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What is a Shophouse?

A shophouse, embodying distinct Southeast Asian colonial-era architecture, proliferated from the 19th to the early 20th century. Despite many being demolished in 20th-century rebuilds, some endure as iconic examples of Southeast Asian architecture. With specific features such as two to three stories, a narrow face, and commercial space on the bottom floor, shophouses (around 8700 in Singapore) showcase various decorative façade styles from different periods. Noteworthy characteristics include low-rise structures, multi-functional usage, terraced buildings, narrow fronts, deep rears, clay-tiled roofs, five-footways, internal courtyards, and distinct flooring materials.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) in Singapore conserves these buildings, each built in different periods with unique decorative styles. The conservation efforts began in 1973, protecting eight national monuments. In 1989, Singapore gazetted ten conservation areas, marking a milestone with over 3200 buildings in historic districts. The 1970s and early 1980s witnessed URA's rehabilitation of state-owned shophouses, fostering public appreciation. Milestones in conservation include the pedestrianization of Emerald Hill Road in 1981 and the Conservation Master Plan in 1986. In 1987, URA completed the pilot restoration project at No. 9 Neil Road, setting the stage for subsequent restoration projects in Tanjong Pagar and beyond.


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

Conservation involves more than preserving the exterior of historic buildings; it also aims to maintain their spirit and original ambiance. The "3R" Principle—Maximum Retention, Sensitive Restoration, and Careful Repair—guides conservation projects. Regardless of a heritage building's size, the original structure and architectural elements should be retained and restored whenever possible.


Thorough research and documentation precede conservation work to ensure accurate repair. For example, the Former Asia Insurance Building (now The Ascott Raffles Place) received the Architectural Heritage Award in 2009 for its quality restoration following the '3R' principles. Extensive research, site investigations, and meticulous examination were conducted to preserve the original design and condition. The building's travertine façade and mild-steel windows were carefully restored, and internal elements, like a brass mail-chute, were retained.


The building, now a hotel, seamlessly combines modern functionality with rich heritage. Explore the "Objectives, Principles and Standards for Preservation and Conservation" book and the "Preferred Design Approach" leaflet for more on the 3R principle and structural design philosophy for conservation buildings.

The Shophouse

Shophouses, significant historical structures in Singapore and throughout Southeast Asia, are narrow, small terraced houses with a 'five-foot' pedestrian way at the front. Built between the 1840s and 1960s, these two- to three-storey buildings with common party walls constitute the majority of gazetted conservation buildings. The NUS 'Baba House,' located at No. 157 Neil Road, exemplifies well-preserved Straits-Chinese architecture. Restored by the URA, it showcases conservation best practices, featuring original ornamental details and offering insight into the 1920s domestic culture of the Straits Chinese community. The Baba House stands as a reminder of Singapore's unique cultures and aesthetic tastes, contributing visual interest to the urban landscape.

Conservation Districts

Our conservation guidelines vary across districts, considering factors such as historical significance, surrounding developments, and long-term plans. The Historic Districts (Boat Quay, Chinatown, Kampong Glam, and Little India) adhere to strict conservation, preserving entire building envelopes and maintaining architectural details. Residential Historic Districts (Emerald Hill, Cairnhill, and Blair Plain) allow rear extensions for modern needs. Secondary Settlements (Jalan Besar, Beach Road, River Valley, Geylang, and Joo Chiat) focus on streetscapes, allowing owners to conserve entire buildings or have new extensions. Good Class Bungalow Areas and Mountbatten Road Conservation Area preserve iconic bungalows. Architectural Heritage Awards recognize quality restoration, promoting awareness of heritage conservation. Owners can choose to conserve entire buildings or subdivide large lots for new development plots. Conservation works prioritize maintaining the building's character, preventing deterioration, and restoring original design and materials.

There are about 6,760 shophouses in Singapore gazetted for conservation. They make up the bulk of the nearly 7,200 buildings gazetted for conservation.














"This is no mean feat for a small island and land-scarce city-state with competing land use needs. It is a testament to the importance we place on our built heritage and a holistic urban planning approach," says Teh Lai Yip, senior director, conservation, at the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). She was part of the team led by by Koh-Lim Wen Gin in the 1980s that championed the conservation cause. Mrs Koh-Lim retired as chief planner and deputy chief executive of URA in December 2008.

"Many other cities envy us," says Mrs Koh-Lim. "We are so small, with limited land and yet we can do conservation in a comprehensive way and there's enough critical mass and presence."

Nearly half or 3,320 of the 6,760 conservation shophouses are in the Historic Districts of Boat Quay, Chinatown, Kampong Glam and Little India. "Together as a district or as a street, I think these shophouses enhance the physical environment, the streetscape. Their presence enhances the built environment." For instance, the low-rise shophouses along Boat Quay provide 'urban windows' for the high-rise office buildings behind.

"So for the city as a whole, there is all this porosity, so the built environment as a whole is enhanced. Imagine if all the areas where you see conservation shophouses today were high-rise; there would be no breathing space," says Mrs Koh-Lim.

Architectural historian and anthropologist Julian Davison says: "The shophouse is very much a cultural signifier for Singapore. "A large part of Singapore's identity is wrapped up in its history as a port city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the ubiquitous shophouse defined the urban fabric of the city in that period and continued to do so until the early days of independence."

Post-independence, despite the pressures for redeveloping the city, the authorities managed to safeguard some precincts of shophouses in the Historic Districts.

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Scarce assets with limited supply

According to the URA, there are about 6,760

conserved shophouses in Singapore1, with more

than 60% of them located in the prime areas of

Rochor, Outram, Singapore River and Downtown

Core. Shophouses formed the bulk of nearly

7,200 buildings gazetted for conservation1, with

the rest largely bungalows.

Given their limited supply, shophouses have

become a highly sought-after investment-grade

asset, especially the prime conservation

shophouses in Singapore's city core.

Source: Business Times SG
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