Tuesday 31 December 2013

HDB defends design of its new estates

It tackles points raised by ST reader who said they look like 'walled cities'
By Janice Heng And Rachel Au-yong, The Straits Times, 30 Dec 2013

NEWER public housing estates are not the "walled cities" one Straits Times reader called them.

Instead, interspersed among high-rise blocks are low-rise developments such as parks.

This was the Housing Board's reply to a letter published in The Straits Times on Dec 18 complaining about the quality of newer towns such as Sengkang, Sembawang and Punggol.

"The spaces between blocks have been reduced significantly, leading to a pervasive 'walled-city' look," architectural designer Liu Zhenghao, 30, had written.

While HDB could not confirm whether blocks are built closer together now, it did say that towns are planned with a "checkerboard concept", in which low-rise areas break up high-rise stretches.

HDB added it will maintain "reasonable" spaces between buildings "to achieve some privacy and visual relief for our residents". Even the heights of blocks within an estate are varied.

Singapore Institute of Architects chairman Theodore Chan said given land constraints, "HDB is doing an excellent job". Pointing to older estates' surface parking as an example, he said: "If you look at new precincts - it can never be as luxurious as before."

Mr Liu also complained about the lack of low-rise markets and shopping streets in new estates.

In older towns, "there was a conscious effort to make the centre low-rise, to create a village-feel with open squares", he told The Straits Times last week. "It made the place welcoming."

He also believes facilities in newer estates tend to be concentrated in a hub, not spread out.

Disputing that point, HDB noted that newer towns do have neighbourhood centres away from the heart of the town. These include Rivervale Mall, Sembawang Mart and Punggol Plaza.

And in Punggol, for instance, upcoming areas such as the Northshore district will include low-rise shopping stretches.

Mr Liu, who has been with Formwerkz Architects for three years, also took issue with the design of blocks, which he deemed bland. Heavy use of prefabricated concrete "makes blocks look like factory units".

He later told The Straits Times that contractors here "don't seem to want to make a variety of moulds" for the prefab concrete components. "So with a limited palette, architects design according to existing components."

Concrete also results in higher carbon dioxide emissions than other materials, he added.

Defending prefab technology, the HDB said it improves both productivity and building quality.

Carbon dioxide is released when cement is made. But the same amount of cement is used when making concrete on-site and during prefabrication. The prefab method is also more environmentally friendly as it wastes less material and requires shorter construction time, said HDB.

The use of prefab components does not hold back design, added HDB. It has a team of in-house designers and architects and appoints "a range of private consultants" to design flats.

It pointed to how upcoming housing along the Punggol waterway will have a terraced look and courtyard spaces. But the Punggol Matilda district will have verandahs, colonnaded walkways, open lawns and groves of trees.

Mr Chan said the use of prefab "really depends on the architect". He noted that the Pinnacle @ Duxton flats, for instance, were made from prefab parts.

But he agreed that "prefab components must be used in a more interesting manner. There isn't a national effort in this yet."

Innovation, good design vital for HDB estates

FOR a number of years, the quality of HDB flats and estates, especially in new towns such as Sengkang, Sembawang and Punggol, has seemingly been on the decline.

The spaces between blocks have been reduced significantly, leading to a pervasive "walled city" look.

Multi-storey carparks reach seven to eight storeys, becoming large and inert obstructions to views and street activities.

In building viable cities, the spaces between buildings are as important as the buildings themselves.

The same housing density can be achieved by removing one block and redistributing the floor area to other surrounding blocks to create more "porosity" at the ground level.

In earlier-generation new towns such as Tampines and Boon Lay, there were purpose-built lower-density areas such as market squares and shopping streets - nodes of activity and gathering spaces that promote the idea of a community.

In newer estates such as Sengkang, the blocks seem to be squeezed tightly together with green spaces at the periphery. While recreation is still possible, the inter-block spaces, where people spend more of their daily lives, have become rather soulless.

And unlike older estates, which are better connected (multiple linkages and accesses) and have more decentralised amenities and dining options, new towns tend to concentrate almost all functions in a big shopping mall cum transport hub. While this offers convenience, residents are left with little choice and limited variety.

The use of too many prefabricated components, and fewer natural materials such as brick, reinforces the idea of blandness and makes blocks look like factory units.

I understand the limitations that the HDB faces - land costs, flat prices and the need for density - but the issues I raised can be addressed, possibly with little or no cost increase.

A strong culture of innovation is required, coupled with the belief and investment in good design.

Those who have lived in older estates would probably know that the newer ones are simply not of a comparable standard.

I hope the HDB will look into these issues, to make estates feel like homes rather than places that one seeks to leave behind by "upgrading".

Liu Zhenghao
ST Forum, 18 Dec 2013

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