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30 Years of Conservation in Singapore since 1989: Mastering Restoration

  Published: 14 November 2019
  Theme: Heritage

Principal Partner of Towner Construction, Er Kian Hoo and his firm have carried out over 40 restoration projects in more than 20 years.

Kian Hoo’s first restoration project was a shophouse at Kandahar Street in 1995. Since then, his passion for restoration work has grown over the years. He relishes taking on the many different challenges that each restoration work brings, which make up about 30 per cent of his company’s portfolio. Each project also provides a unique opportunity for him to contribute meaningfully to Singapore’s built heritage.

Over the years, six projects by his firm have garnered the Architectural Heritage Award, ranging from Malay Heritage Centre (2005), to the Roman Catholic Church of Saints Peter and Paul (2016) and the Warehouse Hotel (2017).

For the Roman Catholic Church of Saints Peter and Paul, the restoration work brought back the century-old gothic-style glory of the church. Flooring patterns sympathetic to the missing original tiles and the pressed-metal ceiling cornice were reinstated. A corrugated metal roof was also chosen to retain the original roof structure, which could not bear the weight of the tiles.

For the Warehouse Hotel, there was a careful integration of the old and new. The use of solid metallic materials with industrial finishes and look ensured the past prevailed at every corner. The lobby also showcased the original double-volume space of the warehouse and provided an unobstructed view of the Singapore River.

The Warehouse Hotel is a restoration project by Towner Construction that won the Architectural Heritage Award

The Warehouse Hotel is a restoration project by Towner Construction that won the Architectural Heritage Award © Darren Soh 

Unseen work

“Restoration projects are very different from any other construction work that we do. Every conserved building comes with very different challenges. And we have to take the time to understand how the building was built and the kind of materials used,” says Kian Hoo. For example, he and his team spent two months studying and documenting the different structural elements and detailing of the ‘India House’ at Pierce Road before proceeding with the restoration work.

Working on historic buildings also means working in very tight spaces where access could be a problem. “There is a lot more planning and groundwork to do to ensure that we are able to plan the access and use of machinery and our resources wisely given the constraints,” says Kian Hoo.

Some of the unseen work involved in a restoration project also includes strengthening the structural underpinnings of the building. “It can be very tedious work but it is necessary and critical to ensure that historic buildings are safe, secure and are able to last for a long time,” says Kian Hoo.

Key challenges

One challenge for the industry in carrying out restoration work is the lack of local craftsmen who have the specialised expertise to work on the more intricate decorative elements that can be found in some conserved buildings, says Kian Hoo. “We often have to find the right craftsmen overseas.” Sourcing for materials is also another challenge, which may involve travelling around the region to find the right ones. 

101 Jalan Sultan is a restoration project by Towner Construction that won the Architectural Heritage Award

101 Jalan Sultan is a restoration project by Towner Construction that won the Architectural Heritage Award

But to Kian Hoo, the biggest challenge is the need to recognise and appreciate the extent of restoration work required for conserved buildings which may often go beyond the additions and alterations work scope. The work also involves time needed to test out the use of materials such as lime plaster. If a project is under time and budget constraints, such testing of materials may not happen.

Kian Hoo hopes that more attention and interest be given to restoration work and hopes to encourage builders, building owners, architects and other building professionals to take the time to appreciate and understand good restoration work and what it involves.


This article is part of '30 Years of Conservation in Singapore since 1989', a special supplement that presents 30 reflections and stories of personal and collective struggles and triumph in charting Singapore’s conservation efforts in the last 30 years. Read the complete supplement here.