BY WINSTON YONG
Sunday afternoon, circa 1972 in tropical Kuala Lumpur.
The anticipation of fun reaches a peak as the afternoon arrives.
My extended family of uncles, aunts and more importantly for me, the army of cousins, begins to arrive for the weekly family gathering at No.11, Jalan Tebu.
The house at Jalan Tebu is the place where my appreciation for the virtues of an ecological house began.
The house was built into the side of a small hill, on the edge of a tropical forest reserve. Inside, the living spaces were split to multiple levels to accommodate the slope of the grounds.
Its tropical design reflected itself through the open verandas, air wells, tall ceiling and strangely, bedrooms that were not fully enclosed. The gentle tropical breeze made its way through the house with ease.
The single piece of architecture design that held my fascination was the stairs. It rose from the middle of the cavernous reception hall to feed the two partially exposed bedrooms. They were riserless floating stairs which meant, as an energetic 5 year old, I could monkey bar up and down the underside of the stairs, suspended in mid air, above the hall.
When my cousins and I were bored indoors, we would run out to play in the garden. The manicured grass lapped the side of the house and transitioned to hill side terraces cultivated with durian and rambutan trees, before melting back to the forest by the edge of a stream. The monkeys swung easily from tree to tree.
These were my earliest memories of what I felt was a house that was at ease with its natural surroundings.
It belonged to my grand aunt Esther. When I grew older, I realised that she was a remarkable woman. She was Malaysia’s first woman architect and had designed the house at Jalan Tebu herself. My admiration for her increased further when I discovered that she had also been awarded an MBE for outstanding services in her resistance to the Japanese occupation of Malaya in 1942-45.
These memories grew dim as I grew older. I moved away from Kuala Lumpur and my requirements for a home were functional and often dictated to me by circumstances and location.
I completed my education in Australia, where I lived a student’s life in a dormitory and a flat. My career took me to the crowded cities of Frankfurt, Singapore and Hong Kong where I lived in apartments. I bought my first home in Kuala Lumpur and lived in a condominium. I travelled extensively and lived out of hotels. The thought of living in a house; large, spacious, with green gardens and fruit trees, drifted far from my mind.
I was living in London but working for a Danish company. I found myself increasingly spending more time in Copenhagen – a city of cutting edge architecture, miles of cycle routes and green spaces. The reason it was selected to host the United Nation’s 2009 Climate Change Conference was self evident from its green credentials.
My office was located on the outskirts of Copenhagen and instead of a hotel room, I was offered a house.
Without much thought, I chose a semi rural house not too far from the office. The houses in the neighbourhood of Gammel Holte were built on the grounds of an old apple orchard. Some of the apple trees remain and are free for all to pick from during the warmer months of spring and summer.
There are small lakes to fish from and when the Danish winter bites hard, the lakes transform into skating rinks with the sounds of joy rising from both children and adults alike. Walking paths crisscross the area. Horses graze nearby.
The small comfortable house I lived in was simple with clean lines in true Scandinavian style. The generous use of triple glazed glass all round the house kept out the winter cold whilst easily blurring the boundaries between the house and landscape. Its spartan, functional minimalist Danish design blended easily with its surrounding. I started again to appreciate the pleasure of a well designed house which was much at ease with its surroundings.
June 2011, London
I now live in a refurbished 80-year-old house in North London. I lazily switched on the television and absent-mindedly scanned the channels until I rested on the ‘Grand Design’ programme.
I followed with fascination the story of a 70-year-old gentleman who commissioned a pre fabricated house to replace his existing home. It was not a dodgy cardboard house. It was a timber post and beam architectural masterpiece from the German manufacturer Huf Haus.
It was a beautiful balance between Passivhaus technology and traditional timber house. Passivhaus is a rigorous and voluntary standard for energy efficiency in a building which reduces its ecological footprint. It has little energy requirement for heating or cooling. The prefabricated Huf Haus was aesthetically pleasing, functionally efficient and assembled on site within 5 days.
I was love struck.
I dragged my wife out to the English Surrey countryside to view their show home. I enticed the whole family along to the depths of the German heartlands to visit the Huf village. The Huf Haus manager was only too willing to design a house to my specific wishes.
“Just tell us where you would like us to assemble it.”
That was a problem for me. I had to find a piece of land to put my dream ecological house!
I did find a piece of land. An acre of scenic English countryside running along the Colne river in Hertfordshire. It came with half an acre of woodland from which you can gather your own firewood. It had fishing rights to the river and the carp freely swam in and out the small estuary. It even came with its own World War Two pill box – a legacy of the British preparation against Hitler’s invasion of Britain.
However, there was already a house on the land – a converted barn house. The beauty and historic value of the property was not lost on the local council which judiciously placed restrictions on the use of the land. Sadly, I had to withdraw my plans and continue my search for a plot of land to build my perfect eco home.
Nature has an unhurried view of time. I shall learn to be patient – to find the place where home and nature is balanced.
Meanwhile, I continue to enjoy exploring both the new and old approaches to developing eco houses. I am also continuing with my search for a piece of land and I hope, one day, to tell you another story about how my eco house got built.
Winston Yong is a Malaysian who has spent much of his life as a global nomad; sweeping his wife and daughter with him around the world. Today, he resides in London with his family, helping his clients solve merger and acquisition problems. In his private time, he eschews flying in favour of taking a more leisurely drive to explore places where he might find his perfect place to build an ecological home. He can be reached at [email protected]
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