Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Establishment of 'Air House' Standard in Tropical Countries : Part 2

Vernacular Architecture of Traditional Malay House

Vernacular Settlements

Vernacular architecture includes dwellings and other buildings which relate to their environment and available resources. They are customarily owner or community built, utilising traditional technologies from one generation to the next (Oliver, 1997 and 2003). Hanafi (1994) suggests that agriculture and fishing activities are the two main areas of work during ancient times of the early Malay settlements. Tjahjono (2003) claims that rural settlements have grown in geographically distinctive locations that vary from hilltops, valleys, riverbanks, lowlands, estuaries and coastal areas, with each area developing different types of economy, social organization and built environment.

The opening of new settlements in unexplored areas by the newly migrated families starts the traditional Malay settlements or ‘kampong’ (Figure 1). This migration is an individual family or in a group (originating from the same district in Malay Archipelago) to the surrounding regional areas, either by land or water transportation. After several generations, a modern kampong normally has a number of households and is led by a headman. Migration has expanded their original culture such as language, customary laws and vernacular architecture to the new area.

Functions and Social Interaction

The construction elements in Malay vernacular architecture are light timber-framed structures, forming elevated floors, sloping long roofs with large overhangs, louvered windows, timber or woven bamboo walls and screenings (on the upper walls). In terms of spatial elements, the basic spaces of the serambi, rumah ibu and dapur are the most common in a traditional Malay house (Figure 2). Although these houses have variations, elements such as spatial, functional and physical could be determined as the most common among them (Ismail & Ahmad, 2006). Table 1 shows the common uses and privacy levels of interior spaces in a traditional Malay house.

The traditional Malay house can be divided into front and back sections, which are centred around the rumah ibu (the core house) and the dapur (kitchen) respectively (Yuan, 1987: 34). The serambi, in any event, will be at the front, followed by the rumah ibu and dapur. This arrangement is similar in all Malay houses and closely reflects the social interaction in Malay communities. 

According to Chen, et al. (2008), the traditional forms of Malay houses in Peninsula Malaysia can be divided into five groups. The groups are identified by the similarities detected in the Malay houses of the west Malay states in Peninsula Malaysia. More than 200 cases supplied by the Center for the Study of Built Environment in the Malay World (KALAM) have been analyzed, and are categorized below in Table 2. 

Table 2 also shows the internal spaces that are normally associated with Malay houses according to the group. A basic form is often used in Group 1, Group 3 and Group 4, where normally the dapur is associated with the rumah ibu without using the selang or pelantar as a link. The selang or pelantar are usually found in Group 2 and Group 5, and this shows that the Malay houses in these groups have expanded form. In this study, two prototype houses were obtained from KALAM for basic form and expanded form: Datuk Baginda Tan Mas Mohar and Andak Endah.


Figure 3 shows the proportionate rules of traditional Malay house forms, based on two examples of traditional Malay houses supplied by KALAM; the proportion of stilts and walls height of the houses is equivalent as a proportion of X, while the roof height measured from the roof eaves to the ridge is a proportion of 2X.


The serambi is the smallest space among the other spaces. In some cases of the twelve-column house, this space usually accommodates a quarter of the house, and the floor level will always be lower than the rumah ibu floor level. The form of the serambi is usually rectangle and in some cases is an extraordinarily long narrow space (Chen, et al., 2008).

This area can be constructed with or without perimeter walls; however, it tends to look like a semi-outdoor space with numerous daylighting from the openings. Figure 4 shows the location of serambi space in two examples of Malay houses. The serambi in the house of Andak Endah has no walls, while the other serambi in the house of Tan Mas Mohar is built with walls.

The importance of the serambi is to serve as the first greeting space for guests after entering the house (Yuan, 1987). In a traditional Malay kampong, houses are built in random positions but can be seen from the distance. The serambi in this case will be the place for social interaction within the neighbourhood, and for parents to monitor their children playing in the yard.

Rumah Ibu

The rumah ibu is the core space of the Malay house. This has the largest area, highest floor level and highest roof level (Yuan, 1987: 37). In respect of the needs and privacy of family members, bedrooms are provided, but the number is flexible and depends on family size (Figure 5). Lighting in this space is reduced to provide coolness. (Yuan, 1987). Moreover, this space also has an uncomplicated furniture arrangement (Chen, et al., 2008).

The rumah ibu is usually used for official events and a place for treating well-known guests or close relatives. Official ceremonies relating to customs are also carried out here. These include engagement, marriage and wedding ceremonies. On normal days, this space will be for relaxing, reading, mingling with other family members, and for use as a sleeping area at night (Chen, et al., 2008).


The kitchen, or dapur, is always situated at the back of the house (Yuan, 1987: 38). The functions of this space are for cooking, washing and eating. The basic layout of a Malay house will include a dapur within the rumah ibu, but in some cases the dapur will be connected with a pelantar, a roofless platform, or a selang. This, on the other hand, is an enclosed space that serves as a walkway and used as a second entrance for females during a ceremony (Figure 6).

Although the dapur is the last space in the house, it holds the prestigious function of family gatherings where dining takes place together with other family members. Therefore, the dapur has a large space, which is considered the second largest in a Malay house.

Structural Components

As a lightweight timber structure, a traditional Malay house regularly uses posts and a lintel timber structure. The posts rest on concrete or stone footings without any foundation required (Yuan, 1987). The structural framework for the house consists of posts braced by floor joists and roof girders, as shown in Figure 7. Using prefabricated construction methods where all the components are made and assembled on site allows the house to be dismantled and reassembled elsewhere in different locations.

Figure 8 shows that a basic Malay house construction starts by placing the first column, known as a tiang seri (located in the middle of the house). Meanwhile, other structural components such as posts and girts are laid in their respective positions. After all the posts and girts have been erected and braced, top girts and king posts are then set up at both sides. Following that, the roof ridge supported by king post is placed, and subsequently the roof structures such as principal rafters, purlins and common rafters are put up. Finally, the non-structural components are placed to make the house an enclosed structure.

Non-Structural Components

The non-structural components are windows and panels for the floors, walls, stairs and roofs fitted between the frames (Figure 9). Window components can be divided into three operable sections, the top, middle and bottom (Yuan, 1987). The top section, called ornamentation, is a fixed ventilation panel that is usually well decorated and carved.

The floor is one of the non-structural components in a traditional Malay house. It is nailed on the floor joist, and it is also common to leave gaps between the planks to facilitate activities of cleaning (sweeping and washing) or for religious needs (bathing the family member’s deceased). Figure 10 shows the gap-floor area location in the rumah ibu space.

Researched and Written by Mohd Firrdhaus Mohd Sahabuddin; co-founder of 'Air House' and this article was a part of his dissertation which titled 'Traditional Values and Their Adaptation in Social Housing Design: Towards A New Typology and Establishment of ‘Air House’ Standard in Malaysia' for MSc. Advanced Sustainable Design in The University of Edinburgh. Copyright 2012.

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