For all the attention that such transactions draw, nobody seems to be able to remember how such stately homes came to be called "Good Class Bungalows", a term coined in the early 1980s.
What is Good Class Bungalow (GCB)?
Did the term spring from a colonial hangover from the British class-based society? Or was a more likely reason a need to differentiate these houses, with large land areas and open spaces, from denser forms of landed housing such as semi-detached and terrace houses?
the origins of the term "Good Class Bungalow" itself seems to be lost to history. As professor Robert Powell says in his book Singapore Good Class Bungalow 1819-2015: "No one, it seems, can recall precisely how the words came to be chosen or by whom.
"It is possible that they may have been called 'Good Class' in order to differentiate them from smaller bungalow plots . . ."
In an interview with The Straits Times last year during the book's launch, he noted that with Singapore developing at a great pace in the late 1970s and high-rise buildings sprouting, "it was probably for economic reasons that the government decided to officially recognise the bigger bungalows and their surroundings so as to attract or retain high-wealth citizens to contribute to the economy".
Liu Thai Ker, senior director of RSP Architects Planners & Engineers and the former chief planner and CEO of the Urban Redevelopment Authority from 1989 to 1992, concurs: "As far back as 1980, we anticipated that Singapore will become a very prosperous city and given the fact that land is so short (in supply), if we don't protect the GCB (Areas), then when people become billionaires, where can they find good-quality housing?
"Despite the fact that we are pushing mainly for high density, we must retain some very low-density housing for the very rich because people in other countries, even if they are not super-rich, they still can get large tracts of land to build their homes."
What makes GCBs appealing?
One of the most obvious is that they are a rare breed; there are only about 2,500 of them, located in 39 designated areas.
They are mostly nestled in "forested" areas, with some on hill slopes such as Cluny Hill and Bukit Tunggal. The proximity to nature makes them an even more exclusive class of property in a small city-state like Singapore. As a veteran property consultant puts it, GCBs are located in "rich men's areas" and there is safety in numbers, in a sense, for the well-heeled who value their privacy.
At the same time, the large price tag means that not everyone can afford to live in one - which makes them even more coveted.
That said, not all GCBs are created equal. Some are more than 100 years old (mostly conserved bungalows, of which there are 65) while others are newly built.
Architectural design styles also vary widely. Some have traditional vernacular styles (which include black-and-white bungalows) that might have verandas and large overhangs suited to tropical climes. Others range from the contemporary end of the scale to the ultra-modern.
While some of the 2,500 properties have been maintained in pristine condition, others are old and in need of redevelopment.
It is true that most GCBs are located in two of the traditional prime districts (10 and 11). Even so, some GCBs may also be found in relatively far-flung places such as Binjai Park and Yarwood, the Chestnut locale in Bukit Panjang, and Windsor Park off Upper Thomson Road.
To understand how these enclaves have come to be, it helps to poke around in the annals of urban planning.
Interestingly enough, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) says that it does not actually use the term "Good Class Bungalows" nor give individual bungalows such a status. Rather these properties are considered "bungalows within Good Class Bungalow Areas (GCBAs)".
URA does not have an official figure on the number of bungalows in GCBAs but states that there are about 2,800 plots - or legal land lots - in the 39 gazetted GCBAs.
Also, so established are these 39 areas, that their prestige precedes the government's gazetting of them in the 1980 Master Plan. In fact, the rationale for gazetting the 39 GCBAs was to protect the existing high-quality residential environment of these established bungalow areas from the intrusion of more intensive forms of residential developments such as semi-detached or terrace houses, URA explained.
The GCB in the planning details
To make sure that GCBAs retain their exclusive and low-rise character, URA has imposed stringent planning conditions for bungalows there.
As these areas are dominated by large plots, a planning norm of 1,400 square metres (sq m) - or about 15,070 sq ft - was adopted as the minimum plot size for any newly-created bungalows within the 39 GCBAs, URA explained.
This is significantly bigger than the 400 sq m minimum plot size for a bungalow in a non-GCBA and minimum plot sizes are even smaller for semi-detached and terrace houses.
There is also a height restriction - URA allows bungalows in GCBAs to be built up to only two storeys high, although an attic and basements are allowed.
A site coverage control - total covered area as a percentage of the net site area - of 35 per cent applies to bungalows in GCBAs. This is lower than the general site coverage limit for bungalows in non-GCBAs, which is typically 40 per cent.
Moreover, the setback to the sides and the rear for a bungalow in a GCBA is three metres, compared to two metres for a bungalow in a non-GCBA. These rules ensure that there is enough open space around the compound of each bungalow - which helps maintain some distance from the next-door bungalow as well as privacy for their respective residents. The open space is also ideal for incorporating amenities such as gardens, swimming pools and fish ponds.
Property consultancy VestAsia Group chairman Steven Choo, who is also an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Real Estate at the National University of Singapore, points out that in addition to the stringent planning conditions for bungalow developments within GCBAs, there are also a host of requirements for other types of housing that happen to be located next to a GCBA. This is to ensure the privacy of GCB dwellers.
K2LD Architects director Ben Teng says the stringent planning rules for GCBAs are meant to control the streetscape, so that all the houses have the same setback, same height control - nothing juts out.
Nevertheless, there is room for creative designs, says Mr Teng. "Generally, these areas are neighbourhoods with big houses, and this spurs the architect to come up with a design which is better than those of neighbouring houses."
That creativity is also put to work since many GCBAs are in mature, forested areas and some plots have protected trees. "Here the challenge is to build around the trees, such that the trees become part of the design," he adds.
"Each GCB is a unique, creative piece of work."
K2LD has designed about 50 bungalows in GCBAs over the past 15 years and Mr Teng has seen his share of interesting requests from owners.
About eight years ago, he was tasked by an avant garde entrepreneur who had bought a site along Ridley Park to come up with a design for a house that would look like a shopping centre.
"The facade had to be eye-catching but not too jarring. We effected this through light-gold coloured aluminium mesh facade. At ground level, the front and sides of the house are made of glass just like in a shopping centre - instead of a typical grand wooden door as the house entrance. And as you enter the house, you are greeted by a vast foyer area with a cafe; the kitchen and services areas are tucked behind," he explains.
The owner did not see much value-add from having the usual swimming pool or gardens, as there was already wooded state land opposite his house. Instead, he wanted his entire basement level to be dedicated to entertainment. This resulted in a home theatre, arcade-style game machines and a bowling alley.
Over in Binjai Park, Mr Teng had a client who had been advised by his geomancer to have a house designed in the shape of a peanut, which symbolises longevity and prosperity.
"We have to balance the form and space, ensuring that the spaces within are rectilinear and usable. We adopted the figure of eight which resembles a peanut from plan view (top-down view) and began to fit the required (regular-shaped) spaces. Making sure that the original design intent of a peanut form is kept, external walls of the rooms are set away from the outline of the figure of eight," Mr Teng says.
"Other building elements were designed to fit in between, such as the main staircase which has been sculpted to fit seamlessly."
At Tanglin Hill, a house is being built that will have a narrow moat about three feet wide around the house (with stepping stones to enter the house at two points) - because its owner thinks it may help keep insects away and also because it's been proven that water bodies help to lower the ambient temperature, Mr Teng adds.
Not spared by cooling measures
Exclusive and rare as they are, bungalows in GCBAs have not remained untouched by the dampening effects of Singapore's property cooling measures and slowing economy.
Realstar Premier Group managing director William Wong estimates that 2016 prices in this segment were about 10-15 per cent below their last peak in 2013. He expects prices to continue to ease a little in the first six months of this year.
The silver lining behind the price drop, though, is that it has drawn more buyers from the sidelines. According to CBRE, the number of deals in GCBAs improved to 37 last year from 33 in 2015. That said, things are still a far cry from their heyday in 2010, which saw 132 transactions.
Since being gazetted 37 years ago, the 39 GCBAs have remained largely the same and there are currently no plans to release new sites or designate new areas as GCBAs, according to URA.
Nevertheless, some analysts said that some of the larger plots in GCBAs may potentially be subdivided, which means that the number of bungalows in these exclusive areas could potentially increase in the future - though not by a whole lot because of the minimum plot size rule.
All things considered, this housing form will remain relatively scarce, while its inherent characteristics will continue to generate demand. Some well-heeled Singaporeans may prefer to live in penthouses which are sometimes dubbed "bungalows in the sky" because of the views, and the easier maintenance. But industry players reckon that most will want to live in a bungalow in one of Singapore's GCBAs.
As Knight Frank Singapore executive chairman Tan Tiong Cheng puts it: "The ambience, feel - big land area in quiet locales surrounded by vegetation - and privacy of bungalows in GCBAs are protected, because these areas have been gazetted.
"It is the pinnacle property that a Singaporean can own."
Some may question the need to maintain GCBAs given the competing needs for land on a small island like Singapore. But RSP Architects Planners & Engineers' Mr Liu argues: "Despite our land shortage, as a city, we must have as wide a variety of environment as we can.
"So we have beaches and we also have green areas. We are short of land and yet we have MacRitchie Reservoir and also conservation areas. When it comes to housing, we have from relatively high density to the fairly low density - so that we can cater for the needs of all income groups.
"In other words, whatever other bigger cities have, we also have. So that the environment will have variety, (and) it is not so monotonous. That's very much part of the planning concept."
He adds: "There is a Chinese saying that The sparrow may be small but all the five vital organs (that the bigger animals have) are there. So it is small but complete in every detail."*