What is a shophouse?

A shophouse is a structure with some specific architectural traits characteristic of Southeast Asia during the colonial era. Shophouses were built in large numbers from the 19th century through the early 20th century and although many were demolished during 20th century rebuilds, some have persisted. Today, they are considered an iconic example of Southeastern Asian architecture from this period. Similar structures can be seen in other regions of the world, including parts of Latin America and the Caribbean islands.

The shophouse has a number of features which make it distinctive. The structure is two to three or more stories in height, with a narrow face and a long length. The bottom floor has been designed to accommodate a commercial enterprise such as a shop, a restaurant, or a light manufacturing facility, while the upper floor or floors are intended for residential use and also some areas are fully commercial.

There about Est 8700 such buildings in Singapore conserve by the Urban Redevelopment Authority ( URA ) gazetted as Conservation Properties

The are all built in different period. Each period has distinct decorative façade style. The main characteristics are :

  1. Low Rise . In Singapore they are usually 2 to 3 Stories in height.
  2. Multi-Functional in its usage – Retail, Restaurant & Cafes, Spas & Residential etc
  3. Terraced Buildings usually.
  4. Narrow fronts , Deep rears .
  5. The Roof are usually laid with clay tiles.
  6. Five-footways started by Raffles in his town planning when he founded Singapore.
  7. Internal Courtyards- This is beautiful architectural gems in a shophouse
  8. The floor are usually timber but later dated shophouses style in the art deco fashion are concrete .

Source : URA Singapore

A Brief History of Conservation

The earliest steps taken to preserve some of Singapore’s important monuments and landmarks were carried out through the Preservation of Monuments Board. The first 8 buildings granted legal protection as national monuments in 1973 were:

  • Cathedral of the Good Shepherd
  • Armenian Church
  • St Andrew’s Cathedral
  • Hajjah Fatimah Mosque
  • Telok Ayer Market
  • Thong Chai Building
  • Thian Hock Keng
  • Sri Mariamman Temple
  • 1989 marked a milestone in Singapore, when 10 conservation areas in the historic districts of Chinatown (Telok Ayer, Kreta Ayer, Tanjong Pagar and Bukit Pasoh), Little India, Kampong Glam, Singapore River (Boat Quay and Clarke Quay), Cairnhill and Emerald Hill, with a total of over 3200 buildings, were gazetted for conservation. These were early efforts to conserve our buildings of architectural, historical and cultural significance in Singapore.
  • The 1970s and early 1980s saw the rehabilitation of State-owned shophouses by URA along Murray Street and Tudor Court to change public perception of the value of these pre-war buildings. Singapore was increasingly interested in conservation throughout the 1980s. Some key milestones include the pedestrianisation of Emerald Hill Road in1981, and the unveiling of the Conservation Master Plan for the city’s historic areas in 1986. In 1987, the pilot restoration project by URA at No. 9 Neil Road, was completed and opened for public viewing. Subsequently, restoration was carried out for the rest of the Tanjong Pagar precinct and elsewhere.

Vision and Principles

Conservation of our built heritage is an important part of urban planning and development in Singapore. Historic areas like Boat Quay, Chinatown, Kampong Glam, and Little India add variety and visual interest to our urban environment. The conservation of these buildings and areas is testament to our rich historical, architectural, and cultural heritage. Conserving and restoring our historic buildings also adds to the distinctive character and identity of our city. More importantly, they give us a sense of history and memory even as we move into the future.

Conservation Principles

Our historic buildings and districts give us a visual and physical link to Singapore’s past in our changing urban landscape. However, Conservation is much more than just preserving a facade or the external shell of a building. It is also important that we retain the inherent spirit and original ambience of these historic buildings as far as possible. This requires an appreciation and understanding of the architectural structure of the buildings, good management, and practice in conserving buildings.

The “3R” Principle: Maximum Retention, Sensitive Restoration and Careful Repair

Buildings earmarked for conservation need to follow our conservation principles. Owners, architects, engineers, and contractors should try to apply the “3Rs” in their conservation projects, which help guide them towards quality restoration. These principles apply no matter how small or how large the heritage building is.

The original structure and architectural elements of historic buildings should be retained and restored as far as possible, without reconstructing the entire building. Parts of the building should only be replaced when it is absolutely necessary. Before any conservation work begins, thorough research and documentation should be carried out on the conservation building to ensure that quality restoration work is carried out through careful and accurate repair. This process helps ensure that conservation works adhere to the 3R principle.

For example, the Former Asia Insurance Building (now The Ascott Raffles Place), at Finlayson Green, was awarded the Architectural Heritage Award in 2009 for its quality restoration which carefully followed the ‘3R’ principles.

Before the restoration project began, extensive research was carried out on the original design of the skyscraper, so that the renovation and extension works would be compatible in spirit and in design. We referred to archival drawings and pictorial records, carried out site investigations, and did a detailed site examination to understand the condition of the original travertine façade.

With careful repair and consolidation, the original creamy travertine and Nero Portaro marble cladding was restored to its original sheen. The original mild-steel windows were also retained and reglazed with high-performance glass for greater sound insulation for the hotel rooms, without compromising the slender appearance of the window frames. Internally, a unique brass mail-chute from the 1950s was retained for today’s use.

Following the 3R principle, this old office building has been reinvented and upgraded to meet modern needs as a hotel for the Ascott group, while maintaining its rich heritage value.

You can learn more about the 3R principle in the book “Objectives, Principles and Standards for Preservation and Conservation”.

You can also find out more about the structural design philosophy to be adopted for conservation buildings in the leaflet on “Preferred Design Approach”.

The Shophouse

Shophouses—a historical source of delight and nostalgia—are a prevalent building type in Singapore’s architectural and built heritage. They are also commonly found throughout the historic cities of South East Asia. They are narrow, small terraced houses, with a sheltered ‘five foot’ pedestrian way at the front. These buildings can be used for both business and living. Constructed between the 1840s and the 1960s, these shophouses formed the majority of the pre-WW2 urban fabric of the old city centre as well as several other parts of Singapore. These buildings are generally two- to three- storeys high, built in contiguous blocks with common party walls. Shophouses therefore form the bulk of our gazetted conservation buildings. The shophouses still around today have been carefully restored and conserved according to our conservation guidelines.

The NUS ‘Baba House’: Richness of Straits-Chinese Architecture Restored

Once the ancestral home of a Straits-Chinese family, the NUS ‘Baba House’ located at No. 157 Neil Road, is an example of an architectural beauty that has been carefully restored by the URA to illustrate conservation best practices. . It is one of the last few untouched Straits-Chinese Houses in Singapore.


Not only has its façade been revived with original ornamental details, the restoration also showcases the 1920s domestic culture of the Straits Chinese community in Singapore. Welcoming visitors to the Baba House are the wooden half doors or pintu pagar, a typical cross-cultural feature that used to be common in Singapore’s historic residences.

The main hall features elaborate and intricately carved structures of floor to ceiling screens and partitions.

The Baba House is representative of the visual interest that a well restored shophouse can provide to our urban landscape, and at the same time, remind us how these shophouses are representative of Singapore’s unique cultures and aesthetic tastes.


Key Elements of the Shophouses Description
Party Walls These are principle load bearing walls that separate a shophouse from its neighbouring shophouse.
Timber Structural Members This refers to the main and secondary timber beams, that span from one party wall to the other and supports each floor. .It also includes the timber floor boards, and timber rafters that support the roof.
Airwells Airwells are courtyards that are exposed to the sky, they provide natural ventilation and lighting to the interior of the shophouse They facilitate a comfortable indoor environment in our tropical climate.
Rear Court An open courtyard located at the back of the shophouse. It is bounded by the rear boundary wall, service block, rear elevation of the main shophouse and the party wall. This area was traditionally used for functional needs such as the kitchen and the toilet.
Timber Windows Timber framed windows that are designed in the French or Casement style. Some have solid infill panels while others will have operable timber shutters/jalousies to allow for air and light.
Timber Staircase This refers to the staircase inside the shophouse, which are often of timber structural construction In some houses, the timber balustrades can be of ornate design. .
Front Facade The front ‘face’ of the house that faces the street. Facades from different architectural eras will have different aesthetic approaches.
The Upper Floor This projects over the five-footway to form a covered pedestrian arcade.
The Columns Located at the front of the building. They support the upper floors and form five-foot way colonnades.
The Five-Footway This provides pedestrians with a sheltered environment for passage away from the hot sun and torrential rain. This feature was mandated by Raffles since the first Town Plan for Singapore.
The Roof The roof is usually of a ‘pitched’ construction on a timber structural frame and laid with natural coloured, unglazed V-profile terracotta roof tiles. Shophouses from the 1900s onwards tend to use natural coloured, unglazed flat-interlocking tiles (also commonly called ‘Marseilles’ tiles).



Conservation Districts

Our conservation guidelines are applied in varying degrees to the different conservation districts. We have to take into consideration the historical significance of each conservation district, the context of the surrounding developments and the long-term plans for the area. The extent of the building to be conserved and the degree of adaptation allowed also varies by district, and in some cases, by the uniqueness of the subject building.

The Historic Districts of Boat Quay, Chinatown, Kampong Glam and Little India

The Historic Districts—the oldest urban areas of Singapore—were first gazetted on July 7 1989. The strictest form of building conservation is practiced in these districts. These districts enrich our built environment with their diverse facades, rich ornamentation and unique architectural styles. To maintain the ambience and physical character of these historic districts, strict conservation guidelines have been put in place. For example, the entire building envelope, including the rear service blocks and rear courts are to be retained and restored, to maintain the overall low-rise scale and fine grain of the urban texture.


The Residential Historic Districts of Emerald Hill, Cairnhill and Blair Plain

Buildings in these historic areas were first developed as residences for the well-to-do. They have traditionally been in continuous use as residences for individual families. One example is Blair Plain, which lies at the South-Western edge of Chinatown.

Blair Plain

Its two to three-storey shophouses and residential homes of various architectural styles are representative of the various designs used in Singapore, ranging from the Early and up to the Modern shophouse style.

They are a reminder of the prestige of the area in the 1930s, when Peranakan families and wealthy merchants built houses in a mix of Chinese, Malay and European styles. To accomodate modern day needs as a family home, an extension at the rear of the house is allowed in this area.


Emerald Hill and Cairnhill

Emerald Hill and Cairnhill are historic areas that are located near the crowded Downtown Core offering an attractive and quiet residential presence. The predominately two-storey terrace houses built over 90 years ago showcase a variety of architectural styles ranging from Transitional to Art Deco.

Units in Emerald Hill are allowed to add an extension at their rear to accommodate the modern day needs of a family home. However, the rear extension must be lower than the eaves of the main roof.


The Secondary Settlements of Jalan Besar, Beach Road, River Valley, Geylang and Joo Chiat

Secondary settlement areas developed outside the central city district after the end of World War 1 and have established their own distinct identities over time. They capture the evolution and change of Singapore’s urban development in the 1910s to 1960s, and also form the transitional urban areas between houses in the historic districts and residences in the new towns in the modern era. A mix of elaborate ‘Late’, ‘Art Deco’ and ‘Modern’  shophouse architectural styles can be found in these areas.

We approach secondary settlements differently, focusing more on streetscapes as the historic low-rise streetblocks in these areas are usually interspersed with many new and higher developments from the 1970s and 1980s. Owners may choose to conserve the entire building, or have a new rear extension up to the maximum height allowed under the Development Guide Plan for the area.

The Joo Chiat area is not only a treasure trove for delectable local food. The area is also known for its decorative and ornate shophouses and residential terraces, which lends a special charm to this secondary settlement. Many terrace houses along Koon Seng Road have successfully adapted the traditional terrace houses for modern contemporary living.

For detached buildings in these areas, such as bungalows, fundamental principles of conservation also apply to the buildings. Owners may choose to conserve the entire detached building including the outhouse/servant’s quarters, or just the main building. The owner can also carry out a subdivision of the rest of the lot for new development plots, if the lot is large enough.


The Good Class Bungalow Areas and the Mountbatten Road Conservation Area


The iconic ‘black-and-white’ and other styles of bungalows built in the 1900s to 1950s were given conservation status from 1991 onwards. They are generally standalone two-storey houses, often with verandahs located along the front and sides of the house, with broad overhanging hipped roofs and set in large grounds. The early bungalows were influenced by Tudor-style construction housing and Malay kampong houses, and catered to the British. The highest ranking colonial officers lived in them, and in later years, the rich local merchant class.

Good Class Bungalow Areas and Fringe include these areas:

  • White House Park/Nassim Road Conservation Area
  • Chatsworth Park Conservation Area
  • Holland Park/Ridout Park Conservation Area For conservation bungalows located outside of a Good Class Bungalow Area and within a site where flat or condominium development is allowed by the Master Plan, the bungalow may be strata-subdivided into apartment units or converted to a clubhouse.Architectural Heritage AwardsWe generally call for submissions for the Award in April each year, and the winners will be announced in September/October of that year.All preservation and conservation works are carried out at 7 levels, which vary from project to project. In order of complexity, they are:
  • Quality Restoration
  • The URA Architectural Heritage Awards was launched in 1995 to recognize well-restored monuments and conserved buildings in Singapore. The annual awards honour owners, insightful developers, sensitive architects, engineers, as well as contractors who have displayed the highest standards in conserving and restoring heritage buildings for continued use. The awards also promote public awareness and appreciation of quality restoration of monuments and buildings in Singapore.
  • In these areas, the owner can choose between conserving the entire building, or carry out a subdivision of the rest of the lot for new development plots, if the lot is large enough.
  • maintaining the essential character of the building
  • preventing further deterioration
  • consolidating the fabric of the building
  • restoring the building to original design and material
  • rehabilitating the building without destroying its character
  • replacing missing significant features of the building
  • rebuilding severely damaged parts of the building
  • While restoring a building, owners and contractors should use the “top-down” approach. Conservation works should start from the roof, and then work downwards. This method ensures the building remains structurally stable and minimises weather damage during the works.

Source : URA Singapore


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