Asia has new appetite for sustainable homes, says Paul McGillick

Regional trend does away with freezing air conditioning and uses fresh air, natural light and water features to create cool homes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 October, 2013, 5:05am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 November, 2013, 12:47pm

Fresh air, natural light, and spatial variety are terms not instantly associated with an Asian city. But this is the way home design is moving in some densely populated urban strongholds, and it's not just the architecture that is changing.

Imagine a house in which the occupants don't want air conditioning (even though they can well afford it); they prefer to reuse and restore than rebuild; and where two or even three generations of a family can coexist under one roof - in harmony.

We're trending this way, says Sydney-based Dr Paul McGillick, a writer and editor in the fields of architecture, art and design, owing to a growing desire to "live more authentically". Architecture's contribution to "what is needed for a good and fulfilling life" is examined in his book, The Sustainable Asian House (Tuttle Publishing).

Previous books by McGillick, who is editor of two architecture magazines, Indesign and Habitus, include Concrete, Metal, Glass (2007) a study of the leading Malaysian commercial architecture practice, Hijjas Kasturi Associates, and 25 Tropical Houses in Singapore and Malaysia (2006).

The past 20 years have been an "ongoing revelation" of how architecture in the tropics is evolving, McGillick says, illustrating his point in 27 homes across the region, specifically Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

While the featured homes all have a strong element of environmental sustainability, McGillick insists his latest work is "not just another book on 'greener' architecture".

"Everyone knows about strategies to reduce a building's carbon footprint," he says. "Of course, the environmental side gets included, but I'm looking at the bigger picture, of social, cultural and personal sustainability - of what's important to people; what makes a house a home and how the home sustains us personally and culturally."

And so you have architecture that is "climate responsive", relying on natural ventilation and other elements (such as water features and extra-wide eaves), rather than air conditioning, because increasingly that's what today's homeowners want.

There is also more blurring of the indoor/outdoor spaces, in a shift of attitudes that demands connection with the landscape.

These elements are well demonstrated at the R-House, in Depok, Indonesia, by architect Budi Pradono. A water feature runs through the house from the entry, before peeling off to form a pond in the parents' private courtyard. With cross-ventilation, this water helps cool the house. It is supported by other approaches, including a grassed rooftop garden. At the back of the house, two trees, which the owners did not want to see removed, are incorporated, thrusting up through holes in the roof.

Similarly, at the Paranaque House in Manila, home of Swiss architect Sacha Cotture (who designed it) and his Filipino wife, a courtyard design inspired by Spanish housing is naturally ventilated and has a water wall. Bamboo is used imaginatively for privacy screening, and the works of local craftsmen, such as pendant lights, are incorporated.

Also in Manila is the Vidal House, owned by Renato Vidal, an artist/craftsman who creates domestic sculptural objects from natural materials such as grass.

McGillick says: "Vidal was a founding member of Movement 8, a group of Filipino designers who promoted Philippines design around the world.

"Some of these people worked with Renato on his house … include Milo Naval [furniture designer], Tess Pasola [sculptor] and Tony Fernandez [designer]. They teamed with architect Denise de Castro to design the house, which is partly a gallery for his collections of art classic modern furniture. With its glazed walls, this is a fully transparent house with lots of natural light and cross-ventilation."

The renovated traditional Chinese shop house on Cairnhill Road in Singapore also ticks environmental boxes, with its internal courtyard retained to recreate an authentic shop house essence, allowing both natural light and ventilation.

To emphasise the importance of this space as the fulcrum of the house, architect Richard Ho introduced a water feature and indoor koi pond, around which wraps the staircase.

Apart from being climatically well-adapted, the shop house also recycles an existing building and preserves cultural heritage, evidence of a growing tendency to restore architecture once deemed by the Asian mindset as fit only for demolition.

McGillick says: "Found throughout Southeast Asia, traditional Chinese shop houses were not valued once, but are now subject to heritage orders in countries including Singapore and Malaysia."

Indeed, cultural elements are preserved in several of the homes featured. The owners of the Brawijaya House in Jakarta commissioned Yori Antar, an Indonesian architect known for his work in preserving traditional houses and building technologies. Carved timber craftsmanship appears prominently, but in its purest form, is evident in a room designed for dance performances where the traditional Javanese pendopo, a pavilion-like structure built on columns, is reproduced in the ceiling. Many also incorporate what McGillick sees as a renewed interest in designing for the extended family.

"A new professional class is coming through in these cities, and they have a new way of life. Issues like privacy and community come up," he says. "Asians [tend] towards community, whereas Westerners are concerned about privacy. [These examples] show how you can design a house which allows for both with clear divisions between common areas for being together, and private quarters."

The concept is exemplified at RT&Q's House in Three Movements in Singapore. It is a cross-generational home that consists of three connected glass pavilions: one for the parents, one for the children, and one (including the ground floor kitchen/dining area) for communal life. The three parts are defined by transition spaces marked by landscape and water features.

In preparing the book, McGillick noted a recurring theme.

"The [architectural] agenda is being driven by a desire to engage with the natural world, avoid unnaturally cold, air-conditioned environments, and above all by the need to conserve energy and avoid unnecessary damage to the global ecosystem. This has resulted in a design approach which could be almost deemed a celebration of the climate, replacing the previous implied idea that the tropical climate was somehow our enemy."