Tech alleviates cabin fever for shoebox residents

By Valerie Kor / EdgeProp Singapore | April 24, 2020 6:00 AM SGT
SINGAPORE (EDGEPROP) - Marketing manager Karyn Wong is too busy to be bored. Despite having to stay home during the “circuit breaker” period implemented to help prevent further spread of Covid-19, she has been working with her husband from their 355 sq ft home on Haig Road.
Karyn Wong shoebox apartment
Wong and her husband in their home on Haig Road (Photo: Karyn Wong)
She says: “I have been swamped with work. In fact, I am struggling to find the work-life balance when working from home.”
The couple is renting from Wong’s father, who originally purchased the property as his retirement home. Working from their compact home has been conducive for Wong so far. The only challenge she faces is when both she and her husband have to take video-conference calls at the same time. “When that happens, one of us stays put, while the other goes to the bedroom,” Wong says.
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With stricter rules put in place to prohibit social gatherings and visits, those who do not work in essential services are only allowed to leave their homes — on the condition that they wear a mask — to exercise, and buy essential groceries and food to go. Offenders of new Covid-19 rules are fined $300 without warning on first offence.
Karyn Wong working from home
Wong works and has her meals on the only table in the house, while her husband usually works from the bedroom (Photo: Karyn Wong)
For those living in Singapore’s smallest apartments or “shoebox apartments” like Wong, this entails being cooped up for extended periods of time in compact areas of between 300 sq ft and 500 sq ft. The smallest ones, found in private developments, measure under 300 sq ft. These small homes, which tend to be owned by property investors, singles and empty-nesters, typically contain a living room, dining area, kitchenette, bedroom and bathroom. In the case of HDB flats, older one-room flats are 355 to 376 sq ft, while the newer iteration, two-room flexi flats, are 484 sq ft.
Whether residents will develop a case of cabin fever — a term used to describe claustrophobia or irritability caused by being confined in a small space — depends on how they make use of technology to stay connected.
Wong connects with family and friends through social media and video-conferencing platforms. “The things that keep me sane daily include drinking sessions with my friends and checking in on family members via Zoom. I have also started doing Facebook Live sessions, where I play the keyboard, sing and chat with my friends,” says Wong, who is also a freelance performer.
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Karyn Wong's apartment
The view from the main door of Wong’s 355 sq ft apartment. The kitchen, part of the living room and the dining area are in sight (Photo: Karyn Wong)
The level of noise during conference calls is a common issue for residents who live in small apartments with other family members. For graduating student Xaveir Yeung, finding her first job from the 376 sq ft, one-room, rental flat on Owen Road that she shares with her grandparents has been difficult under circuit breaker rules. Fresh out of Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s Chinese Media & Communication school, she does job interviews via video-conference platforms, but finds it a challenge to carve out an area where the background is not too cluttered and her grandparents are not in view. Yeung adds: “When the TV is on, or when my grandfather is talking on the phone through the speaker, it affects my concentration during interviews.”
Yeung’s grandfather, who was working full-time prior to the circuit breaker, has had his work hours shortened since then and has been staying home, which means that the three family members are in each other’s way more frequently.
Tan Wei Qin, an investment analyst who lives in a rented apartment at Urban Vista measuring 431 sq ft, has been working from home with his wife. He says: “Staying home has been smooth for us since we have no kids, except when we have to speak up during video-conferences at the same time. We may be picked up in each other’s call when we speak too loudly.”
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While he feels the symptoms of cabin fever, he says an increased workload and Netflix shows keep him busy most of the time. The newly-wed couple have been renting since December last year after their wedding ceremony and intend to do so until they buy their own property. They rely on delivery app GrabFood for their meals as they dislike the smell of food that lingers when they cook. Although going outdoors for exercise has not been prohibited, the couple has been exercising indoors within the limited space available, as they worry about contracting the virus and prefer to stay home as far as possible.
danielle fong swivel tv work fro home
The swivel TV screen at Fong's place is used for entertainment and also as an extra monitor for video-conference calls when she is working from home (Photo: Danielle Fong)
For Danielle Fong, a civil servant who lives alone in her 506 sq ft home at Stars of Kovan, noise is not an issue. She has been working from home for four weeks coming and still finds it conducive. In her free time at home, she does home improvement projects, cooks new dishes and catches up on Netflix shows. After the circuit breaker was implemented, the only thing Fong has missed is meeting her boyfriend, parents and relatives face to face, but she has managed to stay connected with them through online platforms.
Fong has also exercised indoors every day, ever since the gym and swimming pool in her condominium closed. She says: “I subscribe to live sessions online with my fitness instructor, so we work out at 7.30am every morning. I would do it on my balcony if I need some fresh air, but the space in my living room is more than sufficient. I have not felt cabin fever so far. In fact, I love being at home.”
Before the virus outbreak was in the news, Fong had already designed her dining space to double up as a workspace when she moved in at the end of last year. “The TV in the living room on the opposite side of the dining area is installed on a swivel so when I work there, I can use it as an extra monitor for video conferences and other online work projects. I have a tendency to be a workaholic, so this arrangement also forces me to put my work aside when it is time for meals and draws healthier boundaries,” elaborates Fong.
Check out the latest listings near Urban Vista, Stars of Kovan, MRT Stations and Schools
View from Fong’s unit at Stars at Kovan (Photo: Danielle Fong)
View from Fong’s unit at Stars at Kovan (Photo: Danielle Fong)

Small but liveable

Increasingly, smart designs have been incorporated into small apartments to make them more liveable. In One Pearl Bank, launched in July last year, each studio apartment, 431 sq ft in size, comes with a swivel table in the kitchen that functions as a dining table and can be put down for more walking space when not in use. According to caveats lodged with URA, more than a third of the 140 studio apartments in the development have been sold. The most recent transaction was $1.18 million, or $2,741 psf, on April 3.
At another development, The M, studio apartments between 409 sq ft and 420 sq ft come with a multi-function kitchen table that can be used for meals, work and entertainment. The sliding wardrobe can also be used as workspace storage. All 52 studio apartment units at The M have been snapped up, owing to its central location on Middle Road. The latest one, 409 sq ft in size, sold for $1.01 million, or $2,476 psf, on March 30.
One-bedroom unit in GuocoLand’s Midtown Bay. Such units feature dual-function spaces such as a dresser that can double up as study space (Photo: GuocoLand)
One-bedroom unit in GuocoLand’s Midtown Bay. Such units feature dual-function spaces such as a dresser that can double up as study space (Photo: GuocoLand)
GuocoLand’s latest new project, Midtown Bay, features one-bedroom apartments between 409 sq ft and 527 sq ft, where the dresser space in the bedroom can be converted into a study desk and the cabinet in the dining room can be designed as a study space. The most recent transaction of such a unit was on Feb 11, when a 409 sq ft unit sold for $1.22 million, or $2,992 psf.
Dora Chng, general manager (residential) at GuocoLand, says that all their one-bedroom apartments have a relatively spacious dining area that can fit a six-seater table. The neutral designs of the units give off a corporate feel, which allow residents to easily convert spaces into office or study areas.
While the sales of shoebox apartments have slowed down since 2018 after URA adjusted the minimum average unit sizes for private developments, those that are centrally located still enjoy good demand. Christine Sun, head of research & consultancy at OrangeTee & Tie, says: “For new launches, people seem to be more selective in buying shoebox units nowadays. Many prefer units in selected locations such as downtown areas and the city fringe. The more popular units are still two-bedroom or two-bedroom plus study, which are suitable for rental and own stay.”
“Property investors also favour shoebox units since there is high rental demand, especially those that are well located near MRT stations, offices or the city-centre. Some tenants still prefer to have a unit to themselves to sharing a bigger unit with others,” adds Sun. However, she notes that co-living spaces are growing in popularity among tenants as the rental price includes cleaning services and utilities, and concludes that shoebox apartments may face competition for tenants in the long term.
In October 2018, URA increased the average unit sizes for private developments outside Singapore’s central region, from 70 sq m (753 sq ft) to 85 sq m (915 sq ft) or 100 sq m (1,076 sq ft), depending on the district. This means that there is no minimum size requirement imposed for each unit, but developers are required to provide a varied unit mix to comply with the new average unit sizes.

Technophobes face social isolation

While younger individuals can busy themselves by working from home, watching online entertainment, working out to YouTube videos and chatting via video-conferencing platforms, older folks who are not as tech-savvy do not have as many options, especially within a small space.
This is perhaps why, despite stricter circuit breaker rules, senior citizens have still been seen leaving their homes to shop at wet markets and exercise in parks. Ironically, this age group is more susceptible to Covid-19 — the 11 patients who have succumbed to the virus in Singapore were all aged between 64 and 95 years old.
Lion Befrienders, a welfare organisation that engages volunteers to make regular home visits to the elderly with limited family support, shares that the majority of the 6,000 socially isolated seniors they serve are not tech-savvy and depend only on phone calls or television to pass their time during this period. Of these elderly, 80% live in one-room or two-room flats of under 500 sq ft.
Anthony Tay, chairman of Lion Befrienders, says: “The elderly always need social connection, but they need it more than ever during this period of unprecedented fear and uncertainty, especially those living on their own. Also, when they are unwell, they may not seek medical care promptly. Without family members who can help them purchase essential items such as food and the ability to engage in technology, they may feel particularly isolated.”
While staff and volunteers of the organisation still conducted physical visits at the gate to seniors who are moderate- or high-risk — homebound, potential suicide or abuse cases — when the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (Dorscon) level went up to “orange”, those visits have ceased after circuit breaker measures were implemented.
“Now, we call our elderly twice a week to check-in on the elderly under our care,” says Tay. During the phone calls, Lion Befrienders’ volunteers check on seniors’ well-being and encourage them to stay home as far as possible. At the same time, the volunteers take note of changes in behaviour and tone of voice to look out for possible signs of anxiety and depression.
He adds: “We also have an informal system of ‘village chiefs’, who are seniors living nearby, who will check on high-risk elderly and help them get food or supplies.”
Tay believes that it is the lack of social interaction and communication, rather than the size of an apartment, that affects the seniors’ well-being. He says: “Not all seniors staying in a one-room flat struggle. Some of them are active and resourceful and know how to keep themselves occupied. Others who stay in larger flats with family members but do not communicate with them, still feel isolated at the end of the day.”
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has announced that the circuit breaker period will be extended until June 1, instead of May 4 as previously announced. During this period, the adoption of technology, particularly to communicate with others, is one way to stave off feelings of depression and loneliness of staying home, regardless of apartment size.
For price trends, recent transactions, other project info, check out these projects' research page: Stars of Kovan, Urban Vista, One Pearl Bank, The M, Midtown Bay
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