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A sustainable house that caters for life and work in the tropics

Architect Theodore Chan uses his own house as a showcase of passive and effective living in the tropics.

Home Type: 2-storey terrace house with attic

Floor Area: 4,200sqft

Text by Luo Jingmei

According to architect Theodore Chan, building sustainably doesn’t have to be complex. A fitting example is his own house where he resides with his wife, potter and artist Delphine Sng. The couple collaborated with Theodore’s former student, architect Micki Chua of MJKY Architects to create a comfortable and energy efficient home using simple yet clever strategies.


From the outside, the ample timber accents in this sustainable house evoke a sense of tranquillity. Inside, it is spacious and airy – a surprise considering the usual compactness of terrace houses. The living room and kitchen are lifted onto the second storey, with Delphine’s gallery and workshop given the first. This layout enables the house to function like a SOHO with subtly segregated work and private zones.

sustainable house

“The challenge of an intermediate terrace house is that there are only two faces. So the key paradigm was how to bring light and ventilation into the house,” says Theodore. One strategy was to open up the facades where possible. Pivoting, full-height glass doors at the gallery and adjustable glass louvres throughout enhance cross ventilation.

sustainable house

The glass louvres endow this sustainable house with a rustic appearance. Theodore also likes that they can manipulate airflow quickly and easily, having used them in the design of the Yishun Community Hospital and Geriatric Education & Research Institute as Director of CIAP Architects. This shows that a breathable house can be made without using complicated, high-tech mechanisms. A combination of elegantly detailed timber screens, solar films and blinds vary shade control in areas receiving the strong morning sun.


Sliding panels and glass balustrades instead of closed-off walls are employed to create a more porous interior. “We are great fans of sustainability and tried to implement passive architectural strategies instead of using the air conditioner all the time. Before air conditioning, the kampong and black-and-white houses were designed to be passively ventilated because they had no choice; I think air conditioning has spoilt us,” he laments.

An operable skylight-capped atrium cuts through the heart of this sustainable house to further facilitate breezes, cooling the home through stack ventilation. It also pours light deep into the plan, working like a natural clock to give clue to the weather and time of day. The use of thermochromic glass, which darkens with intensifying light, mitigates heat and glare.


The residence is defined as a two-storey house with an attic. But in effect, internal spaces read as three levels upfront and four behind, sandwiching the atrium. Here, Theodore takes advantage of the Urban Redevelopment Board (URA)’s Envelop Control guidelines to achieve more floor area and an interconnected home.

sustainable house

This sustainable house was built relatively neatly and quickly in 15 months due to the use of a steel structure. Theodore exposes this framework in an aesthetic direction he terms “industrial poetics”. Materials, such as off-form concrete walls running one length of the plan and rain tree cladding on the other, are embraced for their natural qualities instead of being covered by paint.


Exposing the steel structure also reduces the need for false ceilings, enabling loftier spaces. The rain tree timber cladding, recycled from culled trees, also balances the rawness.

Around the home, furniture was chosen to match the material palette. This honest quality is in line with the house’s strong sustainability ethos. It is decorated with plants – such as the creepers screening the rear facade like a green lace curtain and planter boxes surrounding the first storey workshop.

A living room water feature flowing into this space amplifies the house’s sensorial dimensions. Filled with fish in the gallery, it is a creative alternative to the drainage department’s requirement for an underground drain.

sustainable house

Theodore’s favourite part of the house is at the second storey kitchen that leads down to this pond and across the atrium to the living room. “It’s the spot with the best ventilation. From here, I can see what is happening around the house. In the daytime, I do my work here rather than in the study upstairs,” he says.

The kitchen is furnished with a bar counter and small tables like in a cafe, lending it a casual ambience. It is easily accessed from the gallery to facilitate Delphine’s work meetings as well as the regular gatherings of the couples’ church group. Thus, opening the house up not only makes it easy to live in the tropics; it also enriches the couple’s lives by enriching their personal and social routines.

CIAP Architects

MJKY Architects

Photography by Zee & Marina
This article first appeared in Lookbox Living issue 62

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