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500 sq ft apartment? Here's 5 design tips for a fabulous home


Small space is not a hindrance to comfortable living  – Property author, Khalil Adis tells us how he designed his 484 sq ft Singaporean studio unit from scratch using a free online app and shares valuable tips to make a small space feel bigger without putting a dent in your wallet. 

Before we dive into the interior design bit, Khalil answers a few questions:

What motivated you to DIY your home’s interior design? 

Hiring a professional interior designer is not cheap as the fees alone can cost as high as RM8,000 and S$6,000 in Malaysia and Singapore, respectively. According to Qanvast, a Singapore-based online renovation platform, the average renovation amount on a typical HDB flat in Singapore costs a whopping S$56,000! Meanwhile, in Malaysia, it can cost anything between RM40,000 to RM150,000.

Also, I do have some basic ID knowledge which I picked up during my years of training as an architecture and design student at Singapore Polytechnic. These learnings coupled with Homestyler, a free online interior design software gave me the confidence to take charge of my home renovation project.

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What is your design rule of thumb? 

You should not be spending more than 10% of your home value on renovations. I managed to stay below my set budget of S$20,000 (RM59,282) and only spent S$16,500 (RM 48,908). Here’s how I did it:

Step 1: Have a sense of (clearing) space and colours

In the pursuit of fitting out your home, you must remember to not compromise on mobility. When living in a compact space, you want to ensure that it does not end up being claustrophobic and that you are able to move about easily from one place to another without any encumbrances in the way – this is known as your clearing space.

Read what this couple has to say when it comes to designing a home together

Typically, the minimum clearing space required for:

  • Doors and entrances: 900 mm.
  • Wardrobe to bed: 900 mm
  • Widths of fittings such as wardrobe, shelves, kitchen cabinets, etc: 600 mm

Khalil’s home floor plan above shows clearing spaces for a full height cupboard that spans from the living to dining rooms (600mm); the door clearance leading from the dining to the living room (900mm), the wardrobe clearance space (600mm) and the 900 mm clearance space between the wardrobe and the bed. The main door was given a slightly bigger clearance space at 1,200 mm.

Now that we have a sense of space, let’s move on to colours.

If you’re unsure where to start, stick to the basics and use neutral shades such as black, white, beige, grey and a hint of wood. These are easy on the eyes and exude luxury and sophistication.

Khalil chose a monochromatic colour scheme as it speaks elegance and timelessness.

Step 2: Design with the end in mind

Use Homestyler to upload your floor plan and then trace the background until the entire floor plan is completed.

Now that you have figured out your basic layout, you are ready to start the design process using the Homestyler tool. You can start by uploading your floor plan as the background and then use the measurement scale to ensure you get the right dimensions.

The EasyHome Homestyler online tool allows you to create your dream home designs in 2D and 3D. By either uploading your existing floor plan or creating a new one from the available catalogue, you can build rooms one by one by incorporating features including doors and windows, flooring, wall paint as well as furnishings using real-life products and add landscape to your design. 

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Step 3: Create the illusion of space with smart designs

The main constraint for studio apartments is space, hence it is pertinent for you to utilise each sq ft. Select design solutions which not only creates a sense of spaciousness but is functional as well.

For instance, in the living room, Khalil opted to build a full-length cupboard which fits cleanly and spans across the length of one wall – this cupboard transcends into the dining area, taking up one side of the wall there as well. Incorporating visual connections between the two adjacent spaces (living & dining) helps to enhance the impression of roominess.

The cupboard design and colour are akin to a window, creating a sense of openness and airiness while allowing vertical storage.

Besides that, Khalil incorporated furniture which doubled up as storage. Cabinets on the ceiling level double up as a false ceiling to give the impression of a full-height window while allowing him to install downlights. Meanwhile, the cabinet on the floor level doubles up as a sofa. Smartly concealed storage spaces are essential to making the most of a small home. They reduce visual clutter as well as deftly converting dead spaces into useful ones.

Notice also the vertical-designed wallpaper in the dining area as shown below. This provides the illusion of space as it forces your eyes to look upwards. Khalil has accentuated this with artworks and posters that are lined vertically.

Khalil replicated the generous cupboard designs in his bedroom by building a full height wardrobe which utilizes the entire space and creates a seamlessly designed bedroom with no odd corners. Again, the colour scheme is kept monochromatic, with one surface painted a darker grey tone to make it stand out as a feature wall.

Bedroom Feng Shui Tips: Ensure that the height bedside table is either the same or lower than the bed. The length of wardrobe should be almost the same as the bed, otherwise, it is considered as a corner hitting the person sleeping in the bed, hence affecting the occupant’s health.

Meanwhile, Khalil made the most out of his kitchen by compartmentalising the area into two distinct zones using fixtures and fittings — i.e the main kitchen and a laundry-cum-patio using floor-to-ceiling kitchen cabinets, arranged in an L-shape.

In the middle bit, is an island ceiling cabinet with the cooker hob situated below. Using the kitchen counter and hob as a partitioning device is a good idea because it allows unobstructed light from the windows into the depths of the kitchen.

The island cabinets actually conceal indirect lights, which washes the ceiling with light making the area seem voluminous.

What is indirect lighting? It is a form of lighting whereby one cannot see the light bulbs directly. Indirect light often emanates from near or off of the ceiling – sometimes in ledges, valances, or horizontal recesses on the upper wall or in the ceiling itself or from a fixture that directs the light up toward the ceiling.

On the other hand, the laundry-cum-patio features a manoeuvring space of 800 mm, providing easy access to the washing machine and on the other corner is some space for Khalil’s herb garden.

Step 4: Conceal, conceal, conceal

Another important task is to conceal unsightly columns, odd corners, uneven walls, doors and such to give your home a seamless, smooth look. Refer to the Before & After images below:

BEFORE: Exposed column and uneven wall. AFTER: The full height cupboard helps to conceal uneven walls and columns while the storage room door is concealed by a sliding door.

The full-length cupboard not only conceals uneven walls and columns but also has a space above to house an air-conditioning system in both the dining and living rooms using louvres, more commonly known as shutters. Notice also the storage space units located below and above living room windows that gives the impression of a bay window.

BEFORE: Exposed bedroom door and odd corners with columns and walls. AFTER: Full-length retractable door that looks like a cupboard to conceal the TV console on the wall, columns and bedroom door.

BEFORE: Odd corner from the bedroom door to the window with wasted space. AFTER: A built-in full height wardrobe that gives a seamless look to the entire bedroom. The top of the wardrobe features a compartment to conceal the air-conditioning system.

BEFORE: Exposed entrance from kitchen to dining room. AFTER: The refrigerator is hidden within the kitchen cabinet, behind sliding doors.

In line with uniformity, Khalil kept the kitchen design simple by incorporating a space to hide the refrigerator and flush it against the wall, whereas the glass sliding doors keep smoke from the kitchen away from the dining room area.

Step 5: Be hands-on and go directly to the contractor, carpenter & furniture wholesaler

Now that you have all your measurements and an idea of the kind of decor you want, you can show your floor plan and 3D-renderings to your chosen contractor and carpenter. Top tips include:

  • Try to get word of mouth referrals from family and friends.
  • Express clearly your design expectations and obtain at least three different quotes. For carpentry work, you will be quoted based on a per foot pricing. If you really are on a budget, you can choose a laminate instead of a veneer finish.
  • For good furniture deals, you can always drop by wholesale centres located in the suburbs where prices are more reasonable. There are also wholesale centres selling second-hand furniture from hotels that are still in mint condition.
  • Those looking for unique artworks and decorative items should check out local shops when travelling abroad. Khalil got his from Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok and from art shops in Ubud, Bali. Not only are they reasonably priced, they are also made by skilled handymen.

Alternatively, Khalil recommends checking out local mom and pop stores, you will be amazed at what treasures you can find!

The lesson in home renovation is this — you do not need to spend an arm and a leg to transform your house into a home. All you need is some basic design skills, studying colour schemes and a dash of creativity. Good luck!

*This article was written in collaboration with Khalil Adis. 

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