Wooi Architect was awarded the PAM 2004 Award for Excellence in Architecture by Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM) in September 2004 for the construction of an energy-efficient and environmentally friendly bungalow in a hilltop residential area in Shah Alam, Selangor. MTC caught up with Mr. Lok Wooi, the visionary behind the project, to understand the rationale underlying his kompung house-inspired design and his perspective on the application of timber for home and building construction.
MTB:The first thing that strikes people's minds when they see your house is its predominant use of wood. How did your love for timber develop?
LW: My first interaction with wooden structures was during my childhood, most of which was spent living among Malays in a rural Malay village in Pendang, Tanah Merah, Kedah. Most of them lived in wooden houses on stilts, which is actually the most natural way to live comfortably in a humid tropical country like Malaysia. The raised structure enables efficient cross-ventilation which cools the house naturally. I also remember the traditional wedding feasts where the village folks would sometimes tie a few pieces of bamboo together using rattan to make tables for their guests. Later, during my third year of study in Australia, l had the opportunity to study under renowned Australian architects Bruce Rickard and Richard Leplastrier. Rickard taught me about the natural warmth that timber gives to space, and his obsession with natural sunlight for a building helped shape my thoughts on the importance of integrating nature with one's designs to achieve a sense of calmness in a living space. Leplastrier, whose love for wood began in his childhood when his father used to build boats, believes that nature matters in the way houses are designed and that timber should be used sparingly.
MTB: Where do you see this passion or love of wood taking your profession and the Malaysian architectural society?
LW: Malaysian architects as a group must have a good understanding of the properties of wood to enable us to utilise the country's rich timber resources responsibly. In the case of Chengal (Neobalanocarpus hemii), which is known as Raja Kayu (king of wood) locally, we utilise it for the main structures of the house to capitalise on its strength properties. For a species like Resak (Cotylelobium spp.), which is suitable for medium to heavy construction purposes, we use it for interior applications such as staircases as well as door and window frames. Malaysia, being one of the 12 mega-diverse countries in the world, hosts some 3,000 species of trees and this is a heritage that all Malaysians should be proud of. Supported by over a hundred years of forest management and decades of research and development, Malaysians do not have to be apologetic when it comes to using tropical timber especially when we know how to utilise such timbers efficiently and sustainably.
The "Kampung" Boy
Lok Wooi of Wooi Architect grew up in a rural Malay village in Tanah Merah, Pendang in the northern state of Kedah. In a kampung which was 95% Malay-dominated, most of his childhood was naturally, spent playing around and under Malay kampung houses, which provided his first close interaction with nature and Malay traditional architecture, in particular. He also recalls times spent helping out at his father's sundry shop, and attending traditional Malay weddings where the tables for guests were sometimes made of pieces of bamboo tied together with rattan, and the tents, under which guests would sit to enjoy the wedding feast, were simply made of wooden poles and palm leaves. The method was very basic but the result was natural, unassuming and 100% functional.
Real appreciation for the beauty and functionality of materials provided by nature was only truly developed when he left Malaysia to study architecture in Australia. In the third year of his degree, he prepared a thesis on the construction and design of a 100-year old "madrasah", a small local school, situated in Langgar, Kedah, near the Kedah Royal Mausoleum. The "madrasah" was a place for seeking knowledge, with an emphasis on Islamic studies, and students were also taught wood-carving and other Malay traditional craft as part of their extra-curricular activities.
At one point, studying under world-renowned architects like Bruce Rickard and Richard Lepastrier also helped develop Lok Wooi's love for timber and other natural materials. He later returned to Malaysia and joined CSL Associates, whose main partner is none other than the award-winning Prof. Jimmy C.S. Lim, whose love for timber has been openly declared in various fora. Prof. Jimmy Lim, whose passion includes using recycled timber materials in his projects, has played a big role in further shaping Lok Wooi's creativity in utilising Malaysian timber and other locally available materials.
Lok Wooi branched out on his own and set up Wooi Architect in November1996. Since then, he has worked on a number of projects for which wood had been substantially specified. A five-bedroom bungalow he designed in Bukit Jalil, Kuala Lumpur is so energy-efficient that its electricity bill runs up to less than RM 100 (US$26) per month. The owners hardly find the need to switch on the air-conditioning at night due to the natural cross-ventilating cooling afforded by the design of the house. In September 2004,Wooi Architect was awarded PAM 2004 Award for Excellence in Architecture by Pertubuhan Arkitek Malaysia (Malaysian Institute of Architects – PAM) for the construction of his home-cum-office, an energy-efficient and environmentally friendly bungalow, situated in a hilltop residential area in Shah Alam, Selangor.
Lok Wooi can be contacted at:
4S-3A Level 3, OG Business Park
Jalan Taman Tan Yew Lai
58200 Kuala Lumpur
MTB: You mentioned R&D. Can you enlighten us on how much timber-based R&D done by agencies like FRIM has been utilised by the Malaysian architectural fraternity?
LW: Frankly, I can't speak for the whole Malaysian architectural fraternity but generally, I do know that Malaysian architects collaborate either individually or collectively with research institutions particularly the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) as well as relevant bodies like the Construction Industry development Board (CIDB), Malaysian Timber Industry Board (MTIB) and MTC. Personally, I've been collaborating with some FRIM researchers to utilise their research results. A good example is the use of glue laminated timber (glulam) for the construction of a bridge at FRIM. Initially, many local architects like myself were skeptical in applying such technology to bigger projects such as convention centres and other buildings locally although foreign architects have successfully applied such technology and attained recognition. But with our very own local R&D support, this (skepticism) will, hopefully, become a thing of the past and Malaysian architects can look forward to specifying timbers for numerous applications.
MTB: I understand that PAM has a Timber Interest Group (TIG) and you were instrumental in its formation. Can we find out how and why it was initiated?
LW: As much as I would like to claim credit for initiating its formation, it was actually Dato' Lim Chong Kiat, the Chairman of FRIM who saw the need for such a grouping in PAM to encourage its members to "think wood". It's easier to design and work with other construction materials like concrete compared to timber. I was personally saddened by the way timber, a beautiful, natural and locally abundant raw material was not properly specified for use in certain housing projects and that prompted me to become very vocal at meetings and seminars organised by FRIM and MTIB. I guess my colleague "spotted" me from the noise I was making and he probably wanted to see whether I would put my words into action. Hence, I was made the first Chairman of PAM's Timber Industry Group and one of my very first tasks was to close the gap between the specifiers and suppliers of timber.With so many local species of timber available, specifying timber as a material when designing houses and buildings should come naturally to us Malaysians.
MTB: This has a lot to do with the thinking of the people in society as well. As a society advances materially, its intellectual capacity also develops. Have you seen a change in the thinking or mentality of the architects within the TIG?
LW: When we started of we were not a very big group but I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that many younger architects are very receptive to the idea of using timber in building construction. I personally received and serviced many queries on this subject but the more technical ones have always been referred to FRIM or MTIB. Inquiries also came from Singapore. On intellectual capacity, I think it pays to travel, as that will broaden one's thinking and perspectives. But most of all, based on my experience, one tends to appreciate what one country has to offer only after one has been or lived abroad.
MTB: Coming to your house, you have this solid wooden column in your compound, which you've referred to as "Tiang Seri'. Can you tell us its origin and the whole idea behind it?
LW: I used to help my father in a shop in Tanah Merah, Pendang. I noticed that certain times of the year, we would be selling cloths of different colours and other items to our Malay clients in bulk. I asked my father why the sudden need for these items as he did not normally buy in bulk. I later learnt that the items were needed in preparation of a ceremony to celebrate the raising of a "Tiang Seri" or central pillar, which would provide an anchor for the geometry of a whole new house. This particular "Tiang Seri" which I had raised outside my house is made of Chengal. A very old true-to-tradition Chinese craftsman took three whole months to craft it, and it was the first structural piece to be raised. The "Tiang Seri" supports the roof structure. Placing it outside the house and with a fan-shaped structure on its upper end may give one the impression that the purpose of having it is more for aesthetic reasons but it was actually incorporated based on its original/traditional purpose. With my years of exposure in Australia, combined with my upbringing in Tanah Merah, Pendang, Kedah, what I have attempted to do through this house is to re-enact parts of the natural environment in which most of my childhood was spent.
MTB: It's common for brick walls to be plastered and then painted. What is your idea of leaving the brickworks exposed in your whole house and the concrete floor bare in your studio on the ground?
LW: I agree that it's not a common trend to leave bricks exposed in housing projects here and to most Malaysians, this looks incomplete. But due to my upbringing in Pendang, I believe that bricks in their natural shade and state blend very well with timber and this au nature/ concept is again an
attempt to bring one as close to nature as possible. The bricks were rather expensive to source and prepare, given that they would not be plastered over.The same concept applies in leaving the
floors of my studio on the ground floor in bare concrete. In the long run, however, both the exposed brickworks and the concrete floor require minimum maintenance for my family. I have my office, studio, a multi-purpose area and a conference room on the ground floor, and the flooring for all these rooms is bare concrete, making it easy to hold receptions, receive clients and work in.
The bricks in their natural shade and state blend very well with timber.
MTB: You have made use of timber strips in various applications. Please explain the species used as well as the general concept behind the design of the house?
LW: The general concept of the house design is to keep it as environmentally friendly and energy-efficient as possible and blend aspects of nature into its design. The idea behind using strips of timber placed vertically as bars in place of walls is to allow free flow of air into and around the house. This will reduce dependence on air-conditioners. As for the rest, I use Meranti (Shores spp.) timber strips, which are laminated to be made into doors, Chengal for the stairs, Resak for the front door while the flooring strips are made of Kempas (Koompassia malaccensis). The various species have different grains and what I've done is to show others, especially my potential clients, that timber is a very versatile material which can be utilised in various ways to bring out their warmth and natural beauty. The idea of a leaf-shaped timber ceiling in the master bedroom is again an attempt to bring one closer to nature. The design of the house and the various specifications of timber in all these applications are both experimental and demonstrative.
MTB: In terms of promoting the increased use of timber in housing construction, and having won PAM 2004 award for your unconventional house recently, where do you think you will be heading from here?
LW: I love timber as a construction material and this house is my proof to people that it is possible to apply our forefathers' knowledge of living in harmony with nature, as opposed to against it, and achieve energy and resource efficiency in today's modern living conditions. Although my clients have been mainly those living in bungalows and detached homes, one of my goals is to develop these same concepts and translate them for incorporation into designs of more affordable homes in Malaysia.°