26 tropical Malaysian houses that reflect the country's rich local cultures

The timber ceiling in the living area of the Cloister House adds warmth to the interiors. Photos: Lin Ho

From a house with five ramps to a home with 12 courtyards, each residence has an interesting story behind it, in addition to displaying architectural creativity.

And that was what fascinated Professor Robert Powell, author of The Tropical Malaysian House 2, which was launched on May 6.

“I was lucky enough to find these houses, which all had great stories to tell, and which responded in one way or another to climate change, ” said Prof Powell when we met for an interview recently.

The first volume of the book, launched in January last year, features 25 houses in the country selected based on 12 attributes of a tropical house.

“In that book, I basically tried to identify what was meant by tropical. I used a model devised by (Sri Lankan architect) Geoffrey Bawa, which listed 12 attributes of a tropical house that included not chopping down trees, having an open-to-sky living space (or one that’s connected to the exterior or garden) and cross-ventilation, minimal use of glass (to reduce solar glare), and so on, ” said the former associate professor of architecture at the National University of Singapore and former professor of architecture at Taylor’s University, Selangor.

To some extent, Prof Powell has relied on these attributes again for the second volume of the book, but what’s really driven it is the quest to find an answer to the question, “What is a Malaysian house?”

“In the first book, I concentrated mainly on houses in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur. Volume 2 (which is available in Kinokuniya Kuala Lumpur) makes a wonderful companion to Volume 1 and includes houses in Sarawak, Johor, Melaka, Pahang and Penang, in addition to more houses in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur.

“In the Sarawak houses, some of the models used were based on interpretations of the longhouse. Also, Iban, Melanau and Bidayuh influences all came into the designs of the Malaysian house, which I would not have thought of in the first book.

“So this time, I was looking more at the cultural implications of East Malaysia, ” he explained.

Denai 10 in Johor Baru "stood out as an excellent interpretation of a house in the tropics".

One such example is the Boyan Heights House in Kampung Git by IDC Architects. Located 30km southwest of Kuching, near the Kalimantan border, the design is typical of a Bidayuh longhouse.It incorporates lofty living, dining and kitchen spaces – similar to a traditional Melanau bilik – with openings at the very top of the external walls to promote cross-ventilation.

“There is the ruai (long/wide verandah) and off that, the bilik (living quarters), so again, that is reinterpreted from the local culture, ” added Prof Powell.

The dwelling overlooks a wooded valley and is set against a backdrop of limestone mountains. The owners also make the effort to replant native trees such as meranti, kapur and nyatoh around the house.

Featured on the cover of the book is the Denai 10 house, located in Johor Baru, designed by Razin Architects. Built on the side of a hill, its living area opens directly to the garden while full-height windows replicate those found in traditional Malay houses.

“Denai 10 stood out as an excellent interpretation of a house in the tropics. What interested me with this house is that whenever (the owner who is also the architect) talked about parts of the house, he spoke of them in terms of their Malay names, like serambi (reception), anjung (lobby) and the rumah ibu (main part of the house).

“And it had all the connections of a Malay house. What was interesting was while he talked using the Malay terms, on the drawings he actually labelled them in English, but I felt that that did not convey the cultural significance of a serambi or anjung.

“For example, ‘lobby’ was used for anjung, but in a lobby you wouldn’t necessarily remove your shoes as you would in the anjung.

“And the serambi was where male visitors would be entertained without going into the family area but the word ‘reception’ does not convey that.

“That’s what I was actually looking for, how he interpreted a Malay house into a modern home. And I thought it was in danger of losing the cultural significance if he changed the names to their English terms, ” said Prof Powell, who is also a technical advisor with Think City Institute.

Meditation Pavilion is also used by Buddhist monks, invited by the owners to stay with him from time to time, to do their meditation.

Green dwellings

Another unique design that he selected was the Meditation Pavilion in Taman Duta, Kuala Lumpur, by Inarch PLT.

“The owner wanted to build a treehouse for his children to play in, so he asked (award-winning landscape designer) Inch (Lim) to come up with the design, ” he said.

Lim invited six artisans from Indonesia to construct the treehouse, built using three types of bamboo. The bird nest-like design also incorporates circular windows to let users look out to the surroundings.

“The owner often invites Buddhist monks to stay at his home, and he found that (the pavilion) was also the ideal place for them to do their meditation.

“So in this book, I also tried to broaden the definition of a house, which I think made the book richer. A house is not just a living room and three bedrooms, but can also be a meditation place, a workspace, or where you can invite people to stay.”

Rumpun is a 12-bedroom wellness retreat in Janda Baik, Pahang, constructed with modular steel components. A double roof allows planting to be done.

Meanwhile, Rumpun in Janda Baik, Pahang, was carefully built around the trees located on the 8.5ha (21-acre) site. A project by Mentahmatter Design, the 12-room abode and wellness retreat also has over 600 native trees planted around it, with the communal dining hall featuring a sloping green roof seeded by birds and other wildlife.

One of the smallest houses in the book is the Ketitir House in Kuching, Sarawak by Arkitek JFN.

The owner of the house runs a kopitiam where architect Mike Boon often goes for breakfast.

“One day, the owner approached Boon about building a house near the kopitiam for him and his family, but added that he had a limited budget. The story goes that Boon agreed to his commission in addition to having free half-boiled eggs and coffee for the rest of his life!” laughed Prof Powell.

Ketitir House in Kuching, Sarawak, features porous louvred walls and uses locally sourced materials.

The single-storey, 166sq m house is slightly raised above ground for ventilation purposes. Its living room walls are affixed with timber louvres on both sides for the wind to blow through freely, naturally ventilating it. Substantial overhangs shade the facade as steel box gutters direct rainwater into earthen jars for irrigation purposes.

Another intriguing design is the Ramp House in Penang by Min Wee Architect. A series of five 16m ramps links the two blocks of the house, a feature inspired by famous French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye.

The ramps begin at the entrance lobby and reach all the way up to the master bedroom, connecting different parts of the house in between.

“The owners joked that they wanted to lose a bit of weight, hence the ramps, ” smiled Prof Powell.

“But, in all seriousness, the life of the house happens around these ramps. Aged relatives can walk up and down to do some exercise, and kids can cycle up and down as well, ” he said, adding that a circular staircase provides a shortcut from the family room to the dining area.

Ramp House in Penang features a series of ramps connecting various parts of the home.

Built as a honeymoon pavilion for the owner’s daughter’s wedding is Villa Sang Turi in Hulu Langat, Selangor, another project by Inarch PLT. Located at the top of a hill, the secluded suite overlooks Sungai Langat.

The villa opens directly into the garden, where four miniature waterfalls offer soothing sounds of flowing water. All mature trees on the site were retained and incorporated into the garden design.

What’s also noteworthy is that the designers used recycled timber – salvaged from an abandoned sawmill in Labis, Johor – for the walls, roof, floor and doors, a good example of sustainable architecture.

Sporting an industrial look, the Cloister House located in Johor Baru is a sprawling 12-courtyard residence featuring inverted roof designs.

A work of Formwerkz Architects, a 5m-high wall surrounds the whole house, which exudes a free-flow ambience inside. As multiple routes help one navigate around the courtyards, timber ceilings add a sense of warmth to the interiors.

W39 in Bukit Antarabangsa, Selangor, features perforated walls and floor-to-ceiling windows to brighten up the interiors.

Given a new lease of life after the aftermath of the Highland Towers collapse is W39, located in Bukit Antarabangsa, Selangor.

A ZLG Design project, it was originally a 1985 three-storey terrace house designed by Ken Yeang. After the landslide and tower collapse nearby, the residents were asked to evacuate.

The new design opened the whole house up by removing interior walls and adding brick jalis (a perforated design). Floor-to-ceiling windows further promote the flooding of sunlight into the home.

“A key strategy used to open up the interior was to shift all the toilets and bathrooms to one side of the house. It’s also amazing that one can sit in a terrace house with no air-conditioning and not feel the heat, ” said Prof Powell.

“There are a lot of ideas in the book that can be scaled down to less expensive houses. The ideas are fundamental; it doesn’t matter the size of the houses.”

Has Prof Powell found the answer to the question, ‘What is a Malaysian house?’

Well, yes and no.

“Overall, there is no single model for the Malaysian house. These houses have influences from a cross-pollination of cultures. In the end, I came to the conclusion that the Malaysian house does not reflect any one culture or ethnicity, ” he said.

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