The Revolution within Four Walls

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The Revolution within Four Walls

More than a century later, we are still building homes to mitigate the effect of the elements. “There are two things that will never change when it comes to designing homes – weather and comfort,” renowned Malaysian architect, Ar Kam Pak Cheong, of BEP Akitek says. “In the old days, Malaysian houses had verandahs, deep overhangs, courtyards and terrazzo floors to keep cool, and cross-ventilation designed in.”

The home has however changed in many other ways since the halcyon days described by Bird and Kam. “Somewhere along the way, people travelled and saw others living in glass boxes and decided to bring the style back to this region. But it didn’t suit the heat so we ended up relying on air-conditioning, which then cuts out the wind that cools the atmosphere. Then, at one point, the Balinese style became fashionable and that suited our weather well, but that trend faded as well,” says Kam.

“Trends are cyclical, you’ll see. These architectural characteristics will find their way back into new homes soon enough,” Kam predicts, and he has more than 50 years of architectural design experience to back him up.

One unchanging circumstances is that the state of the economy will always influence lifestyles, and that includes home trends. “Generally, large homes sell well when the money is rolling, but when the downturn comes, those spaces cannot get rented out”, Kam notes. “Density limitations imposed by authorities do encourage developers to opt for larger units, maximising space allowance with serious design, while also taking into consideration market compromises. Conversely, when developers maximise the number of small units to the allowed density, other issues will become relevant.”

Isabella Bird, a nineteenth century indefatigable traveller and writer from England, visited the Malay world in 1879, when it was still under British rule, and painted the lifestyle of its people in idealised literary strokes. She described the well-spaced kampong houses in Malacca and Selangor, which were built under the shade of fruit trees for relief from the Sun:

“Each dwelling is of planed wood or plaited palm leaves, the roof is high and steep, the eaves are deep and the whole rests on a gridiron platform supported on posts, from five to ten feet high, and approached by a ladder in the poorer houses and a flight of steps in the richer,” she documented. The raised architecture protected the home from wild animals and flooding, and improved ventilation.

Ar Kam Pak Cheong,
BEP Akitek

(left) Previndran Sighe and (right) Fauziana Siebel-McKenna of Zerin Properties

Zerin Properties, one of the country’s leading property agency and consultant, noticed that despite the state of the economy, there is demand among clients for high-rise spaces of the two extremes – the very large or the very small. “Luxury condominiums over 3,000 sq. ft. are in short supply, yet these are the type of spaces that people who downsize from large landed properties are looking for. They still want enough space to accomodate their children and grandchildren when they visit,” Zerin’s CEO Previndran Sighe says. “Besides, the maintenance of a landed property, with the cost of gardeners, pool maintenance, et cetera, is about the same as the maintenance fee of a larger condominium unit.” At the other end of the spectrum are those who have no need for or cannot afford the superfluous space. Kam observes that middle-aged families will have strong preferences when it comes to certain spaces, like the bathroom for the men, kitchen, utilities or wardrobe for the ladies, but for the younger buyers, locality is of primary importance. “And Malaysia is largely a young population,” he points out. “The limited affordability of these buyers means they often sacrifice space for location.”

Fauziana Siebel-McKenna from Zerin’s Private Wealth – Real Estate Division believes that even though small units will be in demand, it will be those with two or 1+1 bedroom configurations that are preferred. “People don’t mind well designed smaller units as long as they have private spaces within them,” she says.

With decreasing space being an irreversible issue, developers are looking into more creative ideas to optimise every part of the development. “Co-living will be the next buzzword in the property sphere,” Fauziana predicts. “It stems from the co-working concept that became popular in recent times, when entrepreneurs and start-ups would share office space.”

The same concept is now being applied in new residential developments. In the co-living concept, the private space will encompass just a room, an en-suite bathroom and perhaps a basic kitchenette, but other facilities, such as living areas, entertainment spaces, kitchen and dining areas, and other daily amenities will be shared.
“This concept will encourage interaction amongst residents as members of society become increasingly detached,”
says Fauziana. “The quality and comprehensiveness of the shared facilities are therefore very important in this kind of development.”

Deep overhangs keep homes cool in warm climates.

Previndran adds that the concept will appeal to residents of any age, not just the young; it fulfills the need of even matured buyers, who do not need the extra space. “Rather, you will find that it will be the demographic of income, not age, that determines the type of residents in co-living residences.”

The emerging sharing economy is changing the modern lifestyle in more ways than one, and appears to be fashioning the way we live in the future. With the advent of Internet of Things connecting disparate individuals with similar needs to available resources, the latter can be fully utilised. Sharing platforms have already entered many aspects of life, including the home and namely Airbnb.

According to Previndran, the success and alternative rental option offered by Airbnb has already changed the investment perspective of buyers; after procuring the property and before finding a tenant, owners can rent it out in the interim while others use Airbnb as a source of long-term rental yield.

01 “Each dwelling is of designer wood, fittings and high-tech toilets…”
02, 03 Buyers appreciate subtle details, such as how the door feels when opening it and a warm, inviting floor.

“An acquaintance of mine owns five properties in Kuala Lumpur and rents them out through Airbnb. She personally attends to the rental properties, the customers and turndown service,” Previndran says. “I have also heard through the industry’s grapevine that a investor from Belgium bought 24 units en bloc with the intention of renting them out through Airbnb.”

“Income from holiday rentals may be uncertain, but it is certainly higher, if calculated on a per day basis. But the success of a property as an Airbnb rental – its demand and rental rate – is highly dependent on location and tied to the tourism industry,” he adds.

The sharing economy will also influence the number of car park spaces in future developments. Presently, local building regulations require multiple car park spaces to one residential unit. “Moving forward, though, with car-sharing becoming a norm, there will be more residential units to a single car park space, ideally four to one,” says Kam. “We see it happening in other countries and it will happen here. It’s inevitable.”

Airbnb and car-sharing are but a few of the global trends that are changing the way local investors and homebuyers choose their properties. “The young are more widely travelled and tastes are getting more sophisticated and discerning. They see through gimmicks and look for actual value for their money,” Kam says.

He elaborates, “They will appreciate the subtle details that the developer puts into the building that one might not even realise, like the way the car parks, driveways and guardhouse are designed; the way the unit is built; how the door feels when you open or close it, how the hinges move with the weight of the solid wood; the position of light switches at the entrance, bedrooms and bathrooms; the proportions of the foyer as well as the way spaces are used effectively. Only external aesthetics won’t do anymore.

“High ceilings do not necessarily feel good, by the way, but the proportion of the space is more important.” Kam’s last observation leads back to the fundamentals of good design, which should remain unchanged even as other trends come and go. “Architects now use software and technology to help design a building and layout and it is certainly much faster, but I still subscribe to the good old-fashion method of pencil and paper,” says Kam. “There is nothing like drawing layer and layer of a building, from the ground up, to get a feel of the final outcome, and then the machine can take over!”

Previndran concurs that property buyers will also become more conscientious of design and believes that they will become more fastidious towards details when making a purchasing decision. “The word that best describes this new trend is cognoscenti. People will choose very specialised architects, interior designer, and brands and material that cater for niche clients, not the mass market,” he says.

By inferring from these upcoming and unchanging trends in the property industry, this is how we imagine Isabella Bird might describe a Malaysian home today:

“Each dwelling is of designer wood, fittings and high-tech toilets, the entire building is fronted by a façade fashioned from trees to keep the heat out, the roof is more than 40 storeys high, and the whole rests on floors of shared facilities, from leisure spaces to luxurious gardens, and approached by a magnificent entrance in the richer.”