A Tale of Timber

The beauty of recycled timber is only partly aesthetic – its former function adds a whole other appeal. Jaz Sidhu visited the island of Langkawi in Malaysia and discovered a home designed by Building Bloc that generates new life for old timber electricity poles.

14 Mar 2014

Above: The wide roof overhang creates a semi-covered pool overlooking the valley below.

Langkawi refers to an archipelago of 99 sunsoaked tropical islands scattered roughly off the north-west coast of peninsula Malaysia, at the point where the south Andaman Sea meets the Straits of Malacca. The main island of this group is also simply known as Langkawi and has been declared a UNESCO Geopark due to its natural habitat and a unique geology and biodiversity.

My first visit to Langkawi was on an architectural school trip in 1981, when the island had but a single bus, hardly any cars and no hotels. Getting to the island was via a slightly irregular ferry service (actually just a boat holding 50–60 people) from Kuala Kedah on the mainland. I have fond memories of walking the main street in the principal town of Kuah and not seeing a single car for miles.

Alas, in the ensuing decades, Langkawi has been developed and today boasts modern concrete buildings, an international airport, numerous luxury marinas, a host of five-star hotels and resorts and a duty-free status to boot (meaning some of the products of contemporary Western living, such as cars and alcohol, are cheap and plentiful).

Fast forward to 2007 and we have a retired British couple, Angela and Bob, falling in love with the island. Bob’s previous career in advertising had enabled him to visit a number of exotic destinations the world over.

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In a gesture of honesty, the original markings on the posts are left intact.

When I met the couple over tea, Bob explained how he had kept a checklist of all the places he had visited, to determine which one – come the day – would be the most suitable place to retire to. At the end of the exercise, Langkawi had the most number of ticked boxes.

Ironically, the partial development of Langkawi was somewhat of a plus to the couple. As Bob explained, “Although retired, I am occasionally called up by my ex-employer and other friends in the industry to help with difficult projects. Overseas travel is convenient with an international airport literally in our backyard… the modernisation of Langkawi is not all in vain.”

Apart from the obvious beauty of the landscape and the agreeable climate, another advantage as far as Angela and Bob were concerned was the ‘Malaysia, My Second Home’ scheme. This government initiative not only encourages foreign retirees to move to Malaysia, but then also provides a support network and a number of incentives if you do so.

Through a mutual friend, the couple got in touch with Building Bloc, a young husband and wife architect team based in Kuala Lumpur, to design their dream home. The brief was simple: “Give us a timber house”.

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Left: The full-height glass doors to the kitchen slide back to provide a completely open ground floor plan.
Right: Detail of the four-post column on the ground floor, resting on a metal plate which floats above the bare concrete floor.

Wen Hsia and Boo Chung run a comparatively small practice, undertaking only a few selected projects for discerning clients. When faced with the task of designing a ‘timber house’ for Angela and Bob, they did not want to settle for just another timber house – it had to be something different. Something that touched the soul; a home that not only provided shelter for its occupants but also respected and celebrated nature and its resources.

Design and Construction
When Hsia and Chung presented their unique idea of a timber house – one made primarily of recycled electric poles – Angela and Bob listened. The idea seemed plausible – these timbers would be solid, hardy and well seasoned but not necessarily cheap. The next few meetings, over the course of six months, were spent fi ne-tuning the design and getting the budget sorted out.

But major obstacles remained: fi nding suitable timbers for the house in the required quantity, as well as a knowledgeable and sensitive builder who could translate the design into its built form. Hsia and Chung accompanied the clients as they traversed three states to source the timber – literally the whole of northern peninsula Malaysia. Their search paid off when they located a timber yard in the town of Alor Setar, which had stockpiled a large quantity of these disused poles from the national power company.

Meanwhile, a number of builders were shortlisted and interviewed, some from as far away as Kuala Lumpur. The chosen builder, while not the cheapest, did have good credentials and also happened to be a local from the island.

a_tale_of_timber_5 Ample ventilation in the master bedroom provides the perfect resting place for balmy tropical nights.

Thus began the construction of a unique house sitting atop a little hillock, surrounded by lush tropical greenery and kampong houses in the valley below. It took close to 18 months to complete, with monthly – and at times fortnightly – site meetings with the builders, often working out construction details on the spot. As time progressed, the architects and the clients felt lucky to have the builders’ experience, which contributed to the exercise and helped them in realising their design.

The experience
When I visited Angela and Bob recently, what fi rst struck me was the tranquillity of the countryside surrounding the house. You drive through a narrow kampong road arriving at a gate that hints at something remarkable beyond. But nothing is visible, save for a narrow uphill driveway that disappears around the bend.

From the covered garage (upstairs is a reconstructed kampong house that now serves as Bob’s workshop), the house proper is reached via a set of steep steps made of poles leftover from building the house. And when you reach the top – level with the house – there’s another surprise: almost the entire house at grade level is completely open on the two long sides. One’s eye is drawn immediately to the breathtaking countryside that slopes steeply away from the house on the opposite side.

The living space is a large open area overlooking a pool that runs the full length of the house. On each side of the pool are deck areas, with the same timber poles echoing throughout the spaces.

a_tale_of_timber_6Left: The kitchen is simple, with cool finishes in keeping with the rest of the house.
Right: Recycled, utilitarian brass fittings with an old world charm and simplicity.

The kitchen is the only area that has any modernity to it, with gas stoves, built-in ovens and other appliances. It even has an air-conditioner for those balmy afternoons, the only space in the entire house to do so. Apart from the mod-con fittings, this space too is simple, with fair-faced brick walls, concrete open shelves for storage and a concrete island worktop with period-style sink. Remnants of the residents’ native country are the custom designed taps – all the original brass stopcocks in the house were purchased from a junkyard in Great Britain.

A single flight of stairs, again in the same timber poles, are suspended from the first floor using steel rods, leads to the upper floor. The entire upper floor has two open balconies running the full length of the house. One side overlooks the pool below and the countryside beyond, visible for miles on a clear sunny day.

The centre third of the floor acts as a family area and is simply furnished with an assortment of antique furniture and a beautiful raised divan as the centrepiece.

On either end of the structure are the sleeping quarters: one is occupied by the huge master bedroom, while on the opposite side, two smaller (but still spacious) rooms share the remaining third of the floor. Each bedroom has its own ensuite, located at the extreme ends of the floor.

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The openness of the house is evident from this side view. The single flight staircase is seen on the right.

None of these spaces have airconditioning, but the open balconies welcome in a constant breeze flowing from the lowlands, cooling the house comfortably even during hot days. Only simple ceiling mounted fans aid in circulating the air on still nights.

The architects took great pains to design unobtrusive insect netting to the upper walls, which is almost invisible from inside. Together with the timber louvres on the lower half of the walls and the operable casement glazing, the entire façade is able to breathe naturally. Similarly, the timber floorboards have been laid deliberately with gaps in between to allow air circulation between the floors.

The expressive timber structure and underside of the roof, which are recycled Belian shingles sourced from a dismantled local hotel, maintain the simple and honest architectural aesthetic of the home.

Downstairs, only the kitchen can be closed off using full-height glazed sliding doors, while the upper floor can be isolated at night by locking the staircase gate. Angela and Bob love the simple living concept and the quiet and safety of the locale poses no security problems to such an open house. “Locals are a friendly lot,” Angela and Bob explain, telling how both people and the monkeys that reside in trees on the neighbouring hillside followed the building of their home with interest.

This project was very much a collaborative process where residents, architects, builder and engineer went on an enlightening journey together over a period of time. Something as intimate as a home always inspires an array of human connections – here, these were first brought to life in the working relationships, and then the friendships, between the people involved in its creation. “We had just envisaged a little timber house, maybe something vernacular,” the couple remark. “This synthesis of ideas, concepts and technologies and take on the green revolution… is a pleasant surprise.”

Photography: Tianxing and Ken Soh

Architect:|
Building Bloc
building-bloc.com

Project Team:
BC Ang, Wen Hsia Ang

Engineer:
PKS Chin Dan Rakan Rakan

Builder:
HQB Construction

Steel/Metal Works:
CL Steel

Furniture: 
Furniture throughout is owners’ collection.

Lighting:
Lighting throughout is basic lightbulbs.

Finishes:
Floors ground floor is cement screed and first floor is recycled timber floorboards. Columns recycled timber electricity poles. Walls recycled timber with steel frame. Roof recycled shingles.

Fixed & Fitted
Tap fittings and door handles custom designed by Building Bloc.