Singapore is saturated with high-rise HDB flats and condos that boast elevators servicing every floor. But in the older parts of town, there is a type of housing that requires a bit more leg power. Enter the Walk-up Apartment, a category of real estate that only has stairs for you to get up to your cosy abode. Yes, there are no lifts available.
The majority of walk-up apartments are 5-storeys high at the maximum so those at the top won’t have to suffer – especially on grocery day. There’s also a certain old-world charm that is only present in these apartments, what with their elongated floor plans and beautifully-curved balconies. However, there’s a caveat: these houses are old and almost always look dated.
We were recently invited to see first-hand how Ernest and Natalie, with the help of interior designer Monocot, combined the old and the new in their newly-furnished, 940sqft walk-up apartment in Tiong Bahru.
Chancing upon their dream home
It all started in May 2021 when Ernest chanced upon a listed home on YoUTube. While he wasn’t in the market for a new home, he immediately went down to the showing the next day, and within 2 weeks, the deed was his for $840,000. You could say it was love at first sight.
The property he purchased was one of the conserved walk-up apartments along Moh Guan Terrace. Interestingly enough, while it’s considered a piece of private property, it still falls under the jurisdiction of the Tanjong Pagar Town Council. So Ernest and Natalie only have to pay around $43/month in Services and Conservancy Charges.
The original layout of the walk-up apartment.
Image credit: Ernest
While the couple did snag their dream home, there was still tons of work to do. The previous owner was an older lady whose needs were very different from that of a millennial couple.
The balcony of the apartment had these unsightly grills.
Image credit: Ernest
The original layout also made the entire place feel cramped, and the interior design was a theme that should’ve stayed in the 20th century.
The original kitchen had some kampung vibes going on but it wasn’t the best layout.
Image credit: Ernest
So Ernest and Natalie made the decision to completely overhaul the walk-up from the kitchen all the way to the edge of the balcony. But with both of them being busy working adults, this endeavour wasn’t something they could tackle all by themselves.
Giving their designer free rein over the interior design
Armed with a budget of $70,000, they approached a contractor with a basic idea of what they wanted. They also engaged Mikael from interior design firm Monocot to help them realise their vision of what a 21st-century walk-up apartment should look like. “I didn’t give him any brief at all,” Ernest told us during our visit. The couple gave the designers carte blanche with a blank slate and trusted that they would work their magic.
That’s not to say Ernest and Natalie had no input in the interior design. Mikael would present them with ideas on what materials to use throughout the house, various types of styling, and options for layouts which the couple would then pick from.
Throughout the renovation, it was their power coupling that complemented each other’s strengths. Ernest was very involved and hands-on with the progress of the renovation and would do regular, almost daily, site visits. Natalie, on the other hand, was much more involved with the furnishings and decor of the home.
Transforming a pre-war apartment into a midcentury modern abode
The house did come with its fair share of challenges. Being a corner unit in a uniquely-shaped horseshoe-shaped complex, its walls might have been straight but they weren’t parallel. This made planning the new layout with just one master bedroom slightly trickier. Although, it’s not something that you’d notice unless you were specifically looking for it.
During the 5 months of construction work, Ernest and Natalie decided to bump their budget up to $100,000 to accommodate extra furnishings like fancy lights, restored Danish chairs, and custom wood furniture that would have otherwise burst their initial $70,000 limit.
Once the final touches were made in March, Ernest and Natalie made the move into their new mid-century modern home in April, and we got a chance to check it out first.
The entertainment console is a custom piece made from plywood while the triangular coffee table can be found on Commune.
Entering their crib after a quick trip up a flight of stairs, it was as though we were transported into another era where industrial, modernist, and Scandinavian designs reign supreme.
Another restored vintage lounging chair from Noden.
The best way to describe mid-century modern is to think of the hit TV show Mad Men and its aesthetic. Clean lines with natural, earthy tones with a mix of materials but mostly wood. A lot of wood, in fact.
The living space with the chic sofa from Grey and Sanders is one of Ernest and Natalie’s go-to spots to chill out after work. And just behind the couch is one of the couple’s favourite furniture pieces: a vintage sideboard from Noden that was restored to pristine condition.
The couple converted the sideboard into a shoe cabinet, and it now holds a valet for their keys, some hand sanitiser, coffee table books, and a mirror on top so you can check yourself before you walk out the door. It’s also lit up by the Eiffel Pendant Light from Frama that can be dimmed to switch up the mood.
Right off the living room – and where the old living room was – is the dining area. Ernest and Natalie bought a beautiful vintage Danish dining table and chair set from Noden to fill the space. The couple loves to entertain, so the table can be extended to comfortably seat 8. Low-hanging pendant lights fill up the space with a soft glow too.
But the real star of the space is the bar.
Most homes these days would just have a little bar cart to accompany the dining table for any drinks. Not Ernest and Natalie’s home. Just off the dining room table is a full getup with a proper stainless steel countertop, built-in sink, wine cooler, and other appliances that just make sense.
“It’s a lot easier than walking all the way to the kitchen,” the couple shared about the decision to place a bar here. And it makes sense: they can easily prepare their morning coffee here, wash their hands before a meal, and grab a quick drink if they’re thirsty.
The ceramic mugs were handmade by one of Natalie’s friends.
Next to the bar are two doors that lead into the master suite. Yes, you read that right: there are two doors that serve as “His and Hers” entrances so no half of the couple doesn’t take long to get to their side of the bed.
The bedroom is one of the spaces that have no-frills, with Natalie telling us, “It’s just a place for us to sleep every night.” And she’s not wrong. Most people overdo the bedroom into a spectacle when in reality you’re spending most of the time there in dreamland. Instead, the couple channelled their efforts into other spaces of the home like the walk-in wardrobe behind.
While most walk-in wardrobes are in an enclosed space, this version of a walk-in closet has a vanity that is fronted by a window to let in as much natural light while overlooking the quaint Kim Pong Park.
Off to the other “wing” of the house are the kitchen and the bathroom. Similar to how the apartment was pre-renovation, the interior designers kept the full-height windows that bathe the entire space in light.
The stainless steel countertops are a running theme throughout the home and it makes another appearance here. And a seamless blend into the sink makes cleanups after cooking that much easier.
If you remember the floor plan, the original layout had one water closet with a separate shower. Rather than keep it that way, both sections were combined into one conjoined toilet.
What makes it stand out from other bathrooms we’ve seen is it’s a nearly-symmetrical space with the double doors opening up into the middle where the sink is. Then you have your shower to the left, and the toilet to the right.
What was tricky about renovating the toilet was the tiling. The room is not a perfect rectangle and the corners aren’t 90-degree angles, so the contractors had to carefully place each tile to ensure there were no gaps in the grout.
People watching by the uniquely-curved balcony
One of the reasons why Ernest and Natalie fell in love with the place was because of the uniquely curved balcony. Unlike traditional balconies where it’s just a miniature outdoors patio with a railing, this walk-up boasts a snaking balcony along the exterior of the house that works best as an indoor space.
This is where the couple spends their mornings sipping on a cuppa and watching the street below get busier as people start their daily commute. In the evenings, the park opposite their apartment gets crowded with dogs out to play. And when Singapore’s weather strikes again, the windows can just be closed and the air conditioning on full blast.
Adding a laminate balcony ledge transforms a simple balcony area into a work-from-home space. It’s where Ernest does most of his work on his iPad or laptop.
Despite the proximity to what we thought was a busy road, the balcony doesn’t attract much noise at all. Maybe it’s because the road directly downstairs is a one-way street and the most foot traffic they get is from the tour groups visiting the Tiong Bahru enclave.
There were some slight delays in getting the design for the window grates approved by the Urban Redevelopment Authority as the overall aesthetic has to match that of the entire block. This process took around 2 months which set some things back, but it all worked out eventually.
The spacious balcony is also where Ernest puts some of his purchased artwork to spruce up the area, and the wooden floors – the rest of the house is micro cement – give it a touch of warmth.
Midcentury living in a Tiong Bahru apartment
For all its cool mid-century modernity, this walk-up apartment in Tiong Bahru is one of the cosiest spaces we’ve stepped foot into. The charming details of the home perfectly complement the chic furnishings and interior design, while the abundance of natural light streaming in from the balcony and the kitchen helps the space feel lived-in.
Sure, the initial design of the apartment might technically be mid-century living, but modern it was not. Ernest and Natalie with the help of Monocot have truly transformed their abode into a place any millennial couple would love to call their own home. Now it’s just time to find Ernest a space to put a proper working desk while adding more plants to their collection.
You can follow Ernest and Natalie and their homely adventures over at @ting.bahru.
Read other home renovation ideas:
- Bohemian jungalow resale
- Annette Lee’s cosy luxe HDB
- Open-plan Bidadari BTO
- Hougang DIY renovation
- Nordic-Korean executive mansionette
Photography by Ian Sim.