This is no conventional couple, and theirs was no conventional home renovation. Dutch expat Rolf Van der Pol and his Singaporean wife Sandra showed me around their quirky corner terrace in Duku Road, in the East Coast neighbourhood of Joo Chiat.
I sense I’m going to get on with these people when I spot the notice in the guest loo: “Changing the toilet paper will not cause brain damage”. My feeling is confirmed when I ask Sandra if she collects giant sake bottles and she laughingly tells me no, the attractive assortment on the floor under the stairwell are just empties from recent get-togethers with friends. (They’re $50 to $55 each from NTUC FairPrice or Meidi-Ya supermarket, she says, and they virtually guarantee a good party.)
Apart from its eclectic vibe, what’s most interesting about the extensive remodelling of this property is that Rolf drew up the plans himself, with no obvious qualifications in that direction.
How they got here
His career in banking brought Rolf from The Netherlands to Singapore in 2006; before that, he’d also lived and worked in both South America and Vietnam. Nowadays, he runs his own banking software consultancy from the Joo Chiat Road office that he shares with Sandra, who runs a business that provides accountancy software solutions for medium and small enterprises.
Since the couple hooked up about six years ago, they have lived in three places: first in UE Square, then in Mount Sophia for a while before moving to Tiong Bahru, which Sandra admits she still misses. But when the time came to buy, Tiong Bahru property prices were too high. The next option was a centrally-located condo, but again they could not find the right one at a reasonable price.
“That’s when we started looking at buying a landed property,” says Rolf. This took time: being a foreigner, he first had to apply for an approval in principle from the Singapore government, and later for specific approval to purchase this particular house.
Joo Chiat (also known as Katong) is nice, the two agree. Not only are you close to literally hundreds of shops and restaurants, but you can walk to the beach from here and it’s a short trip to town.
What they did
Though the Van der Pols had planning permission to take the house up to three-and-a-half floors, after speaking to a couple of architects the couple felt that doing so would both cost too much and take too long. And honestly, says Rolf, they didn’t need that much space.
Plan B was to ditch the architects, and for Rolf to draw up the plans himself. Though he’d never tackled anything as big as this before, he had cut his teeth on various building extensions and refurbishment over the years. And because her husband oversaw the building project himself, Sandra reveals, it was completed within their budget of $150,000.
This was a big job that involved removing the ceiling of the living area to open things up, knocking down all the interior walls and redesigning the space to create a light-filled living area on two levels: to the right, as you enter the front door, floating stairs lead up the wall to a lofty mezzanine that is used as a study and opens on to a large roof terrace.
Designed to suit
A huge glass swivel-door opens to the small front garden, which itself gives directly on to the cul de sac. “People still ask us when the gate is coming,” laughs Rolf. “I tell them it isn’t.”
Rolf and Sandra describe the style of their home as “simple, clean, open, light, and rather bare and rugged,” and I think that’s spot-on. The look is semi-industrial, its monochromatic palette of white walls and beautiful cement screed floors warmed with wooden worktops and exposed brickwork – plus lovely splashes of colour in the artwork and soft furnishings.
Rolf himself built the front garden’s rustic trestle table from a picture that Sandra found in a magazine. He also erected the pergola, which, I’m told, will in due course be covered with a grapevine.
In the kitchen, a large Liebherr fridge takes pride of place, and Rolf’s handcrafted table running a close second. Both he and Sandra cook, they tell me, and they like to entertain: his skills lie more towards Western food, while she’s a whizz at local and Japanese dishes.
A simple corridor runs the right-hand-side length of the house, lit at intervals through a series of skylights. The row of doors to the left reveals first the guest bathroom (already visited, as previously mentioned); an admirably tidy storeroom; 13-year-old daughter Vanessa’s bedroom, complete with an en suite shower and furnished with double bunks to maximise the space; and another narrow room with a bed floating handily over the sofa below it. “We tried to cram in as much as we could,” says Rolf, “which was easier to do without an architect!”
The fifth and final door is to the master bedroom. Its open-plan shower-room is again naturally lit by means of a large skylight; but as it’s set into the floor of the roof terrace, a more modest soul might be advised to check for eyes in the sky before stripping off.
At the very end of the house is a television room – and the only TV in the house; it’s also a guest room, with a sofa-bed that had to be custom-made for the non-standard dimensions.
So – is this to be home forever, or at least for the foreseeable future? Probably not, say Sandra and Rolf:
“Doing this house was so much fun that we’re already itching to try another one. Ideally, we’d love to find an old walk-up apartment to do up in a Scandinavian theme – minimalist, clean and with a lot of wood.”
Well, you’ve got our number!
Cat Socrates, 448 Joo Chiat Road (for curiosities)
Pepper Gallery (for original local art)
Tomi Sushi at #02-14 Katong V, 30 East Coast Road | 6255 2355
The Wine Palate at #02-18 Katong V
Wine Directions, 301 Boon Keng Road | 9061 1401
Madam Low Restaurant, 196 Joo Chiat Road (for local food)
Haig Road wet market (opposite Joo Chiat Complex)
NTUC FairPrice Finest at Kallang Wave
Meidi-Ya Japanese supermarket at Liang Court, 177 River Valley Road
This story first appeared in Expat Living’s July 2015 issue.
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