The home of architecture and design in Asia-Pacific

Get the latest design news direct to your inbox!

Typologically Speaking

Victor Lee looks at the HDB shophouse-type and the role of current social, cultural and economic forces in its evolution.

Typologically Speaking

The HDB shophouse, a typological variant of the commonly known traditional shophouse, has in so far not been discussed at large compared to the decidedly more romantic latter.

The HDB shophouse, as its name suggests, exists as part of either high- or low-rise HDB blocks. Some in particular, are housed within the podium and tower block model, where residential blocks are fused into several retail levels below, creating an interconnected, mixed-use buzz. Bras Basah complex and Waterloo Center in the arts and civic district and Farrer Gardens, are all notable examples of this model.


Unlike privately owned traditional shophouses, whose external outlook as a result of façade changes and building extensions from adaptive reuse and conversions etc. are largely apparent, the public-owned HDB shophouse rarely sees external changes because of limited modification rights. Whatever flexibility in space, layout or usage comes from specific tenancy arrangements that are allowed within the constraints of the HDB framework. Interestingly, through this emerged some minute, albeit instrumental variations in shop types. Here, we take a closer look at how this has taken place in Farrer Gardens.

Advent of the Half-shop

Built in the 1970s, the shophouses at Farrer Gardens have, through the years, registered a pattern of use and occupancy. The complex is characterised by two canted slab blocks sitting on the podium, enclosing a large courtyard. The shophouses are located on the second and third storeys of the podium, serving mainly family run businesses trading in craft-based produce and services.

Today, as the demands for space, amenities and services change, the number of families that have been residing and doing business in this way for the last 30 to 40 years are dwindling. Some of the surviving ones are now run by the children of original shop owners. Others, unable to sustain higher rents for a full shop, have sought to subletting as a means of maintaining ownership, holding on to the remaining 50 per cent of the shophouse. This is a direct consequence of HDB’s revised subletting laws which allow for ‘half-shops’ (i) to be created by subdivision of the ‘parent’ shop.


The results of such a mechanism are interesting to note. The subdivision adheres strongly to the physical framework of the building. Upon subdivision – depending on the structure, service core position and location of each shop in relation to the slab block – each half-shop’s internal layout would be slightly different from another unit’s layout. Some half-shops may end up not having a direct access to service areas like the toilet, while some may be encumbered by the bulk of the internal staircase to the upper level dwelling. Depending on the agreement of rentable area between landlord and subtenant based on each other’s needs, sub-types such as ‘shop with internal staircase’, ‘shop with toilet’, ‘shop with external store’, ‘shop with entrance foyer’ and several more variations of shop types can be created


A visual survey of Farrer Gardens reveals an interesting cacophony of shopfronts in terms of entrance orientations, shopfront treatments and space usage. However, looking beyond the mere surface of seemingly random shops, several peculiar yet interesting conditions that arise out of the existing building structure, coupled with the enforced subdivisions, could all exist to give rise to unique situations for new typological possibilities to evolve. Not only would it be interesting to note its relevance to the rental market, urban context and retail cultures of today, but also of tomorrow.

Victor Lee is the co-founder of interior, architecture and urbanism practice Plystudio.

This article first appeared in Cubes Indesign issue 63.

(i) HDB’s tenants of commercial premises are allowed to sublet up to 50% of the trading area or living quarters (for residential use). Source : HDB’s website : However there is no restriction for subletting for sold shop owners (lessees).

INDESIGN is on instagram

Follow @indesignlive

The Indesign Collection

A searchable and comprehensive guide for specifying leading products and their suppliers

Indesign Our Partners

Keep up to date with the latest and greatest from our industry BFF's!

Related Stories

While you were sleeping

The internet never sleeps! Here's the stuff you might have missed