This shophouse near Maxwell Road has been in Renyung Ho’s family for more than 20 years. With its lavishly decorated façade and ornate details, it should be no surprise that this heritage building counts none other than an ex-Minister of Culture among its former owners. Ren had never lived in the property, as her mother used to rent it out, but when her mother talked about selling it, Ren couldn’t bear the thought of parting with it and asked her to sell it to her.
“I’ve always loved conservation and heritage,” says the former social studies graduate. “I strongly believe that our built environment is fundamental to our culture.”
When Ren and her fiancé, now husband, Adrien Desbaillets started the renovation little did they know what lay ahead. Reclaiming history meant 18 months of rubbing brick work back to its raw state, sanding acres of wooden shutters and floorboards and tearing off the roof. The idea behind the renovation was to blend the indoors with outdoors.
“Singapore is called the “Air Conditioned Nation.” We wanted a home where you could feel the changing time and weather outside,” says Ren. “The landscape architect Ng Seksan’s work was very influential on our initial concept because his transitional spaces and courtyards blend the indoor and outdoor really beautifully.”
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At the beginning of the project Ren and Adrien walked through the house with their architect and discussed which features they wanted to keep and what could be removed if necessary. They wanted to have more bedrooms, more living space and plenty of light, but they didn’t want to destroy the shophouse to achieve this, so they decided to add a clever extension that blends smoothly into the original home.
“We didn’t want to rip out the beautiful wooden timber floors in the existing house, but in order to have new bathrooms and plumbing we would have had to, so an extension was the perfect solution,” says Ren. The extension that now houses an open kitchen, two extra bedrooms and bathrooms, also gave them the chance to create a rooftop garden and a chic walk-in shower.
This shower is a fine example of how the duo have blended old and new and embraced the great outdoors. Wedged between the outside of the old shophouse and the new extension, this striking shower room is also open to the elements.
But saving the shophouse was almost as hard as starting the building again from scratch. The young couple wanted to hold onto the original wooden window shutters that lined the front and back of the house and around the shophouse air well. “The builders kept asking us—are you sure you want to save these?,” says Ren. But the hours and hours of hand-sanding the thickly painted shutters back to the original wood was worth it. For all 22 of them.
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The wooden floor that covers the ground and first floors also proved to be challenging as the new homeowners also wanted this to be returned to its former glory. But the most important item on the renovation agenda for Ren and Adrien was reinstalling the shophouse’s air tunnel.
This mini courtyard that comes complete with frescos and a fountain was designed to bring air and light into the original building, but it had been covered over by one of its former owners. Ren and Adrien saw the beauty and practicality of this original feature and so they immediately instructed the builders to tear the glass roof off. It does mean that on rainy days, Ren’s hallway rug gets a little wash, but she says that she is willing to trade that for an aircon-free environment.
They also held onto the alcoves that were built into the walls of the dining room, which is where the former residents would have displayed their best China. And when they couldn’t save one of the original features, such as the tropical hardwood steps from the staircase, they managed to incorporate them into the new home as a set of open bookshelves. “If we would have gutted the house we wouldn’t have all these amazing features that make it feel like you’re living in a page of history,” says Ren.
Ren and Adrien embraced the works of the artisans, not only with the items they saved, but with the new items they brought into the home. They found artisans who still specialised in terrazzo to help create the hardware for their outdoor bathroom and drove to Malacca to buy the tiles, and commissioned a silk painting when they were in India and shopped for brass door handles on their travels to help decorate their home.
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While their tastes are the same they made also sure that there weren’t any arguments and that they had separate tasks. Adrien, who is the owner of Salad Stop, took care of designing the kitchen the library and sound system, and Ren took care of everything else.
But the seeking out of these traditional handicrafts struck a chord with Ren and became the seed for her company Matter (www.matterprints.com), which creates travel wear for the modern global nomad. “It wasn’t consciously part of the renovation story, but I think the timing of moving into a new home subconsciously spurred me to start another new beginning,” say Ren.
But this new adventure in turn breathed yet more life into the old shophouse, as Ren opened her studio in the ground floor of the building and helped return it to its roots of being a shop and a home once more. At the moment Ren says that this three-storey home is a little too large for just them and their dog, but with a burgeoning business this is home that can grow with them.
When Ren’s not travelling the world, sourcing for materials for her company, Ren and Adrien are usually on the roof, reading in the sunshine, cooking up a storm with friends in the kitchen or enjoying movies in their home theatre. “It feels like the house is never going to be completed, but that’s also part of the joy of it!” says Ren.
Their final task is to fill in the three family motto plaques that are set above the door. When each home owner arrives they engrave their motto into the plaques and when they leave, they scratch it clean for the next family. Ren and Adrien’s motto came from a charity tuk tuk ride they took in India last year. “Our motto is “Little things, long way.” After driving from North to South India we really learnt that little things go a long way. Now we just have to find a way to translate that into both Chinese and French!”
By Claire Turrell
Photographed by Roy Zhang
Styled by Karen Kwa
Makeup: Bobbie Ng/The Make Up Room
Hair: Michael Chew/hairloom.sg