photographs or books about architecture. I wanted to see the real thing.”

“Some things look really good in a photograph but when you get there, it’s totally different… To feel what happens to you when you enter these spaces taught me a lot,” he adds. Perhaps putting himself in unfamiliar places was his way of breaking out of the mould of his early years spent at his father’s architecture firm, in his hometown of Karlsruhe, Germany.


Just a few years after he went around Europe, Ole set off again – this time to backpack across China in 1992, when it was still a largely unfriendly place for tourists. He passed through remote villages and visited cities like Shenzhen when it was on the cusp of becoming the major financial metropolis it is today.

“There were a few small construction sites but no city… but at the same time you could feel the enormous energy that was there and that a lot was about to happen,” he recalls.

When this energy was unleashed, it brought a slew of foreign investment into China, and along with it, top architecture firms that were clamouring to ride the wave of the property boom.

One of them was Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), where Ole was a partner from 2002 to 2010.

The construction of OMA’s CCTV building brought Ole back to China. And, in 2004, he made the decision to base himself in Asia permanently.

In an interview with Channel NewsAsia at The Interlace, he talks about confronting the greatest challenge for Asian cities – high density living – as an opportunity for architects to rethink how to build our urban spaces.

Has basing yourself in Asia been changed the way you think about design?

I do try to spend as much time as I can in the places that I design for. To get the feel of a place is absolutely critical. Most Western architects sit in the West and literally export their work.

I thought this was an incorrect approach to things. I think that design is very contextually specific – so our buildings are very precise answers to location and culture.

The first time I came to China was 1992… it had a huge influence on me. It was such an intense encounter with this culture. It confronted me with how different the world was compared to where I grew up, but it became an entirely liberating experience and I think it connected me to this part of the world.

What is it about Asia that keeps you wanting to work here?

Europe is such a well developed and fixed structure that is much more difficult to intervene radically. Asia in general is partly the opposite – there is more commitment to renewal and to rethinking things. It is very explicitly asking the question of the future.

That in itself is simply a very exciting concept for an architect to work in because you can really think about new ways of living, new ways of working, new ways of designing structures.

What issues should architects and urban planners of today be thinking about?

I think the greatest challenge is to deal with the enormous density and the influx of people coming into the city, but at the same time, using it as a challenge to discover a quality of life within that.

What is more important is creating a social environment – thinking about how we can really construct a city not only as a built fabric but really as a society.

Why is it important for architects to think about these issues?

Buildings are for people… so to imagine how people would feel in buildings, the psychology of people, is very important.

I think too much of the construction business is concerned with pure profit… and too much of architecture is concerned with the purely iconic, with shapes, and silhouettes.

My buildings are really born out of an ambition to achieve a quality of life. They are not created as an idea of shape or pure object, but they are asking the question – how do things work in there? Both in a functional way but also in an emotional or psychological way.

Having said that, you are known to design buildings with very iconic shapes – some people even give your buildings nicknames, like “giant underpants” for the CCTV building. What is your response?

The reason why the buildings look unusual is because they are answers to these questions rather than a pure shape-finding exercise. I think people’s joy or need to call things names is not necessarily something bad, and I think you have to look at these things with enough humour – an element of dialogue and communication is very important.

But of course, as you push boundaries, there is also always a bit of provocation included in that and you cannot expect everybody to immediately understand everything.

How has a building like The Interlace provided an alternative living space?

The Interlace is an explicit prototype… which overcame the straightjacket of the tower where people live in vertical isolation and disconnected from each other.

The huge courtyard spaces are there for the communal life. You have a very public ground where more people can meet, where you can engage in a larger sense of public activity.

If you look at the outdoor spaces, we not only introduced a lot of greenery but we also strategically opened the building to be penetrable to the winds. We placed water bodies along those wind corridors to have the evaporative cooling create micro-climates.

I believe that with intelligent design – and you do not always need to employ a lot of technology for that – you can augment the quality of spaces in an environmental way to make them more usable and more livable.

Has fengshui ever influenced your work, especially when working in countries like Hong Kong and China?

I have often spoken to fengshui masters and I think there are aspects of it that you can rationalise. There are other aspects that are simply about the question of: You enter a room, why does it make you feel good or bad?

Fengshui is also about things being in their proper place and things in a way configured correctly.

Duo (a mixed development in Singapore’s Kampong Glam area) is a good example of that. The building opposite is a very pointed, blade-like building. People considered this site almost unbuildable because of this conflict of the blade hitting the site.

I conceived a strategy to design a building around those things, and actually carve everything problematic out of the allowable buildings volume. So were able to turn a highly problematic situation into something very positive.

Duo is near its completion soon – but it’s in a very different location, and a very different concept from The Interlace. What can we expect?

The interesting situation of the Duo project is that it was an insertion into a fairly derelict urban context. It was almost a piece of no man’s land located between two buildings that had no real relationship to each other. To the side of it is Kampong Glam, one of the really interesting historic places of Singapore.

But all these pieces sort of had no way to relate to each other. I was interested in designing a building that would reorder and reconfigure the urban environment… and be a social catalyst for the area.

The entire ground floor is basically a huge garden, completely open to the public 24 hours. There will be multiple pathways that will connect the underground subway stations and underpasses to the different Bugis areas – the busy restaurants, and the historic area.

If you could go back in time and speak to any architect, who would it be and what would you talk about?

I think it would have been very interesting to talk to the planners of Rome. Rome was the first mega city in the world, and it was the first urban conglomeration that exceeded 1 million people which for that time is an almost unimaginable figure.

The strategic understanding of both infrastructure – because it was about how to bring water to places – and the social context – because it was as much about the games and entertainment as the mechanical infrastructure of the city. It would have been a highly interesting discussion to see how that was planned and thought of.

Source : Channel NewsAsia – 4 Jul 2016


Greenery and heritage to be retained at new Sembawang integrated hub

From a swimming pool in natural settings to forest trails and an eco-friendly hawker centre – these are some of the facilities that Sembawang residents can look forward to at the new integrated sports and community hub being planned for the town.

Details of the hub were revealed at a roadshow on Sunday (Jul 3) to raise awareness and engage residents on the development, which will be located on a 12-hectare green space near Sembawang MRT station.

Speaking at the event, Acting Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, who is also a Member of Parliament (MP) for Sembawang GRC, assured residents that the greenery and heritage of the area would be retained.

There are now 761 trees in the area and while 200 trees will be cleared to make way for the project, another 1,000 trees will be replanted, Mr Ong said.

“Our overall approach is to build facilities into the forested area, rather than planting trees around the facilities,” he added.

“In a densely built up city-state like Singapore, it is important that here in Sembawang, we have a community space that will retain the heritage and greenery of the area, preserve many of the key features in the terrain.”

The Admiralty House, which is a historical national monument, will also be incorporated into the design.

Other facilities at the development could include multi-play courts and primary and senior care centres.

The project is co-developed by Sport Singapore, National Parks Board, Ministry of Health, Alexandra Health System, National Environment Agency, People’s Association and National Heritage Board.

Plans for the hub were announced in August last year and the development was originally targeted for completion in 2018, although authorities have said a new projected completion date will be announced when plans are finalised. Mr Ong said he hopes that some of the facilities can be opened by 2019 to 2020.

Source : Channel NewsAsia – 3 Jul 2016


Private home prices continue decline, down 0.4% in Q2

Private home prices in Singapore continued their decline in the second quarter of this year, according to flash estimates released by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) on Friday (Jul 1).

The private residential property index fell to 140.0 points in the second quarter, from 140.6 points in the previous quarter. This represented a decline of 0.4 per cent, compared with the 0.7 per cent decline in the previous quarter.

Prices of non-landed private residential properties rose by 0.2 per cent in Core Central Region (CCR), compared to the 0.3 per cent increase in the previous quarter. In the Rest of Central Region (RCR), prices rose by 0.3 per cent, while prices in Outside Central Region (OCR) declined by 0.7 per cent, after registering a 1.3 per cent decline in the previous quarter.

The flash estimates are compiled based on transaction prices given in contracts submitted for stamp duty payment and data on new units sold by developers up till mid-June. The statistics will be updated four weeks later when URA releases the full real estate statistics for the second quarter of 2016, which would capture more data from the stamp duty records and the take-up of new projects.

According to the URA, past data have shown that the difference between the quarterly price changes indicated by the flash estimate, and the actual price changes, could be “significant” when the change is small. The URA advised the public to “interpret the flash estimates with caution”.

Source : Channel NewsAsia – 1 Jul 2016

Resale prices for HDB flats up 0.1% in Q2

Resale prices of flats is up 0.1 per cent in the second quarter of the year compared to the previous quarter, according to flash estimates from the Housing and Development Board (HDB) released on Friday (Jul 1).

The decline comes after the Resale Price Index (RPI) for the first quarter dipped 0.1 per cent from the previous quarter.

The RPI for the second quarter of 2016 came in at 134.8, down marginally from the previous quarter’s 134.7, the HDB said. The index provides information on the general price movements in the resale public housing market.

The HDB plans to launch about 5,000 Build-To-Order (BTO) flats in August in Hougang, Sembawang, Tampines and Yishun.

Source : Channel NewsAsia – 1 Jul 2016

UOB suspends London property loans after Brexit

United Overseas Bank (UOB), Singapore’s third-largest lender, has suspended its loans programme for London properties in the wake of uncertainties caused by Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.

UOB would be among the first banks in Singapore to turn cautious on such lending, even though it is not a large amount, as Brexit spooked global markets and pushed the pound to multi-year lows.

“We will temporarily stop receiving foreign property loan applications for London properties,” a UOB spokeswoman said in an email.

“As the aftermath of the UK referendum is still unfolding and given the uncertainties, we need to ensure our customers are cautious with their London property investments.”

Singapore’s biggest lender, DBS Group Holdings, said it continued to provide financing for property purchases in London but was advising its customers to be cautious.

“For customers interested in buying properties in London, we would advise them to assess the situation carefully before committing to their purchases as there could be potential foreign exchange and sovereign risks,” Ms Tok Geok Peng, executive director of secured lending, consumer banking group (Singapore) at DBS Bank, said in an email.

The Singapore dollar has gained about 10 per cent against the British pound since the referendum.

“There have been London properties available for the last few months before the Brexit. The question is whether these properties can still continue to receive buyers in the short-term,” said Ms Alice Tan, head of consultancy and research at Knight Frank Singapore.

Property consultants say data on the number of properties purchased by Singaporeans in the United Kingdom is not tracked that closely. Banks do not disclose lending data for UK property purchases.

UOB said it was monitoring the market environment closely and would review it regularly to determine when it could resume its property loan offering.

Source : Channel NewsAsia – 30 Jun 2016

104-year-old church building to be gazetted for conservation

A 104-year-old church building belonging to St Joseph’s Church, Victoria Street, will be gazetted for conservation by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), St Joseph’s Church announced on Thursday (Jun 30).

Built in 1912, the Parochial House of St Joseph’s Church served as the headquarters of the Portuguese Mission till 1981, and later as the residence of the Bishop of Macau until 1999, when the Portuguese Mission ceased its presence in Singapore.

The building’s Portuguese Baroque style architecture showcases distinctive features such as pointed Gothic arches at the facade and pinnacles decorated with crockets on the roof. The building also features nine sets of Portuguese-style painted ceramic tiles, which can also be found in palaces, churches and public buildings in Portugal.

“It is an honour for the Church to have its Parochial House recognised and conserved for its architectural, historical and social heritage,” said Rector of St Joseph’s Church Father Alex Chua.

“We hope that this gazette will help reinforce the sense of heritage for future generations of Singapore Catholics and non-Catholics alike.“

The Parochial House will be conserved as part of the URA’s efforts to protect Singapore’s built heritage through its Conservation Programme.

The main church building, which was also built in 1912, was gazetted as a national monument in 2005.

Source : Channel NewsAsia – 30 Jun 2016

12 industrial sites released under Government land sales programme

Twelve industrial sites have been released under the Industrial Government Land Sales (IGLS) Programme for the second half of 2016, amid a slowing economic outlook and weakening demand for factory space.

There will be seven sites on the confirmed list and five sites on the reserve list, with a total site area of 11.7 hectares, the Ministry of Trade and Industry said on Tuesday (Jun 28).

Compared to the first half of this year, when 10 sites with a total of 12.24 hectares were released, there are more sites being released now but with lesser space.

Prices and rentals for industrial space in Singapore have been on the decline, falling by about 5 per cent year-on-year in the first quarter of 2016, according to figures released by JTC.

It was the fourth consecutive quarter where prices and rentals declined on both a yearly and quarterly basis, bringing them to 2012 levels, JTC said.

All seven sites on the confirmed list for the second half of 2016 have a tenure of 20 years and are located at Tampines Industrial Drive, Tuas South Link 2 and 3, and Woodlands Industrial Park.

The five sites on the reserve list have a tenure of either 20 or 30 years, and are located at Tuas Bay Close, Tuas South Link 1 and 3, and Woodlands Height.

A site on the reserve list will be released for sale if an application is submitted for the site to be put up for tender with a minimum purchase price that is acceptable to the Government. It could also be put up for sale if there is sufficient market interest.

Source : Channel NewsAsia – 28 Jun 2016

Buying a home: Beat the crowd or wait it out?

In this column, Bernard Tong, managing director of The Edge Property, assesses the advantages of buying a new condo as soon as it is launched versus waiting for the initial buzz to die off.

Gem Residences was the most-talked about property launch last month, for some positive and not-so-positive reasons.

The Toa Payoh condominium sold 300 units, slightly more than 50 per cent of the entire development in the first two days, which was a huge success given the current housing climate.

However, sales momentum slowed in the following week, with only a handful of units sold. The developer also had to tweak its highly publicised triple-key units from three kitchens to one to comply with plans approved by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).

What is the best strategy for property buyers when it comes to new launches? Should you try to beat the crowd and buy your choice units during the initial launch? Or do you wait patiently for the early hype to settle before finding a space which suits you?

Data provides some guidance. Sales analysis of Gem Residences based on caveats lodged up until May 29 paints an interesting picture: In total, there were 309 transactions; of those, 273 were for two bedrooms or smaller units, representing 83 per cent of the available units within those sizes. In contrast, only 14 per cent (35 units) of the available three-bedroom or larger units were sold. In other words, for every large unit sold, there were eight small units being taken up.

Is this unique to Gem? A study by The Edge Property on projects launched in 2015 and 2016 found that, on average, sales of small units (two bedrooms or less) in the first month of a property launch outperformed sales of larger ones (three bedrooms or more) by 3.3 times.

Sims Urban Oasis was the most extreme, as there were 104 sales for smaller units in the first month, in contrast to only 12 for larger ones.


So, does it make sense to wait? That depends. If you’re an investor or first-time home buyer looking for a small space, you probably should not be too picky. Statistics show that it helps to decide quickly.

Besides Gem Residences, two other projects, namely Cairnhill Nine and Sturdee Residences, sold more than 50 per cent of its available small units within the first month of launch. In the case of Cairnhill Nine, it was almost 90 per cent.

The same conclusion can be drawn even for the large-scale developments. For example, in the case of Poiz Residences, a development with 731 units, 189 small flats were sold in the first month alone.

Although smaller units tend to be more expensive in terms of the average per square foot (psf), in our sample, smaller units are priced at a relative 4 per cent premium – they offer greater pricing flexibility in terms of overall quantum and generate higher rental yields.

However, if you are an owner occupier or looking to upgrade to a larger space, your best bet is to wait. For every 100 large units built by developers, only 16 were sold in the first month of launch. In 12 out of the 13 projects, the sales of large units in proportion to what is available are considerably lower than smaller ones.

The only exception was Principal Garden, UOL’s project in Redhill, which sold 24 per cent of its large units compared to 15 per cent for its smaller ones. The lower entry cost and the lack of larger offerings in the surrounding neighbourhood were possible reasons.

It also pays to wait. Developers are likely to cut prices to move unsold large units. In seven out of the 11 new launches we looked at, average transacted prices for larger units were lower after the initial launch month. For instance, in the case of Kingsford Waterbay, the transacted prices of larger units were 2 per cent lower on average in the period after the first launch month.


There are a few possible explanations why sales of larger units at Gem, and other recent launches, paled in comparison to smaller ones. Upgraders, a critical pool of potential buyers for large units, could be sidelined as Housing Development Board (HDB) prices continue to fall.

Since its peak in 2013, resale HDB prices have fallen by about 11 per cent. Many upgraders who were thinking of selling their flats to buy private condos may no longer afford to do so.

Recent rule changes on HDB flat ownership may shrink the size of this pool even further. The new regulations, which took effect Apr 1 this year, prevent flat owners from “decoupling” or transferring their share of property to their spouses, unless under very strict and unique circumstances.

Lastly, the pricing of the larger units at Gem could also be a factor. Interestingly, the average transacted prices for three bedrooms and above are only 1 per cent lower in terms of average psf (compared to an average of 4 per cent discount in our analysis of recent launches) than the smaller units.

Nonetheless, this could be a strategic move by developer to move the smaller units first, before offering discounts for the larger units in the later stages.

In buying property, the obvious drawback of waiting is that you might not be able to select your most preferred unit.

Ultimately, understanding what you’re buying for to help time your decision-making process can be a good practice to follow in the current market.

Source : Channel NewsAsia – 17 Jun 2016