The Future of: Home (II)

Transformations of the post-pandemic home

As we gingerly anticipate a new state of normality, we reminisce on the pre-pandemic city that was once our living room, playground, and office. It was neatly-detached but readily accessible from our homes; a consolidated yet highly-personalisable social topography, enabled by spatial and atmospheric novelties that intertwined with technology and big data.1 What now remains of this is variably altered for the foreseeable future, with capacity limitations and the inevitable necessity of user-booking systems affecting everything from family gatherings, workout sessions, or office meetings.

We have forged inventive, if not desperate compromises to the collective experiences of having significant aspects of our social and work lives suddenly forced back into our hyper-compressed homes. Though the requisite homebound Zoom calls cannot adequately replace face-to-face conversations, we have adapted our social habits to be more localised and immediate. Even as we crave the multi-sensorial experiences that food delivery services or online marketplaces cannot offer, we have discovered new experiences by exploring our immediate neighbourhoods. While geographically-limited during lockdown, we have adopted new habits to fill our altered schedules—cooking more, exercising regularly, checking in on our neighbours—that we hope might persist in an altered future.2 Our reconsideration of the immediate precipitates shifts within our domestic sphere; the post-pandemic vision of home must simultaneously embody resilient bubbles of physical and psychological safety, cosmopolitan sociality, and flexible work conditions—it requires a constant negotiation of privacy and openness.
The long months spent at home has given the act of going “downstairs” a greater significance for the 95% of Singaporeans who call apartments home;3 circumstances have led us to reconstrue these semi-public spaces from transitory locale to vital social nodes. Yet through our increased time within them, we are also reminded of why we previously overlooked these spaces. Many have idealistically hoped to use the larger of these often-unprogrammed communal spaces as fugacious extensions of their living and dining rooms, or workspaces, to limited success. Whether it is the archetypal void deck, or the vertically-dispersed sky terraces within newer housing developments, neither feels particularly hospitable to extended use because of their micromanaged nature.4 In doggedly preserving emptiness, the void deck’s unyielding grid of pilotis offers little to mitigate the prying gaze of neighbours and passer-bys. Conversely, while privacy is more apparent within the lushly-appointed sky terraces, its spatial elements—of neat planter boxes, clearly-defined pathways, and integrated but immoveable furniture—striate and dictate normative use under the guise of shaping verdant atmospheres.

Only by visibly establishing the domestic’s presence within these spaces—and abandoning our ingrained socio-spatial delinations of private and public—will we be able to reclaim the “downstairs”. Some astute retirees, with the blessings of their neighbours, have already established social fiefdoms at void decks by leaving their own furniture there.5 More interesting however are the ambiguous appropriations of less-public portions of the “downstairs” that treat spatial ownership and privacies as constantly-shifting conditions.

It is not unusual to find modest parcels of communal passageways and the adjacent turfed spaces reshaped into appropriated gardens along ground-floor HDB apartments. These quaint spaces are loosely established through greenery, and often outfitted with privately-owned amenities (such as benches or patio tables). Both visually-porous and open, the implied ownership of these spaces is intentionally ambiguous—they also often coalesce with adjacent parcels, forming social spaces shared among the few neighbours that tend to it. A status quo towards ownership, enabled by tolerance from neighbours and the authorities (possibly because of their intrinsic removability), is almost certainly reached without legal heavy-handedness.

By adopting amenability, amorphous porosity and thoughtful scale, perhaps a new form of shared space might take root within future iterations of our high-rise homes—one that amplifies the encoded communality of existing “downstairs” spaces, and accommodates potential expansions of the domestic, within a space shared among immediate neighbours. By taking advantage of requisite circulatory networks—common corridors, lift lobbies, and escape stair cores—or even being integrated within them, these spaces would benefit from interconnectivity, and enable enabling social encounters of varying scales.

The escape stair core holds the most promise at achieving this; the isolated architectural element already hosts intuitive adaptations that take advantage of the privacy it affords—from shared smoking corners, to mini urban-farming plots. Its stair landings could be expanded beyond their code-compliant proportions, providing additional space for amenities that embed a social dimension to this otherwise functional space. Potentially becoming a patio-like space for neighbours, or a series of allotments, the escape stairs becomes a communal destination used and maintained by familiar faces. Social nudges will address any questions of appropriate use, managing overspills of domestic excess and the overall aesthetic quality of these spaces.
We are constantly pushing against the siloed architecture of our homes, especially at the threshold between domestic and outside, and between legal ownership and different social behaviors and norms. Our flexible approach towards the psycho-spatial division of our front doors reflects this—we often colonise the space outside our doorways with the flotsam of daily life, establishing condensed displays of our private selves that jointly communicate or tussle with those of our neighbours. Like our social lives within the pre-pandemic city, personalisability is key to this socialised setting. A renewed vision of the home should expand this condition—we must not allow for it to be curtailed by financial considerations surrounding space efficiency.

Even as our increased time at home drives us towards more proactive neighbourliness, these casual encounters are hindered by our small and often-opaque front doors. As the social fronts of our homes, this threshold needs to transform to reflect and enable this nascent conviviality. Situated somewhere between a vestibule, portico, and verandah—future iterations of this threshold should be thickened and widened, yet remain visually-permeable. This could concretise existing expressions of this liminality, while affording room for it to grow. Concerns of space-efficiency and profit would likely shift the legal possession of this threshold to homeowners; perhaps it might materialise through a redistribution of bonus saleable floor area presently incentivised to find form as private balconies—these can potentially account for more than 10% of a home’s inhabitable space.6 If used as intended, these porous thresholds might even improve the climatic qualities of both home and communal passageways—enhancing access to light and fresh air through verandah-like conditions, creating spaces that are pleasant to occupy and gather within.

It would be challenging to enact this intervention onto the existing housing stock without governmental incentives. Existing initiatives that support the enhancement of communal spaces could be extended to encourage homeowners to incorporate the layout configurations that actively improve sociality among their neighbours as they renovate their own apartments. Should such reconfigurations be assessed to be of limited effectiveness, perhaps the expansion of the domestic’s social threshold needs to occur just beyond the home itself—these surgical extensions should abut the private, to ensure they remain psychologically-anchored to the home. Such interventions can be extensions of existing upgrading programmes—in the case of public housing, existing ones like the Lift Upgrading Scheme have already created new spaces that apartment dwellers readily appropriated.
We can expect new chimeric hyphen-spaces to emerge as we persist in grafting spatial and social aspects of our former urban haunts onto the “downstairs”. The spatial, climatic, and social proportions of this existing topography become perceptibly enlarged as we embrace a renewed understanding towards domestic-public boundaries, privacies, and ownership.

In a reshaped future, both our social and work lives are liberated from the urban-heartland dichotomy. Working from home will persist for many—either within ephemeral satellite workplaces, or through the melange of home-based businesses that proliferated during the pandemic. We have learnt the importance of enacting physical work-life separation during our home-bound months;7 we expect future apartments—however small they are—to dedicate space for work.

Like our contemporary offices, home-based workplaces would benefit from the spatial efficiencies of pooled resources—the home office must be intrinsically social. Perhaps best-situated within the liminal spaces around our homes, we can now consider our neighbours to also be akin to colleagues. The aural soundscape of the office is enmeshed with the domestic, spilling from breakout spaces within the common corridors, into the capsule-like workspaces within the porous social vestibules of our homes. In this context, the pre-existing communal spaces like the void deck or coffee shops become reconstrued as social lounges and meeting spaces during the workday. In our post-work hours, our social lives might play out within private kitchens and freelance studios that pop-up in nearby apartments.

Through intentional and serendipitous programmatic hybridisation, a flexible approach to ownership and thresholds, and strategic spatial alterations, our homes now have an expanded agenda as fundamental nodes within the neighbourhood's growing social topography. We might now find colleagues, social networkers, local guides, fitness instructors, or private chefs among our immediate neighbours; former strangers and acquaintances are now properly friends. The pandemic-triggered pivot towards immediacy has set the stage for greater vibrancy in and around the home.

1 Nijholt, A. (2018). Games for Playful Urban Design. Playable Cities The City as a Digital Playground. Puchong, Selangor D.E.: Springer Singapore.
2 Samuel, S. (2020, June 09). Quarantine has changed us - and it's not all bad. Vox.
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3 Department of Statistics Singapore. (2020). Households - Latest Data.
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4 Singapore Statutes Online. (n.d.). TOWN COUNCILS ACT (CHAPTER 329A).
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5 Wen Li, T. (2017, November 9). Filling a void deck with neighbourliness. The Straits Times.
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6 Sen, N. J. (2018, October 18). New rules on condominium balcony size and width. The Straits Times.
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7 Long, K. T. (2021, January 5). Big changes in the home, residential estates and the Central Business District are underway, say Kwok Tian Long and Sing Tien Foo. CNA.
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