Working with LiDAR technology, experimenting with lime plaster, making stained-glass artwork – hear from professionals who are equipping themselves with new skills to advance their craft in the conservation and repair work of our beloved landmarks.
With over 7,200 conserved buildings as well as national monuments that require continuous care, we catch up with David Liauw, director, DP Architects and Peng Ting, planner at URA on their passion in protecting and enhancing our historic gems, and why it is important to build up our capabilities in conservation work.
Why did you decide to deepen your knowledge and skills in conservation work by joining the National University of Singapore (NUS)’s Master of Arts in Architectural Conservation (MAArC) programme?
David: There is currently a severe lack of conservation professionals in the building industry although there is no lack of architects trying to do conservation projects. While going back to school in my late career was not an easy decision, I wanted to do it for my own personal growth and to also contribute more significantly to conservation work. It was great to meet like-minded professionals and experts from different stages of their careers, sharing the same passion for our built heritage.
Planner Peng Ting (in the front row on the right of the lady in pink T-shirt) with her MAArC classmates. Image: Peng Ting.
Peng Ting: As a planner in URA’s conservation planning department, while I was familiar with the planning and policy aspects of conservation work, I had to quickly learn on the job and familiarise myself with Singapore’s architectural and building material history. The programme enabled me to acquire more formal training in the technical aspects of building restoration. It was also versatile in allowing me to do it part-time so I could balance my family and job commitments. It allowed me to connect with my heritage, as my family was very much involved in the early building industries.
Tell us more about your conservation-related work.
David: I have worked with DP Architects for nearly 30 years. When I returned to Singapore after working with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in San Francisco, one of the first projects I was assigned to work on was the conservation of my alma mater, St Andrew’s School. It fueled my passion for what conservation work meant.
St Andrew’s School. Image: David Liauw.
Under the mentorship of NUS’s Professor Chan Yew Lih, I learnt first-hand the practice of conducting thorough documentation and assessments of the different historic buildings and the tremendous amount of energy and dedication needed when she guided the team working late into many nights — sorting out roof tiles, for example.
Peng Ting: I have worked at URA as an urban planner for about 11 years. I am currently leading the conservation department’s digitalisation efforts and policies on incorporating heritage consideration in the planning process. I have always been passionate about Singapore’s history and its natural and intangible cultural heritage.
What are some interesting insights and experiences that you have gained?
David: I have enjoyed learning about building materials and techniques, construction methods, and craftsmanship to conserve and repair historic buildings accurately. We were exposed to practical hands-on experience in conservation techniques such as cleaning, repairing, and consolidating wood, stone, brick, and plaster. We even learnt how to create stained glass artwork on our own.
David with a stained-glass artwork he created. Image: David Liauw.
We also had the chance to try out tools such as 3D scanning, virtual reality and augmented reality, which can help with documentation, analysis and the visualisation of historical structures, supporting more accurate restoration work.
3D scanning exercises as part of the MAArC programme. Image: David Liauw.
Peng Ting: One of the most memorable experiences was a particular class we had at NUS’s Architectural Conservation Laboratory (ArClab). As we were learning to investigate the moisture content in the shared party wall with the neighbouring shophouse, the owner of the neighbouring unit came over. He invited us over and shared his challenges with the historic brick wall in his terrace house. He had tried all forms of modern concrete plaster on the wall but still could not resolve the moisture issues within the wall.
We saw first-hand how various modern interventions to the building, such as air conditioning, could potentially change the behaviour of the building. As we had just learnt that historic buildings should only use traditional materials like lime-based plaster, allowing moisture to move through quickly, we shared this with the owner and offered him some practical options.
Engaging with owners and seeing how useful insights can help them deal with persistent building issues was such a gratifying experience.
How has the programme influenced the way you think about designing our buildings for the future?
David: One may think that at the completion of the MAArC programme, I would grow more adamant about keeping things the way they are. On the contrary, in practice, it has in many ways shifted my focus towards creating more adaptable and user-centric spaces.
I am more attentive to extending the longevity of buildings by making them more versatile and adaptable, allowing room for users to make the space their own and to create places that can adapt to changing requirements. People and communities grow and change, and the use of buildings should too.
Why is it essential to build up skilled craftspersons and heritage professionals? What can we do?
David: The scarcity of trained artisans and craftspeople poses a significant challenge for architectural conservation. Their skills are vital for preserving historical buildings and structures with the same craftsmanship and authenticity as the original construction. Training institutes can offer specialised courses and workshops on various traditional crafts, such as woodworking, stonemasonry, metalworking, plastering, and more. They can also collaborate with heritage organisations and restoration projects to provide practical exposure to real-world conservation challenges.
Repairing and cleaning decorative tiles as part of the hands-on training of the MAArC programme. Image: David Liauw.
I also see architectural conservation as a multidisciplinary field that combines history, architecture, engineering, craftsmanship, and community engagement. Like how places are inhabited and loved by varied users, conservation is an inclusive movement that needs to involve more than just architects.
An example of the ecosystem of stakeholders we need to build up that includes the community leading and sharing stories about our built heritage – Chinatown tour led by resident and blogger, Victor Yue. Image: Heritage Society of Singapore.
We need to build up and engage an ecosystem of stakeholders, communities, and subject-matter experts, to ensure practical efforts at placemaking and the continued relevancy of our built heritage. To equip this network of support, more efforts should be put in place to raise awareness of the benefits of cross-disciplinary learning, where architecture conservation studies are not limited to architects but to a diverse range of professionals from varied backgrounds, with a passion for the built environment, can equally contribute to renew and protect our shared built heritage for this generation and the ones to come.
An example of the ecosystem of stakeholders and experts we need to build up – conservation expert, Dr Yeo Kang Shua (in white helmet), at the Yueh Hai Ching temple restoration work that used LiDAR images of the temple as part of its restoration efforts. Image: Lim Shao Bin.
Peng Ting: While we enjoy the comforts that come with the new technology and new buildings, the old and familiar places help us to cope with the constant change around us. As our society strives to keep up with a growing body of knowledge and innovate new technologies, often, historic building materials and knowledge about these are considered dated. With a limited stock of these older buildings around, there is lesser demand to include this knowledge in schools and the know-how becomes lost.
As a result, the ability to take care of these older buildings too become lost. With poor maintenance, the buildings would eventually be considered a burden and liability to owners. Starting afresh on a clean slate may be easier and cheaper but we are also consuming resources by demolishing and extracting new materials to construct a new building. In this age of climate change, this use and discard attitude is unsustainable.
It is crucial for us to attract the younger generation to contribute towards caring for our built heritage, encouraging them to combine our local tropical architecture and traditional building knowledge with the latest innovation and technology to sustain our heritage and knowledge of our old buildings and continue their relevance into the future.
About the National University of Singapore (NUS) programme
A one of its kind in Singapore and the Southeast Asian region, NUS’s Master of Arts in Architectural Conservation (MAArC) programme imparts comprehensive knowledge and hands-on training in repair and conservation work with Asian perspectives. Its hands-on training is done at the Architectural Conservation Laboratory (ArClab) at 141 Neil Road, one of the oldest shophouses in Singapore, serving as a research and training centre for sustainable management of the historic environment. The programme is led by Dr Nikhil Joshi, senior lecturer and co-director of Graduate Programmes in Architectural Conservation at the Department of Architecture, NUS and is a heritage consultant to conservation projects in Singapore and the region.
For more information about the programme and ArCLab, go to: https://www.cde.nus.edu.sg/arch/programmes/master-of-arts-in-architectural conservation and https://www.arclabnus.com
Dr Nikhil Joshi teaching at the ArClab at 141 Neil Road as part of the MAArC programme.
Thumbnail image: Lim Shao Bin.