Project Management Institute

The art of preservation

project managers navigated strict requirements to transform historic buildings -- and elevate Singapore's culture




The building's exterior and Rotunda Dome, below

Singapore is recognized around the world for its thriving economy. But the city-state doesn't have much of a reputation for culture or historic preservation. To signal that it's serious about art and historic architecture, in 2005 the government launched a 10-year, SGD532 million project to build National Gallery Singapore.

In the shadow of Singapore's modern skyscrapers, the project team created a home for the world's largest collection of Singaporean and Southeast Asian art by transforming two colonial-era buildings—the former City Hall and Supreme Court building—into one 690,000-square-foot (64,103-squaremeter) museum. When the museum opened in November, it attracted 170,000 visitors in the first two weeks.



“Singapore hasn't been known for celebrating its history, so for us to take two of our most prominent buildings and convert them not into a commercial venture but an art gallery speaks volumes about Singapore's direction as a nation,” says Sushma Goh, director of projects and contracts management, National Gallery Singapore. “We now see art and history going hand-in-hand with a nation's economic success.”

Built in 1929, the City Hall served as a public shelter from Japanese air raids during World War II. The Supreme Court, built in 1939, is the last neoclassical structure standing from Singapore's colonial era. Both buildings were designated national monuments and, as such, were subject to strict preservation guidelines that project managers couldn't violate. That meant the project team had to make adjustments to integrate all modern-day requirements, such as climate control and security systems. For example, the project team gave each building's interior a second skin to hide air conditioning ducts and security-system cables.

“We now see art and history going hand-in-hand with a nation's economic success.”

—Sushma Goh, National Gallery Singapore

“We communicated early on to our consultants and contractors that there will be changes in a project like this, and they need to be prepared to accept them as best they can,” says Mark Chee, deputy director of project and facilities management, National Gallery Singapore. “But stakeholders also had to know that, at certain points in the timeline, things like the structure could not be changed.”


City Hall main chamber

The City Hall's shallow 87-year-old foundation couldn't support a contemporary museum's heavy loading requirements, so the project team had to create a new foundation and floor slabs. But there was a catch: The hall's main chamber—a meeting room where the Japanese formally surrendered control of Singapore after World War II—could not be disturbed, because of historical preservation restrictions.

After detailed planning, the team encased the chamber with a temporary protective frame of steel columns and beams before the foundation was built beneath it. The framework was removed after three years of construction—and every element of the chamber remained intact.

“We made sure the City Hall chamber was sitting properly on the new, permanent columns and beams before we removed the temporary set of columns and beams,” Mr. Chee says.


“Stakeholders also had to know that, at certain points in the timeline, things like the structure could not be changed.”

—Mark Chee, National Gallery Singapore

Up and Down

Construction project teams typically build from the bottom up—but not this one. By having separate crews work in opposite directions, Ms. Goh and Mr. Chee achieved more efficient execution during renovations that included digging a three-level basement below the original buildings. After the team cast a concrete slab over the first basement level it had dug, crews were able to simultaneously perform additional excavation below and renovation above rather than do such work sequentially.

“Now we know as much as possible about what's behind every wall and under every slab. Not just for our own knowledge, but also for the posterity of Singapore.”

—Sushma Goh

“Because of the short construction period, we had to move up at the same time we moved down,” Mr. Chee says.

The time it saved by working simultaneously helped the team absorb other delays without having to extend the timeline, he says. For instance, when a crane accident in September 2013 killed two team members and triggered a three-month delay, the overall timeline wasn't affected. During the delay, project safety officers worked closely with Singapore's Ministry of Manpower to address safety concerns. Project managers also reviewed safety protocols and assured workers that such risks would be avoided going forward.


“It was a very traumatizing episode,” Mr. Chee says. “Yet we had to motivate everyone to return to work and get back to the speed and the level of productivity before the accident and then push harder to finish the project.”


Binding Design

Blending the two buildings into one functional, aesthetically pleasing structure required creative designs—and a dose of change management. Along with walkways, the open-air atrium joining the two buildings includes a shimmering glass-and-aluminum canopy that mimics the thatched roofs once common in Singapore villages.

But the project team discovered during early documentation reviews that the plan to fabricate the canopy off-site wasn't possible. Intricate welding to ensure a perfect fit could only be performed on-site.

“Every single glass panel is a slightly different size,” Ms. Goh says. “We had to remeasure [on-site] to make sure everything fit.”

Project Timeline

2005: National Gallery Singapore project announced.

2008: Design contract awarded to studioMilou and CPG Consultants.

2010: Construction contract awarded to Takenaka-Singapore Piling Joint Venture.

2011: Construction begins.

2012: Restoration of the Supreme Court's tympanum begins.

2013: Basement excavation is completed. Work is suspended for three months after crane accident kills two team members.

2014: Temporary occupation permit obtained for former Supreme Court building. Gallery moved into its new office in November 2014.

November 2015: Museum opens.


The former Supreme Court building


Change of Plans

The project's strict conservation requirements meant that some risks were unpredictable. So project managers prepared for the possibility of change—and got comfortable with having to flex the plan. “Everything was planned with the understanding that we could discover something that might alter the plan,” Ms. Goh says.

For instance, the team wasn't allowed to conduct any tests that could harm either building. As a result, the team learned only during construction that four columns it had planned to demolish were, in fact, structural and had to remain. The team also discovered asbestos beneath the Supreme Court's flooring, which forced the team to spend an extra SGD50,000 to remove all materials under the floor, Mr. Chee says.

All such surprises were documented—and preserved—so future teams can better anticipate unknowns when they tackle historic renovation projects, Ms. Goh says.

“We hope that now we know as much as possible about what's behind every wall and under every slab,” she says. “Not just for our own knowledge, but also for the posterity of Singapore.”

Talent Spotlight

Sushma Goh,

director, projects and contracts management, National Gallery Singapore, Singapore

Experience: 28 years

Other notable projects:

1. Sydney Central, an office and retail development in Sydney, Australia that involved preservation of three buildings and opened in 1991. Ms. Goh served as senior architect.

2. The Singapore Land Transport Authority's new Stadium and Bras Basah train stations, which opened in 2010. She served as deputy director and project lead.

Career lesson learned:

“Bring onboard people who share your passion and your vision.”

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