Tessellar Blog

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Developing more Cluster Townhouse Designs


The clients were so happy with the response to the Townhouses that they then changed their plans for the next phase of 50 acres to a proposal for all Townhouses. 

My firm had earlier prepared a mix income layout for this site, where Townhouses are mixed with other house-types in each cul-de-sac. It was, I thought, an ambitious proposal which challenged the conventional practice of having segregating bungalows, semi-detached houses, large terrace houses and smaller terrace houses each in their own neighbourhood. The local authority had also requested that each open green spaces or “kawasan lapang” should be at least 10,000sf. So, in this layout we complied. 

However, at that time the Government, through PR1MA, was promoting affordable housing to be sold at 20% below market price. Our client decided to respond to this call, and to take the best advantage of a modular formwork system, wanted instead a Honeycomb layout with only one type of Townhouse design. The developer was also able to sell the idea to PR1MA. A layout was prepared by a Town-planner based in Melaka who designed a simpler, very efficient, kind of a Honeycomb layout. Here the Townhouse blocks are all arranged in rows along streets which have a 10” green strip in front of every home.

This fast-track project for 1160 Townhouses was planned to be completed in just 18 months and is in now under construction.


The next project in Melaka at Jasin provided a better opportunity to improve on the Townhouse design. Here, the Townhouses, priced from RM150,000 to RM180.000, are in semi-detached blocks rather than quadruplex ones. This allows the rear wall to be an external rather than a party wall allowing a better arrangement of rooms.

Still, up to this stage, there was no opportunity yet for a cul-de-sac Honeycomb layout.


Is it possible to design a Honeycomb cul-de-sac layout with Townhouses that can compete with the linear layout produced at Alor Gajah? Below is a possible alternative where a combination of semi-detached and cluster Townhouses is able to produce a similar density to that achieved in Alor Gajah. 

Total Residential
Surau & kindergarten

Pocket Parks

Central Green


Total Amenities


Total land


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Cluster Townhouse


Single storey terrace houses were the most common house-type for rural areas and small towns. In urban areas where land has become expensive, single storey houses are not common any more for new developments. Typically, they occupied 20’X70’ plots of land and a few years ago would be priced at RM110,000 and below. However, they are expensive to build with a big area for footings and roof, a large party wall, and low density. Worse, they are perceived as less prestigious than two storey houses.

 The Single storey terrace House: “IRIS GARDEN” priced about RM149,000 per unit at Bandar Saujana Putra in Selangor; from LBS Bina website

Now with building costs much higher than a few years ago, even developers in rural areas are shunning the single storey houses. The ones that get launched are also getting more expensive, leaving a gap in the supply of new houses in the RM80,000 to RM130,000 price range that used to be served by the single storey terrace houses.


For the solution, we looked to an existing type of residential unit in Malaysia which is called a “townhouse”. Introduced in the 1980’s, it is actually a large terrace house with different owners on the ground and the first floors. This relatively new building type, is for people who can’t quite afford a terrace house, but do not want to live in flats.

The Terrace Townhouse: Townhouse at Bayu Permai in Rawang; from from GM Build website

The terrace townhouses usually have only 22’ or 24’ frontages and this is too tight. The street fronting the townhouses has gate after gate along it: there is no space at all along the street for a second car, or indeed for any visitors. There is also too little external walls for proper ventilation and lighting for the rooms within them: the room layout gets very contorted as the various rooms compete for space for windows.


We came up with a cluster version of the townhouse. You saw a preview of it in north Johor in the last chapter "A Big and a Big Site". What used to be a sextuplex house was divided into upstairs and downstairs units. These townhouses can fill an important niche in the market: while the usual kinds landed property – terrace, semi-detached and detached houses – are becoming more unaffordable for many people, they are not yet ready to accept living in apartments. At about 1000sf built-up area, these would have the same built-up area as fsingle–storey terrace houses. They are cheaper to build than single storey houses because they have more shared walls, floors and roof, and each unit takes up a smaller piece of land. I believe that they should be priced 10% cheaper than single storey houses.

The Upper Floor Unit

The Lower Floor Unit

The new Honeycomb Townhouse designs are an improvement on the terrace townhouses now already found in city areas.

Perspectives of the Sextuplex Townhouse

The Honeycomb Townhouse has the advantage of being a corner unit with a garden to the side. There is more space for windows, and this makes the layout easier – there are enough external walls to provide windows for all the rooms. The Honeycomb Townhouse also has at least 30’ frontage. This means that after providing for the gates to the car-porches of the lower and upper floor units, there is still another 10’ to the side. In addition, the Honeycomb courtyard would mix quadruplex and sextuplex units, but only the sextuplex units are suitable for conversion to Townhouses (the quadruplex units have frontages which are too narrow). So the mixture of quadruplex and Townhouses becomes less crowded than a street of terrace townhouses.

There is another important advantage – the terrace townhouse has a rear garden for the ground floor unit but none at all for the first floor unit. But the Honeycomb Townhouse has a front garden for the upper floor unit and a rear garden for the lower ground unit!


There is also a rectilinear version of the Townhouse. The layout is much simpler. It is also possible to have a higher percentage of townhouses in this version because all the cluster blocks except the corner access ones can be converted from quadruplexes to Townhouses.

The developer, the Seri Pengkalan Group, which had experimented with the small Honeycomb project in Merlimau Melaka had a bigger problem to solve.

In Melaka, the level of affordability is low; the most popular product was the single storey terrace houses. However, as land prices and construction costs inched upwards, developers could only extract marginal profits from the terrace houses.

This was a problem for Sei Pengkalan too.

For their development just outside a small town, Alor Gajah, about 45 minutes from Melaka city. For some time they experimented with one and half storey terrace houses – products that they could sell at a higher price but which are supposed to be only slightly more expensive than the purely single storey house. However, providing a staircase that can take up 100sf that serves just a few hundred square feet in the attic space is inefficient.

I was able to convince them to build two storey cluster houses instead that had box-like plans that were easy to build. A simpler, cheaper version of the cluster houses at Bernam Jaya was adopted and they were priced attractively RM240,000. These, together with semi-detached houses (also similar to the Bernam Jaya ones) proved easy to sell. There were enough people in Alor Gajah who were able to afford the houses.

The harder problem was that there was still a large market for the market segment that single storey houses used to occupy – houses that cost below RM200,000 down to RM120,000. The State of Melaka by that time had instituted new rules that require a portion of houses to be sold at RM150,000 or less. To overcome this problem we proposed the cluster townhouse.


In Alor Gajah, we had designed 288 units of cluster townhouses. Due to the constraint on the selling price, the client insisted the buildings be laid out along straight lines to minimize cost. Still, priced at RM150,000 there was a considerable amount of trepidation on the part of the developer. After all, the terrace townhouse had proven itself to be unpopular; not too long ago, at RM150,000, purchasers could buy single-storey terrace houses.

Nevertheless, the cluster townhouses proved themselves to be an acceptable alternative, and all the units were sold out in three months.

Back to Table of Contents

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Sunday, November 27, 2016

How can the Honeycomb Concept make Housing more Affordable?

In this last part of the book, we will look at specific designs that can address the problems of delivering low-cost, low-medium cost and affordable housing that almost all Malaysians can afford to own a house.


Housing affordability is commonly expressed as Price-Income Ratio (PIR), defined as median home price to median household income. International Demographia rates affordability as follows:


Median Multiple
Severely Unaffordable
≥ 5.1

Seriously Unaffordable
4.1 – 5.0

Moderately Unaffordable
3.1 – 4.0

≤ 3.0

This is the median household income in Malaysia in 2014 by state. 

So, for example, the median monthly income in Kelantan is RM2716 in Kelantan, in Perak, RM3451, in Melaka is RM5029, in Selangor, RM6,214, in Kuala Lumpur, RM7,620. Affordability at 3 times annual income In Kelantan it is about RM98,000; in Perak RM125,000; in Melaka RM184,000; in Selangor RM224,000; in Kuala Lumpur RM274,00
The question is: what sort of housing can be developed that is within these affordability limits. The usual approach to this question is to look at conventional types of houses like terrace houses, low-rise and high-rise and to see how the construction cost of these housing units can be minimized for each type of housing. However, I believe that making housing more affordable is not all about price: quality can play a major role in reducing cost.
Let me explain.


Malaysians moved from kampongs to terrace houses when they migrated to towns: land in towns was too costly to allow people to build detached houses on their own piece of land. And when terrace houses become too expensive, they moved to low-rise walk-up flats, or if they could afford it, high-rise apartments. For many, living on the ground, on landed property, remains their dream. If they must give up this dream, it is with reluctance.

Looking at our southern neighbour, Singapore, moving people from kampongs or overcrowded shop-houses with over 100 persons living above a single shop, to modern high-rise flats was not easy. 

Lee Kuan Yew wrote “There were enormous problems when we resettled farmers and others from almost rent-free wooden squatter huts with no water, power or modern sanitation, and therefore no utility bills, into high-rise dwellings with all these amenities but also a monthly bill to pay. It was a wrenching experience…”

“Several pig farmers couldn’t bear to part with their pigs and reared them in their high-rise flats…a couple with 12 children …brought a dozen rear chickens and ducks to at the kitchen…”

“For a long while many…walked up the stairs because they were afraid of lifts. There were people who continued to use kerosene lamps instead of electric bulbs.”

Malaysia’s experience was much more sanguine: the first big move was from kampong houses or squatter huts to terrace houses. The move was looked at as a step up – a desirable upgrade. However, as landed property becomes unaffordable, a move to apartments is seen as a step down.

Dato’ Alan Tong, pioneer of condominiums in Malaysia, has recounted how he had to add more and more facilities to his first condo – OG Heights – to attract buyers who were more used to landed property. Of course, as people got used to high-rise living, they learned to appreciate its advantages and adapted to the disadvantages. So now, condos in Malaysia can fetch prices as high as that of landed property. And in Singapore, the majority are happy and are proud of their HDB apartments.


The cost of land and construction are the two main components that determine housing price and affordability. In looking for solutions to reducing costs, many have looked to see how construction costs can be reduced and have recommended the development of efficient and standard designs so that housing can be mass produced. The adoption of industrialized building systems is also recommended to make the production of houses more factory production.

However, there are at least two limitations with this cost saving approach: the first is that the benefits of IBS and mass production is best achieved when there is a high degree of repetition. Housing demand on the other hand, like demand for most consumer products, favours variety. So, designing standard plans so that whole neighbourhoods comprise only a house-type to maximize repetition is catering for the convenience of the builder, not the interest of the buyer.

The second problem is that the savings in construction cost to be gained from mass production is limited. From the practical experience of many, including mine, it is possible to save money from the adoption of IBS, but the effect is just not large enough.

IBS is about the process of building and mainly relates to assembling the main structural elements. However, the structure and fabric of the house makes up just one portion of the cost of housing. Services and infrastructural also make up a substantial amount. Still another factor to consider in trying to substantially reduce is the cost of land other costs related to it.

Adopting IBS might speed up construction, reduce waste and result in better quality finishes, but realistically, the possible savings expressed as a percentage of total construction cost reduce is only about 5%.

It is also possible to consider the price of land as artificial and to reduce it by releasing government land at a subsidized rate or resort to compulsory land acquisition at below market price, but those actions are beyond the scope of this book.

The technical alternative to the high price of land is to introduce more intensive types of housing with higher density, so that the cost of each acre of land can be shared among more units. The advantage of this approach is that not only is there a saving in land cost but higher density housing can also mean lower infrastructure cost and building cost. To illustrate this point let’s look at a typical piece of suburban land that costs RM25 per square foot and the ball park figures for the cost of building and infrastructure.

Table 1: Typical costs of Land, Building and Infrastructure where land is RM25 per square foot. 

Single-storey Terrace houses
Cluster Townhouse
5 storey apartment
Plot ratio
Land cost RMpsf
Building Cost RMpsf
Infra CostRMpsf
% cheaper than Terrace House


Here I’ve listed the cost of land, building and infrastructure of a range of alternative affordable products – terrace house, cluster townhouse and 5-storey shop-apartment -  all with 1000sf net sellable floor area (NFA). There are large cost savings for land. There are also big cost differences between constructing a terrace house and a townhouse or a five-storey apartment or a shop-house! And then there are cost savings that accrue from reductions in infrastructural costs.

The reason for the savings in land cost is very simple – more units share the cost of each acre of land. Having more units packed into each acre also reduces infrastructure cost as the same or lower amount of road, drains, pipes and sewers serve more units. The terrace townhouse in which the ground floor and the first floor belong to different owners share more common walls, floors and roofs compared with the terrace house. In the apartment, there is an even higher percentage of common walls, floors and roofs.

Naturally, given a free choice and not taking price into consideration, people will choose the terrace house over the 5-storey apartment. As they would naturally prefer a bungalow to a terrace houses.

The challenge is to make the alternatives that are cheaper to build turn out to be as attractive as the terrace house so that house-buyers do not see them as a downgrade. It is here where Honeycomb housing can play a major role.
Our aim is that the less expensive Honeycomb alternatives might even be considered as an upgrade to the terrace house.

In the following chapters, there is a common theme. We look at a series of conventional house-types – from townhouses, shop-houses to five storey flats – and propose a new Honeycomb adaptation that makes them more attractive and desirable. Mainly, by providing homes with a private and shared garden, we make the homes as similar as possible to terrace houses.

In the next chapter, we look at Townhouses. This house-type, is one step down from terrace houses. In the conventional form, two-storey 24”x80” houses are divide into two – one unt upstairs and another one downstairs.

Following this, 5-storey walk-up flats. As building low-cost terrace houses became too expensive, developers looked to this house-type. If Alan Tong and the HDB provide the examples of how quality was successfully achieved in what were new forms of housing, the experience of low-cost walk-up apartments demonstrates the what happens when quality is lacking. We propose how to improve the quality of these apartments by adopting the Honeycomb idea.

In the chapter 19, we look at how the Shop-house can be adapted to answer the problem of the most difficult segment of the affordable home market: low-cost housing.

Please help me proof-read this book. Just point out the errors in the comments section (look at the bottom left hand side of each post). 
I'll post this book to the first reader who spots 5 mistakes...!