Rarely on the market, the limited-edition conservation terraced houses in prime District 9 now have price tags that start at $3,000 psf. Many have been adapted into residences with private art gallery, museum or entertainment space. 

The recently restored conservation terraced house at 15 Emerald Hill where the interiors were completely reconfigured (Credit: C&W)

No heritage project is too small for French architect Jean Francois Milou, who took on the design of a corner conservation terraced house on Emerald Hill Road three years ago. This was shortly after completing the design of the National Gallery Singapore, which involved preserving and integrating two historical buildings — the former City Hall, built in the late 1920s; and the former Supreme Court.      

While the National Gallery was a seven-year project, the Emerald Hill house took six months to design and two years to build.       

“The challenge at the National Gallery was the geometry of the two buildings and having to double the area,” says Milou, managing director and principal architect of Studio Milou. “But it was a good exercise, as we are trained to find simple solutions to complex problems.”       

Milou relocated to Singapore in 2008 when his team beat 111 other international architectural firms in a competition to win the contract to design and build the National Gallery Singapore. StudioMilou is a specialist in large-scale public projects and adaptive reuse of heritage buildings in Europe. The team ventured into Asia a decade ago, starting in Singapore.      

Work on the conservation terraced house at 15 Emerald Hill Road involved preserving the façade of the building but completely reconfiguring the interiors. “It’s like the National Gallery, which also has many staircases and areas that serve as multi-purpose space,” says Milou.      

A ‘salon’

The front hall and staircase on the first level of the conservation terraced house at 15 Emerald Hill Road (Credit: C&W)

The owner of the house, a Singaporean, wanted to turn the conserved terraced house into a place where he could entertain friends. The first level of the corner terraced house was therefore designed as a “salon”, where the central feature is a large staircase. “It’s designed as a venue to hold events such as concerts, as the space can fit a grand piano and the staircase acts as an informal seating area,” says Milou.        

As the property was zoned for residential use, the rear of the first level has been fitted with a dining area, kitchen, bathroom, maid’s room and laundry area. The second level con- tains an en suite bedroom, two study rooms and a common bathroom. The master suite is on the third level. “The upper levels are ideal as residence for visiting guests and friends.”        

Milou changed the exterior façade at the rear of the house to bring light into the upper levels, but privacy is also assured. He likes the mix of teakwood panelling and black marble in the interiors. The spaces within the property are versatile enough to be used as a private museum or art gallery, adds Milou.         

“Co-living might be a viable option,” says Terry Wong, Cushman & Wakefield (C&W) senior manager of capital markets. “Given that there’s a provision for study/meeting rooms, occupiers can work and live within the property.”        

The freehold property occupies a land area of 1,421 sq ft, and a gross floor area of 3,767 sq ft. The restoration and renovation of the building was completed in 1Q2018. It was recently put on the market for sale by expression of interest, with C&W’s Wong as the marketing agent. The asking price for the building is $11.5 million, or $3,053 psf based on GFA.      

Enclave of rich and elite

Milou: The space [on the first level of the terraced house] designed as a multi-purpose space where you can hold events such as concerts as the space can fit a grand piano and the staircase acts as an informal seating area (Credit:Samuel Isaac Chua/The Edge Singapore)

For almost half a century since 1901, Emerald Hill Road was a residential enclave for wealthy Peranakan families. The 116 terraced houses there were built between 1901 and 1925. Even today, it has retained its prestige as a landed enclave with a collection of heritage houses owned by leading Singaporean families.       

Located in prime District 9, the Emerald Hill Conservation Area is just off the Orchard Road shopping strip. It is near malls such as 313 Somerset, Paragon and Ngee Ann City. The CBD is just a 10-minute drive away.       

Given the scarcity of these conservation properties and their prime address, they are tightly held. “The perception is that such properties are similar to ‘collectible art pieces’ and will appreciate over time, owing to their scarcity,” notes C&W’s Wong. “Therefore, these properties — especially those that are well-restored — are increasingly sought after by investors and homebuyers.”       

The latest transaction was that of the inter mediate conservation terraced house at 98 Emerald Hill Road, which changed hands for $7.6 million, according to a caveat lodged in June. “Its original design and location as an intermediate unit in the heart of Emerald Hill Road near the Central Expressway represent fair value,” says Wong. It is currently occupied by Tea Bone Zen Mind @ Emerald Hill, a private tea-tasting place.        

Wong points out that corner units, which fetch a premium, comprise only 16 of the 116 units in the Emerald Hill Conservation Area. As such, he sees the house at 15 Emerald Hill Road as “a very compelling trophy asset” within the neighbourhood. “It’s newly restored and designed by a renowned architect,” he adds.           

Wong says the corner unit is “one of only five” that have front and rear parking spaces. “It’s also the largest corner plot closest to the Somerset MRT station.”        

Lim Boon Keng’s family home

The dining and kitchen area with marble flooring and fitted with a stove hob (Credit: C&W)

The most prominent of the Peranakan families who lived in Emerald Hill Road in the early 1900s was the one headed by Lim Boon Keng.        

An astute businessman, Lim was the first to plant rubber in Singapore in 1909; he co-founded United Saw Mills in 1917 and Overseas Assurance Corp in 1920. He was co-founder and director of three early Chinese banks in Singapore: the Chinese Commercial Bank in 1912, the Ho Hong Bank in 1917 and the Oversea-Chinese Bank in 1919, which were combined in 1932 to form what is today’s Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp. 

Cairnhill townhouses

The corner conservation townhouse at 28 Cairnhill Road has a prominent location with double frontage on Cairnhill Road and Hullet Road (Credit:Samuel Isaac Chua/The Edge Singapore)

In the early 20th century, Cairnhill emerged as “the new Emerald Hill”. Townhouses became fashionable in residential areas such as Cairnhill, Emerald Hill and Mount Sophia-Mount Emily during the years before and after World War I.         

“It reflected the emergence of a new kind of Singaporean — a moneyed class that was well-heeled, well-educated with a cosmopolitan outlook,” says Julian Davison, a historian specialising in Singapore architecture.        

Already a prominent resident in Emerald Hill, Lim commissioned the building of a row of five townhouses at 20 to 38 Cairnhill Road in 1914. They were “a speculative development”, to be sold at a profit or alternatively rented out as a source of income for him and his family, says Davison.         

The townhouses at 20 to 28 Cairnhill Road are located at a prominent corner — the junction of Cairnhill Road and Hullet Road. Architect and surveyor firm Almeida & Kassim was engaged to build the townhouses, designed with a neoclassical aesthetic, which was a departure from the Chinese-style townhouse and the elaborate Straits Baroque shophouse style, says Davison.         

‘Historical gem’

The conservation townhouse at 28 Cairnhill Road has a private carporch for two cars (Credit:Samuel Isaac Chua/The Edge Singapore)

When the corner townhouse at 28 Cairnhill Road was put on the market in 2007, it was snapped up by a Singaporean art collector. “It was love at first sight,” he professes. “When I saw the ‘For Sale’ sign, I told myself I was going to buy it.” A long negotiation process followed, as the previous owner had held on to the property for many decades. “The house is more than a century old and I believe it hasn’t changed hands more than twice,” says the current owner.        

He calls the property “a historical gem”: It is located just 50m from Orchard Road, and one of the few “wrap-around properties” in the area where one can see the entire building — the front, side and all the way round to the back. In contrast, the typical intermediate conservation terraced house “is a sliver of building — all you see is one door and two windows”, he adds.       

When he purchased the property, it was “rundown, typical 1980s renovation”, he recalls. He engaged Chang Architects — a specialist in heritage buildings — as the architect for the townhouse on Cairnhill Road.

Home for an art collector

The central feature of the conservation townhouse at Cairnhill Road is the glass lift and double staircase (Credit: Samuel Isaac Chua/The Edge Singapore) 

The property was designed as “a house for an art collector”, the owner says. The exterior of the townhouse was preserved but the interiors were gutted. The first level features a living area with an optional sunken lounge and a large dining area. The central feature is a double staircase flanking a glass lift. “The lift is very special because it’s 360-degree glass with no visible cables,” says the owner.         

The double staircase features bare walls with high ceiling, which are “ideal for hanging paintings”, says the owner.  

The interiors were designed for his extensive art collection, which explains the built-in alcoves and cabinets for the display of pots, sculptures and paintings. The cabinets come with built-in lighting, humidity control and security features.          

A new third-level extension was built to house an entertainment area that opens out to the balcony. “The balcony is a unique feature, as you have a great view of Emerald Hill from there,” says the owner.        

There is a kitchen area at the rear of the first level. Two of the upper floors have rooms that can be reconfigured into double bedrooms with en suite bathrooms. “It’s now a perfect place for two persons to live in, work and entertain, but could be converted to suit a larger family,” he says. “It is rare to find such a historical freehold house like that in the Orchard Road neighbourhood with visibility, grandeur and prestige.”        

The house at 28 Cairnhill Road comes with a front courtyard and a car porch for two cars. “It’s a beautiful corner unit with a unique history, given that it was once owned by Dr Lim Boon Keng,” says Simon Monteiro, associate director of heritage buildings at Savills Singapore. “It has a generous double frontage — on Cairnhill Road and Hullet Road.”        

The freehold property has a land area of 3,127 sq ft with a built-up area estimated at 6,000 sq ft; it was rebuilt for about $2 million. The land area is double the size of most of the typical, intermediate conservation terraced houses on Emerald Hill Road, says the owner. He has now embarked on another property in a neighbouring district with a similar concept of “living with art”.        

Prices to rise in tandem with market trend

The third level entertainment area of the conservation townhouse at Cairnhill Road  (Credit: Samuel Isaac Chua/The Edge Singapore) 

The house at 28 Cairnhill Road is on the market, with Monteiro as the marketing agent. The indicative price is said to be $18 million, or about $3,000 psf. “If there’s a buyer who appreciates such a building, the owner will consider selling,” says Monteiro.         

According to C&W’s Wong, several conservation homes on Emerald Hill have been turned into private art galleries by the owners. He expects prices in the Emerald Hill enclave to “continue to grow in tandem with current market trends”.         

Some sites in the prime Orchard Road neighbourhood have already been transacted at record prices: For instance, Park House was sold for $2,910 psf per plot ratio last month. “The [future] sale price of the new developments will be a key driver in raising the values of these collectible homes at Eme rald Hill,” Wong says.