Tessellar Blog

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Honeycomb Shop-Apartment

If the Kotapuri Shop-apartment concept works for low-cost housing, then it is quite easy to develop it further by adopting the Honeycomb concept.




This proposal for a piece of land near Putrajaya shows how the value of the floors above shops can be maximized. 


Ground Floor
First Floor Podium
2nd, 3rd & 5th Floor Plans
4th Foor Courtyard Floor Plan

Instead of the Kotapuri perimeter block layout that creates an internal courtyard, here large recesses in the external elevation form sky-courts on the First Floor and the Third Floor of the building. These elevated courtyards provide light and ventilation to the apartments that are arranged around them.



The provision of private and communal gardens for the apartments make them suitable for family living even though they are just above shops and commercial activities. In this example, there are 5 stories of apartments above the shops at Ground Floor and parking for these apartments at the Lower Ground Level.

If possible, provide all the parking outdoors off the road the circles the block. This would be a cheaper solution than basement car parks.




The layout of the apartments is typical: much like the duplex apartments that have been designed for the earlier examples of high and medium-rise housing.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The "Kotapuri" - Placing Low-Cost Housing above Shops

The “Kotapuri” apartment is a new alternative to the shophouse building type. It was designed to overcome the functional conflict between residential housing (especially for the low-income category) and commercial use. In particular it seeks to solve the following problems found in existing shophouse and low-cost schemes.

THE PROBLEM WITH LIVING IN SHOPHOUSES

The commercial zone is not an obvious place to place housing. There are bound to be conflicts between residential and commercial use. The shophouse building-type evolved from an earlier period when merchants lived above their shops. The towns, at that time, were small and could be said to be have been safer than they are today. There was less traffic and, perhaps, not so many strangers. For the typical family today, the typical shop/apartment layout is hardly ideal. The shortcomings include:
  • Lack of suitable play area for pre-school and primary school children
  • Safety from traffic
  • Lack of soft landscape
  • Safety from crime
  • Lack of cleanliness
  • Inadequate system for disposal of solid waste
  • Insufficient car park

Yet, having housing near shops, does have advantages for the owners of the shops. Shop/apartment developments almost always ‘boom’ before shop/office schemes. That is, the shops below apartments start to become occupied, and commercial activities begin to thrive, much earlier. In projects where there are shop apartments and shop/offices, the apartments get fully occupied before the shops. In turn, the shops get occupied before the offices. This reflects the differing nature of demand for commercial and residential products. Households are quite indifferent to a new location, at least when compared to shops. Retail and other commercial activities need a population to cater to. The residents living above the shops contribute to this population. Offices come later because they look for a ready infrastructure of services - places to eat, to buy essential things and services that they need in the course of their business. They also want a good already well-known address. They certainly prefer not to move to a new, half-deserted area. Proximity to a labour pool and good housing also helps.

PROBLEMS WITH LOW COST HOUSING

In addition to the above, existing low-cost apartment designs are also beset by problems that the “Kotapuri” seeks to overcome:
Isolated location far away from shops and amenities.
  • Difficulty of collecting maintenance fees
  • Insufficient money for proper maintenance
  • A loss-making proposition that needs to be cross subsidized by medium and high cost housing.
  • No appreciation in value for buyers

The ground floor of the shop house is the most valuable part of the shop. The upper floors are less valuable, especially if like most shop houses, there are no lifts provided. The typical rental of a 3 storey shop house in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur is RM4,,000 for the ground floor shop house, RM2,000 for the first floor and only RM1,000 for the third floor.

In many less popular suburbs and towns, there is no demand for offices or apartments above them. In these places, developers often build single storey shop houses. Where two or three storey shop houses have been built, the upper floors are hard to rent out. In many instances, they become derelict from disuse.

So the problem for shop houses is the lack of demand for upper floors. The suggestion is that the upper floors can be put to good use by placing low cost and low medium cost housing on them.

THE KOTAPURI….AN URBAN CASTLE

The ‘Kotapuri’ concept seeks to create a synergy between shops and low cost housing. If the functional conflicts between residential and commercial uses can be overcome, there are mutual advantages to be gained. The location of low-cost housing is moved from the furthest corner of the development land o the part nearest to main roads leading into it, and thus closer to town services, amenities, public transport and job opportunities. The shops gain from having a captive population, helping to keep the area busy and thriving throughout the day and evenings.

Using the Honeycomb concept as a starting point, we have designed a building that provides effective segregation between shops below and houses above. We do this by creating a building with shops around a courtyard. The shops in this case are small, only 720sf in size but with a full 20’ frontage in the front and a 7’ backyard.

Access to the communal courtyard, landscaped with trees, plants and play equipment, is limited to residents only. This courtyard is raised – about four feet higher than the floor level of the shop backyard, and then has another 4’ of low wall to effectively screen the shops from the courtyard.





At each corner is a staircase that leads to the apartments above. On the each floor is a lobby area that not only provides access (to four or six) apartments, but also as a communal space. The apartments can range from over 700sf to 900sf, covering the prescribed sizes for Low-Cost to Medium Cost flats, the smaller apartments placed above the larger ones.
On three corners are placed Offices that have their own staircase access from the ground floor. On one corner is a Community Centre that can function as a kindergarten, community hall, management office, etc.





In concept, the proposed design is like a castle. High walls surround an inner courtyard, and protect its inhabitants from the dangers outside. The staircase wells at each corner rise above the walls like towers.



CREATING A SENSE OF COMMUNITY

The Kotapuri design attempts to encourage a sense of community by clustering units together around communal facilities: 4 or 6 units on each floor share a lobby which doubles as a play area for small children; 16 units share a staircase and entrance; in one block are 64 units which share an 3600sf outdoor communal area (which is the courtyard in the middle of the block), and a 1500 sf indoor community centre.

In this example, it there are only about 300 persons in the block, a small enough number of people to remember by face. The residents recognize their neighbours, perhaps more importantly, they can pick out strangers!

In this arrangement, the residents can organize each other easily. Each lobby (comprising 4 or 6 units) can choose one representative to sit in a committee of 12. An organized group with a sense of community is very helpful in promoting public spirit and cooperation in keeping the premises safe, clean and well maintained.

PROVIDING FOR CHILDREN’S OUTDOOR PLAY

The semi-private courtyard is sheltered from the busy streets outside the Kotapuri. Access into it will be regulated (see below). The raised and landscaped courtyard area (only about 3600sf) is seperated from the enclosing walls by the 7’ width of the sunken shop backyards. In addition there is a low 4’ wall at the edge of the courtyard; together with the retaining wall, this makes for an 8’ screen that acts as a buffer between the shops and the apartments.
This courtyard space, safe from traffic and strangers, can serve as an area suitable for primary school age children to play without supervision from their parents.


The lobbies at each floor is also where younger children from pre-school age can play, perhaps with the parents nearby in their homes, keeping a collective eye on them. The lobby is actually the size of along corridor. However, the corridor, being so narrow, can only be used for circulation.



Space that is made ideal for children is also suitable for the old and handicapped. Providing a communal space just outside their homes can ameliorate the sense of isolation these people often feel, trapped in their homes when there is no suitable outdoor area for them to socialize.

WHY THE KOTAPURI CONCEPT SUITED FOR LOW-COST HOUSING?

The Kotapuri concept helps provide better low and low-medium cost housing in the following ways:

It can help transform a loss-making proposition turn into something that can break even. In areas where there is no demand for upper floor offices, instead of building a single-storey shop, the upper floors are instead used for housing. 

If the decision has been made to build a single storey of shop houses, the cost of land and much of the cost of building the foundation, the roof , the roads and related services would already be commited. Deciding to build an extra floor would incur some additional costs, like the  cost of extra floor of structure and walls, but the cost of the foundation and services would not have to be increased by much; the cost of land and roof can be said to heve been already paid for.

In this situation, the "marginal cost" of building the first floor is lower than the cost of building the first storey and can easily be exceeded by the selling price of a floor of low-medium cost apartments priced at, say, RM80,000 per unit. The marginal cost another floor of low-cost apartments would be a bit lower than the marginal cost of the first floor; it would be higher than the selling price of low-cost housing set at RM42,000, but the loss can be absorbed by a relatively minor cross subsidy. 

In an example where flats are built on the first, second and third floors with shops on the ground floor, the marginal cost of adding each floor becomes progressively lower. It is logical therefore to price the apartments progressively lower. In one design of the Kotapuri, I placed shops on the ground floor, medium cost apartments on the first floor, medium low-cost apartments on the second floor and low-cost flats on the third. The feasibility study of that design showed that the proposal made a small overall profit.

The low and low medium-cost housing is now not on its own but mixed with shops and provided with car parking that can be charged for. The problem of having insufficient money for proper maintenance for the low-cost housing is ameliorated by being able to collect maintenace fees from owners of the shops and low-medium cost apartments who would be better able to contribute. 

On top of that, if the shops are succesful, their customers would be willing to for parking and the income from this can better ensure that the maintenance needs can be met.

Instead of having low-cost flats shunted to the least attractive part of a new housing estate or township, they are now on top of the shops which are normally sited in strategic locations . This location ensures that there is a potential in the future for the homes to appreciate in value.

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Saturday, December 24, 2016

Low-Cost Housing and the Shophouse

In Malaysia developers were required to set aside 30% of the houses they build to be low cost houses. Implemented and amended to varying degrees by State and Federal Governments through the years, it has been clear for some time that there were serious problems with this policy.

At the turn of the century the ceiling price of low cost houses had greatly exceeded the cost of constructing them. Developers placed the low cost housing in the most undesirable locations in their site, and spent as little as they could to minimize their losses. But the resulting low quality of the houses made them unpopular.

By 2005 nearly 3000 completed houses in the low cost category were unsold. In many instances the vacant properties became dilapidated and had forced sale value of the low cost houses were a fraction of the original selling price.


It appears that developers were being forced by government policy to build houses for poor people who did not want them.

To make things worse, the low-cost housing policy had the unintended but nasty side effect of discouraging developers from building houses that people with middle income could afford. With every seven houses having to subsidize three low cost units, there was much more money in high end houses to bear the tax burden compared to middle cost ones. This was in effect a very regressive tax on house buyers. Developers responded by building more high end units and fewer medium costs ones.

More recently the federal government finally introduce a separate “Affordable Housing” initiative, but many of the negative elements of the low cost housing policy still remain because State Governments have the ultimate say in land matters.

Whilst the low cost housing policy was in effect, trying to get developers interested in Honeycomb housing in the medium cost segment was extremely hard, but these ideas now are easier to apply to affordable housing than low-cost.

The level of requirement for low-cost housing is now much lower. Instead of a blanket 30% requirement, the policy is now much more nuanced, some areas require 20%, others only 5%, and still other areas where there is no requirement at all.

Still, the it is argued that the poor should still be given opportunities for home-ownership.

For a possible solution to this problem we looked towards another building type that is very common in Malaysia – the shophouse.



According to Wikipedia(2007) the term ‘shophouse’ is an architectural building type that is both native and unique to urban Southeast Asia. This hybrid building form characterises the historical centres of most towns and cities in the region. Shophouses typically display the following features.

  • Mutifunctional, combining residential and commercial use. The ground floor of shophouses were used for business and trading, and the proprietors lived on the upper floor.
  • Low-rise, typically two to three storeys high.
  • Terraced urban buildings, standing next to each other along a street, with no gap or space in between buildings, with a single party wall separating the shophouses on either side of it.
  • Narrow street frontages, but may extend backwards to great depths, extending all the way to the rear street.


Historian, Jon S.H. Lim, adds another important feature, and that is the ’five-foot ways’, and he traces this to the Raffles ‘Ordinances’ (1822) which stipulated “ all houses constructed of brick or tiles have a common type of front each having a verandah of a certain depth,open to all sides as a continuous and open passage on each side of the street”.

This building type evolved according to changing needs from the late 18th century during the colonial era, into the post-independence era, until today. Shophouses inhabited by a single proprietor and his extended family, became tenanted buildings; double storey became three storey and higher; the upper floors gained direct staircase access from the ground floor verandah; the single proprietor building became a subdivided building with separate strata title ownership. The traditional shophouse building evolved to create new categories: the shop-apartment and the shop-office.

Of the two, the shop-office have become more common than the shop-apartment. This is unsurprising as apartments above shops are unattractive for families to stay in. There is a lack of green space and amenities for children and the street below is not safe for children.
However, offices on the upper floors is only suited to main town or city centres. The upper floors of shop houses in many suburbs and the country side are usually under-utilized.

If the design of shop-houses can be improved to make it more acceptable for families, then the upper floors can be a very suitable location to place low-cost housing.

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Saturday, December 10, 2016

From 5-storey Point Blocks to Honeycomb 5-storey V-Saped Apartments

The first low -cost houses in Malaysia were single storey terrace houses. As land became more expensive, developers built double storey terrace houses which could fit in more units per acre. They made savings in infrastructure costs too. But the cost of building only increased slightly. The savings in the cost of land and infrastructure compensated for any increase in the cost of building.

As urban land prices increased further, developers started building 5-storey walk-up flats. Developers discovered that this building type was cheap to build. Because there are many shared walls, floors and roofs, the construction cost per square foot is lower than terrace houses. They compensated for the need to construct common areas like staircases and corridors that increased the gross area of the building over and above the net sellable area of the apartments. The main savings was in the cost of land: each acre could fit in 3 or times the number of terrace houses while both building and infrastructure costs for each unit were also lower. There were savings in infrastructure cost as well because there are shorter runs of pipes, sewers roads and drains for each apartment unit in a compact multi-storey building compared with that found in a sprawling terrace house layout.

All in all, compared to terrace houses, the building cost per square foot of net sellable area is about the same. However, you could fit in 60 low-cost flats in an acre of land or about 40 medium cost ones. So, there was a considerable saving in both land and infrastructure cost.
In the 90’s my firm designed and oversaw the construction of thousands of 5-storey walk-up apartments. The most common design had a single staircase access that served 4 units. It was a particularly efficient with minimal circulation space and sellable net floor area of about 94%.

The main disadvantage of this building type is how the value of the apartments decline the higher up they were. The first-floor units were the easiest to sell; the 4th floor ones, the hardest. This was supported by a study done at low-cost and medium cost flats that my firm designed in Kajang. In the medium-cost flats, we placed more expensive flats (RM90,000) on the lower floors and slightly smaller lower-cost ones (RM60,000) on the upper floors. The units sold briskly: the more expensive ones on the lower floors sold faster than the cheaper ones on the upper floors. It was obvious that the upper floors were less desirable.

In the low-cost apartments next door which were sold at the heavily subsidized price of RM42,000, the lower floors were taken up. But at the time the study was undertaken, a couple of years after completion, the upper floors remained unsold.



However, with a slightly bigger budget the upper floors can be made more marketable by adding a lift to each block. They wouldn’t be too expensive: they serve only five floors and need not be fire-rated; downtime for maintenance is acceptable without having a second back-up.



Following the theoretical work that I had done with point blocks, in the 90’s my firm designed and oversaw the construction of thousands of 5-storey walk-up apartments. The most common design had a single staircase access that served 4 units. It was a particularly efficient with minimal circulation space and net sellable net floor area (NFA) of about 94% of the gross floor area (GFA).



From the point block idea, it was a short step to producing low-rise Honeycomb apartments. The first proposal that follows is a proposal for a 60-acre site in a semi-rural area that achieves 40 units per acre shown here The second is for a small 2-acre site that has a density above 60 units per acre, and that will be in the next post.

More recently the federal government finally introduced a separate “Affordable Housing” initiative, but many of the negative elements of the low-cost housing policy remain because State Governments have the ultimate say in land matters.

Perbadanan PR1MA Malaysia was established under the PR1MA Act 2012 to plan, develop, construct and maintain high-quality housing with lifestyle concepts for middle-income households in key urban centres. PR1MA homes come in various types and sizes within an integrated community; sensibly designed to suit different household needs. Priced between RM100,000 to RM400,000, you can now own a home that is well within your reach. Earmarked for development in key strategic urban areas nationwide, PR1MA is open to all Malaysians with a monthly household income between RM2,500 to RM10,000.

Whilst the low- cost housing policy was in effect, trying to get developers interested in Honeycomb housing in the medium-cost segment was extremely hard, but these ideas now are easier to apply to affordable housing than low-cost. In 2016, my firm was asked to propose an affordable housing scheme in a relatively rural part of mainland Penang. A very large piece of land had been offered for sale and the developer wanted to allocate 60 acres of it for affordable housing that would be constructed in a joint venture with PR1MA
In this area, people expect to live in terrace houses; apartment living is still not thought to be acceptable. Still, given the soft soil conditions and the expected high cost of infrastructural development, the developer did not believe that the construction of terrace houses at affordable prices would be profitable. In 2014, 3 times median income in Penang was only RM180,000.

I had previously planned a low-rise Honeycomb project for the developer in Alor Gajah. Could we do a medium-rise version of the high-rise Honeycomb concept here in this rural part of mainland Penang?

LOW-RISE HONEYCOMB APARTMENTS ON A HEXAGONAL GRID





Following on my work from the 1990’s we created a layout that is based on a hexagonal grid with the apartments arranged around courtyard gardens. This is the basic layout that takes up a quarter of the whole site.




This the layout of the whole site:


The four quadrants each have their own access, we can enter two of them from the south and the other two from the north. At each entrance is a Surau and Dewan. In the centre of the quadrants is football field flanked by a clubhouse and a kindergarten and child-care facility.

The quadrant is fenced; at the entrance is a guardhouse. There is a main road that circles the quadrant and subsidiary roads branch off from the main road in a clear hierarchical manner.

The basic neighbourhood is a hexagonal space in between three V-shaped blocks which meet the minimum allowance of 40’ side -to-side distance and 30” rear-to-rear. The layout, which created large courtyard spaces between the three blocks provided much, much more than the minimum requirement of 60”.




The layout of each block adopts some of the features of high-rise honeycomb housing whereby the apartments are all accessed from courtyard floors about half the units are provided with a private garden.

The duplex apartments accessed from the third floor are linked to the floor above it or the floor below it. The apartments on the ground floor are either single storey apartments or apartments that link the 1st floor.







This arrangement allows a covered garden 3-storeys high to be formed on the ground floor and sky-court on the third floor.



On the third floor, 10 units are provided with a private garden whilst 8 units do not have them. On the ground floor 8 units are provided with a private garden whilst 6 units do not have them. This compromise was proposed to meet the objection that not every buyer would appreciate the provision of a privately-owned front-yard and would be willing to pay for it.

In this layout, the 1.5 car parks were provided for each apartment unit with another 10% for visitors. The advantage of the hexagonal layout is that though it uses land efficiently, it can provide variety in the quality of spaces between the blocks in a way that is aesthetically pleasing.

The feasibility study for this proposal showed that there is good profit to be made if people are willing to buy it at prices from RM180,000. But will they? Some of the other consultants involved in the project were uncertain that they would accept the change from terrace to high-rise. If that is the case, it would be better to test the acceptability of Townhouses first.

Although the client was happy with this layout, there were regulatory difficulties in acquiring this piece of land and its implementation would have wait for a few more years or else a new site.




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Friday, December 2, 2016

Point-Block Low-Rise Low-Cost Apartments

Apart from the shop-house, the other building-type that I had developed as a solution to low-cost housing was the 5-storey walk-up flat.

Most walk-up apartments in Malaysia can be described as slab blocks. In a paper written in 2000 I argued that the point block low rise apartment is not only more aesthetically pleasing and socially functional, it is also an economically viable alternative. 

In the previous six years, I had attempted to design low cost and low-medium cost housing that met the strict cost limits required by developers, the rules set by government authorities, and the same time achieve the aesthetic and social aims of my practice.

My firm approached this problem by designing and refining generic designs capable of being applied across the various sites, requirements and parameters of different projects. We promoted the point-block low-rise apartment as a generic design which is superior to the ubiquitous slab block low rise apartment. 

THE ECONOMIC ADVANTAGES OF POINT BLOCK LOW RISE APARTMENT COMPARED TO THE SLAB BLOCK LOW RISE APARTMENT 

The slab block low-rise walk-up apartment is the standard solution in big towns and cities in Malaysia. The typical design comprises four or five storeys of apartments strung out in two lines opposite each other with access corridors and voids in the middle, and staircases at both ends of the corridor


There are of course many variations to this basic concept. We just must adapt specific dimensions and layout to customize the design. The slab block, in my opinion is not very pleasing aesthetically, and in social terms, now too positive either. Its main advantage is that it is cheap. Certainly, it is cheap compared to terrace houses or bungalows because it use less land. Typically, 50 to 60 units per acre compared to 20 units / acre for terrace house and even less tor bungalows. The construction cost for unit is also low compared to the bungalow or terrace house because there are lots of shared walls, shared structure, floors and roofing.



 Against to the point-block, the slab block certainly looks cheaper. And therefore, it is cheaper goes the implicit common-sense logic. I challenged that common-sense conclusion.



The point block walk-up apartment comprises a single staircase in the core and four or more units around that central staircase. Every unit is a corner unit. The point blocks that we’ve designed certainly do not look cheap but there are specific and verifiable reasons why point blocks are cost-effective:



DENSITY (UNITS/ACRE)


Land is an important cost factor in housing. Commonly it is 10% - 20% of the total development cost of a mixed housing project. The accepted density for low-cost low rise apartments (in most States in Malaysia) is 60 units per acre. It is not easy to achieve this density in an aesthetically pleasing and socially acceptable manner. You can maximise units for any given plot of land by using bigger blocks. Right? Well, not always true.

It you have two similar round vessels of say 1 cubic meter capacity each and fill one vessel with large stones and the other vessel with small pebbles which vessel would contain more material? The vessel with the small pebbles will have more material. There would be less spaces between the pebbles compared with the bigger stones. In a similar manner, small blocks can fill up a site better than standard slab blocks. This tends to be true for big sites, especially sites with irregular shape. In the case of small sites, blocks designed to the shape of the land do better.

SPACE EFFICIENCY (NET SELLABLE AREA / GROSS AREA)

Small point blocks are more efficient compared to slab blocks. In particular, the corridor is eliminated and the staircase and landing area is minimal. It is usual for point blocks to have 60% or less of corridor and staircase space per unit. It is not in typical for slab block with double loading corridors'# to have 76sf (7sm) external circulation space per unit. Slab block with single loading corridors can have external circulation space 96sf (9sm) or more per unit. Architects sometimes think that the more units share staircases, the more cost effective the design, but the corridors that lead to the staircases also add cost.

INTERNAL LAYOUT EFFICIENCY

This is about maximising space usage in units. In the point-block generic design, every unit is a corner unit. There is a cost penalty tor this - there is less shared walls between units and there is less shared beams and columns. However, there is a benefit - less shared walls means more external walls, and with more external walls for light and ventilation it is easier to design efficient and functional rooms. In our point block designs, we try to maximise usable space and minimise circulation space. In intermediate units of slab blocks, external wall is at a premium. Voids have to be cut out in the interior of the block to provide windows to receive what little light and ventilation these air wells can provide. Or else, the exterior elevations require deep recesses to bring in light and ventilation to the middle areas.

The depth of the units, often long in relation to the width, results in long circulation spaces required to access the outer rooms. This layout also involves other substantial compromises in functional design. Firstly, entrances are invariably at the dining area near the kitchen. This is not functional but seems to be the accepted standard even for medium to high cost apartments. Secondly, there will be some bedrooms, the kitchen, drying yard and some toilets which will have to make do with light and ventilation from air wells. Thirdly, entering the apartment from where the kitchen and drying yard is situated creates the impression of entering a home from its backyard. Fourthly, bedrooms are difficult to cluster together in a private zone separate from the semi-private living and dining areas.


Blocks with small footprints require small earth platforms. Blocks with big footprints require larger earth, platforms. A series of small earth platforms generally involve less volume then a series of larger platforms cut out from the same original slope profile. From the same illustration, it is also intuitively clear that easier to arrange point blocks to sit on cut ground than it is to arrange slab blocks to meet this same requirement. Having original ground to sit on rather than fill ground can save a lot in foundation costs. Of course, slab blocks can be arranged along contours to minimise earthworks, though this limits the flexibility of the layout and is not effective where the land slope in two directions. Another possibility is to stagger the slab block down the slope, this requires retaining walls or stilts which again adds cost, and reduces standardisation.

Therefore, it can be said that generally point blocks with smaller footprints than slab blocks provide greater flexibility in external layout design, requiring less earthworks and lower foundation costs.

CONCLUSION


Most low-cost flats in Malaysia can be described as slab block low-rise apartments. The ubiquity of this generic design, despite its functional and social inadequacies can be attributed to the misconception that, given the cost constraints there are no alternatives. But Low-rise point blocks in my opinion through more aesthetically pleasing, functional and socially acceptable can be more cost effective when compared to the slab block.







COMMERCIALIZATION

Back in 1995, not long after I set up my firm, I decided to focus on designing low-cost housing. We did not have any clients yet, but I made a bet that the demand for such housing would always be present, and if the designs we came up with were good, then commissions would come. The bet came good: in the following years, the government embarked on a programme to get the public and private sector to build for the low-income.

The government entrusted a government owned corporation, TPPT Sdn Bhd, to work with the private sector and State governments to build low-cost housing. The mood of the times is reflected in the book produced by a think-thank which was closely allied to the government: "Low-Cost Housing - A Definitive Study". The problem of housing for the low income was going to be solved!

This provided an opportunity for Arkitek M Ghazali to introduce our ideas for "point blocks": ie 5 storey walk-up blocks with only 4 or 8 units to each floor accessible from a single staircase . We found that point blocks were economical: the ratio of saleable area to total area we were able to get was more than 95% , compared to about 85% achieved by the conventional slab blocks which could have up to 16 units per floor accessed from a central corridor.



These point blocks were arranged in a hexagonal formation (the first hint of honeycomb housing). In terms of land-use efficiency, we found this to be as efficient as the conventional rectilinear layout. In addition, the point block concept created "defensible spaces" and I instinctively felt that the clustering of the flats offered a much more community-friendly environment.

The recession of 1997/98 put a stop to the would be boom in low-cost housing.

However, the firm was able to see quite a few of its ideas come to fruition:


Octagonal low-cost 5 storey point-block flats, eight units on each floor, laid out in a hexagonal grid in Nusajaya, Johor below:

Medium-cost students 5 storey point-block apartments, four units to each floor, laid out in a hexagonal grid in Universiti Industri Selangor, Batang Berjuntai, Selangor.

This 5-storey walk-up building concept could easily be married to the Honeycomb apartment idea...
 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Low-Cost 5-storey Flats

Since the 1980’s, Malaysian developers were required to set aside 30% of the houses they build to be low cost houses priced below RM25,000. Implemented and amended to varying degrees by State and Federal Governments through the years, it has been clear for some time that there were serious problems with this policy.

By the 1990’s. it became clear that the housing that came out from the current low-cost policy was not satisfactory. The construction cost of a low-cost house that met the minimum requirements was more than the selling price. Developers had to subsidize the low-cost housing; not surprisingly, developers designed and built them to minimum standards.
But of course, any subsidy wasn’t really from the developers’ own pockets: they passed it on to ordinary house purchasers. Developers found that the sales from seven medium-cost house could not sufficiently subsidize 3 low-cost homes; better to build 7 high-end houses. In effect the low-cost housing requirement became a disincentive to building medium cost houses. It was also a heavy tax on purchasers, and a very regressive one to boot.

So, the rules were tweaked. For example, in Johor for instance, the new requirement became:

  • 20% low-cost RM25,000
  • 10% low-medium type 1 RM60,00
  • 10% low-medium type 2 RM80,000
In the latter part of the 1990’s the federal government also introduced a raft of other new measures to boost the building of houses for the poor: it offered soft loans to developers of low cost housing; a revolving fund was set up to finance construction. The standard of the low-cost houses was set at improved levels, notably the requirement for 3 bedrooms.
The government entrusted government linked companies to work with the private sector and State governments to build low-cost housing. The mood of the times is reflected in the book produced by a think-thank which was closely allied to the government: "Housing the Nation - A Definitive Study". The problem of housing for the low income was going to be solved!

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN QUALITY IS NEGLECTED?

However, because the ceiling price of low-cost houses had greatly exceeded the cost of constructing them, developers placed the low-cost housing in the most undesirable locations in their site, and spent as little as they could to minimize their losses. But the resulting low quality of the houses made them unpopular.

The low-cost housing was almost always segregated in the worst location of any development, away from shops, amenities and public transport. The house-type of choice was the 5 storey walk-up flat, about 60 units per acre, some with the ground floor empty, with only about one car parking space for every two units.

They have almost all turned out to be crowded and all badly maintained. Many of the new housing schemes that resulted looked likely to become slums.

It was expected that the low-income people would grab the chance at home ownership! But this was not the reception that was given. In the states of Johor and Selangor where there is the problem of property overhang, unsold low-cost houses made up the main component in the number of unsold completed properties.
In many instances the vacant properties became dilapidated and the “forced sale value” of the low-cost houses were a fraction of the original selling price. In many cases where the banks took over and tried to auction off the properties, there were few takers and reserve prices drifted lower to ridiculous levels.



In 2005 nearly 3000 completed houses in the low-cost category were unsold. It appears that developers were being forced by government policy to build houses for poor people who did not want them.

This situation was absurd! Developers make a loss from building low-cost houses even when they are able to sell all of them - when they remain unsold, their cashflow and profitability became seriously compromised.

Whilst the middle class buy houses that appreciate in value, the buyers of many low-cost flats, especially those out of town, have seen the value of their homes dwindle.

It was during the mid-1990’s that I first started thinking about building types and how to improve them, not in response to any one project but to develop a new generic solution that could be adapted to a range of sites. Most walk-up apartments in Malaysia can be described as slab blocks and it was to this specific building type that I developed an alternative. 
In a paper written in 2000 I argued that the point block low-rise apartment is not only more aesthetically pleasing and socially functional, it is also an economically viable alternative. 


In the next post I will touch on the point-block low-rise low-cost apartments.

To make things worse, the low-cost housing policy had the unintended but nasty side effect of discouraging developers from building houses that people with middle income could afford. The low -cost housing policy was in effect a very regressive tax on house buyers.
Developers responded by simply by building more high end units and fewer medium costs ones. 

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