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The clients, a retired British couple, are very fond on the Malay houses. Their brief called for a basic timber house on a small hillock in the midst of paddy fields, coconut trees and buffalos.
We loved the site and brief but were reluctant to use timbers. Building with timbers is a traditional craft in this region, but good hard timbers are running scarce. A timber house also means cutting down mature trees, painstakingly treating timbers to avoid warping and shrinkage.
We noticed that timber utility poles were being replaced by concrete columns all over Malaysia not too long ago. These timber poles are beautiful hardwood timber. They have been in the elements for decades while maintaining their soundness from impending termite attacks and weathering. The poles have been tested and proven as quality structural timbers, with beautiful greyish weathered patina and texture that only time can give to woods.
Therefore instead of new timbers, we decided to reclaim the utility poles and work with them. We embarked on a journey of sourcing recycled timbers with the clients and the builders. We have visited most all of the recycled timber yards in Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu (the northern and eastern parts of Malaysia).
At the end, the main structural frame and roof trusses were all 5 by 5 utility poles salvaged from a timber yard in Kedah. Floor and wall boards were from jetty in Penang and berlin roof shingles were from an old airport hotel in Penang.
Four of the 5 by 5 utility poles were connected to a steel pin base and form a structural column to the house. The steel pin base also acts as a termite shield. This steel base prevents termites from attacking the timbers unnoticed. The main beams of the houses are formed by three tiers of poles. These beams are connected with scarf joints with multiple sections.
The steel doors, windows, doors and, connectors, cables details are integrated to make construction easier and quicker. This contemporary construction material gives a nice contrast of sleek lines to the patina of the old timber.
The journey to the house involves a drive up to a small uphill road. The original earthwork proposal is to have a road criss-crossing all the way up to the hill and that means clearing most of the 2.5 acre forested land. We decided to have a steeper path instead and retain as much as the original vegetation.
Then there is a walk up a layer of stairs and the house slowly unfolds itself at the peak of the hillock. The layout of the house is simple, very much similar to a long house on stilts with the rooms on the upper floor and an open ground floor.
The living on the ground floor is fully open to the pool, the sea and the horizon. The kitchen is placed next to it and the spaces between the living and the kitchen can flow freely when the sliding doors are fully opened. The doors are put in as the house is sometimes visited by monkeys and other animals. The continuous sea breezes make the under cove of this timber house a perfect place for afternoon naps.
This project had fulfilled a brief that evolved from a passion for the Malay timber house without having to cut down trees. It has given new life to the beautiful solid timber poles, which retired from supporting electrical and telephone lines across the country.
The old materials were recycled with contemporary detail. Columns, floors, wallboards and shingles are all recycled timbers from salvaged yard. The old timbers with beautiful patinas are complimented with steel details, aluminium doors and windows. This project revived some of the traditional construction technique. Timber details such as scarf joint were resolved with the builder to be applied in the beam section. This project generated new interest to the traditional craft.
The telegraph pole house celebrates the form of a Malay house with its openness, cross ventilation and large overhang. The house is well ventilated and cooling, it requires minimum energy. No air conditioning is needed throughout the whole house except for the kitchen, where in the beginning the owner thought cooking and baking would generate too much of heat. At the end, the air condition is rarely used because the kitchen is really airy when the sliding doors are fully opened.