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 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.


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’ 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.


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.


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.


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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