When the agent turned the key in the lock to reveal the four-bedroom Pasir Ris penthouse they had bought off plan, Hetty Vosselman and Bertel Aukema were horrified. It was clear that drastic measures would have to be taken.
Before moving to Singapore, the Dutch couple lived in Italy for a few years. They had wanted a change from Holland, says Hetty, but found Italy similar in many ways to their home country – still European. They had come to Singapore on holiday a few times and loved it. On one such visit, they said to each other, “Why don’t we stay?”
When choosing where to live, they avoided the popular districts 9, 10 and 11, primarily because of all the construction that was going on. Ironically, though, they ended up in a condo between two construction sites.
“We kept asking our agent to show us different areas, and after a while she took us to the East Coast,” Hetty says. “When we asked what was in the north, we were told that it ‘wasn’t for foreigners’. Eventually we made it up north to Pasir Ris. We liked the area and the sea views, and the idea of a penthouse apartment made up our minds. But the agent thought we were mad and said we were just ‘buying a lot of sky’.”
Though they loved the view and the outdoor space, they could see from the floor plan that the rooms were going to be small. But when they asked the developer if it was possible to leave out some of the walls, the answer was a firm “Cannot.” And the liberal use of wood veneer finish made the place seem dark and even more cramped than they had expected. Getting rid of the sombre wood and removing walls to open up the tiny rooms, kitchen and laundry was the priority. The developer didn’t want to get involved, but it was fairly easy to find a contractor to do the job.
But when they proposed removing the staircase and putting in a glass roof, everyone said “Cannot”. Hetty and Bertel laugh about how many times they heard that word. “Also, there were never any reasons for the ‘cannots’, which was very frustrating.” Hetty says she learnt to be quite assertive.
They at last found a structural engineer who was prepared to remove the staircase, and after seven months all the permits and permissions had been granted. It was contractor Ryn Razif who eventually said “Can” to all their requests, and they say he has been great to work with – the actual job took only four months to complete. The couple lived in another apartment in the building while the remodelling was being done.
The outdoor space has fantastic sea views. It comprises two sections: a pool and deck with seating area, and on the upper level another large decked area with loungers, dining furniture and a walk-in storeroom for the all-important fridge.
What was a tiny upstairs bedroom is now a good-sized guest, study or TV room that is accessed from and opens onto the upper outdoor living area. Having a movable TV means they could watch it while lying outside under the stars, if they liked.
Downstairs, the only original wall that has been left standing is their bedroom wall. They found a lovely Chinese door for the bedroom, with slats that can be closed for when the aircon is on. The room is rather small, Hetty says, but adds that they spend very little time in there. A glass wall now divides it from the bathroom, which was very dark before.
Other Chinese touches include some funky, lacquered tiles on the sliding door to the bathroom, and lovely Chinese storage cupboards from Hidden Treasures.
“The only furniture we brought from Italy was our dining room chairs, because we really loved them. But everything else was bought here. We wanted a mix of looks, and for each piece to be something that we really liked.”
To make the most of a small space, they designed the kitchen as a kidney shape around the hob. Again, this plan met with resistance from various contractors who were invited to quote. The result, however, is really cool. The bright red looks clean and fresh; even the bomb shelter is painted red, and the kitchen cabinet knobs from Hidden Treasures add the perfect finishing touch.
Another storage idea was inspired by some lovely boxes that Hetty had seen at a Japanese shop, and which her contractor made to her exact specifications. What an attractive way to hide everything.
The Indonesian dining room table is from Asia Passion in Dempsey, as is the outdoor furniture. Hetty says the couple who run the shop are lovely. “They treat expats as regular clients, not as people with fat wallets.”
Work and Play
Bertel has an employment pass related to a company named Personalizzata, which they set up here together, but though she’s a director of the company, Hetty’s was declined for the first five months.
So she applied to do a course at Arium Education in Psychology and Criminology, something she had always been interested in, and is just about to complete her degree. She has found the course fascinating. “At first, everyone just listened and took notes,” she adds, but feels she has been instrumental in getting the class to ask more questions and engage in more discussion. A goldsmith by trade, she now has a workshop in Changi Industrial Park, and has also started learning more about gems. Next year, she will be teaching at JDMIS, the Jewellery Design and Management International School run by Tanja Shadow, who used to own Beadhub.
Bertel has a passion for Passoni, made-to-measure bicycles from Italy, and he is looking at bringing them into Singapore. The superlight frames look and feel great – I’m not a cyclist, but when I saw Bertel’s bike I wanted to buy one like it. He also has a couple of bikes with motors: a Harley and a Ducati. He races the Ducati across the causeway at Pasir Gudang and in Sepang, and the couple ride up to Thailand on the Harley.
Bertel has taken a motorboat course at Punggol, and they also enjoy sailing. They keep a yacht at Coolangata, Australia, where they also have a Toyota Landcruiser for when they want to do some off-road exploring. Bertel does take time to chill, too – he is doing a meditation course with Vikas Malkani at the Soul Centre and taking pottery classes at The Pottery Jungle.
The couple frequently visit friends who live at Surin Beach, Phuket, and are keen divers. Hetty is a qualified diving instructor, but Bertel confesses to being a dangerous diver. “I like going off on my own, so don’t learn from me!”
One of his goals is to tour Lhasa and Katmandu by mountain bike, and perhaps to explore some of the mountain trails in Peru.
These two people have no walls in their lives – they are in a position to live wherever in the world they choose – and their almost wall-less home reflects that.
It may have taken a bit of bashing, both of physical walls and of the walls that people put up to resist anything that is “outside the box”, but the space they have created in this way is wonderfully liberating.
|• Arium Education
35 Selegie Road
• Asia Passion, outdoor furniture
13 Dempsey Road #01-02
• The Hair Shop (Melvin)
290 Orchard Road, Paragon #05-19/20
• Hidden Treasures, Chinese cabinets
27 Mosque Street
• House of Zhen, tiles
80 Airport Boulevard
• Pek Sin Choon, tea culture
36 Mosque Street
• Personalizzata, handmade jewellery
• Ryn Razif, contractor
• SoulCentre, meditation
101-A Jervois Road
85 Lorong Tawas
(+65) 6338 0727
(+65) 6475 5355
(+65) 6221 5253
(+65) 6732 3773
(+65) 6221 1089
(+65) 6226 3281
(+65) 6323 3238
(+65) 9476 2101
(+65) 6738 4009
(+65) 6268 6121
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