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Sustainable House as a Model of Vernacular Authenticity

Cultural Renaissance or Knowledge Dissipation?

Architecture [is] the reconciliation between the art of living well and the art of constructing well.

– Marco Frascari

A shelter is a tool for survivorship, built to prolong the lifespan of living beings. Vernacular architecture is the most primitive basis of shelter, but a house is also an example of balance between life and art, cohabiting and coexisting. In Malaysia, with mounting social and economic pressures for adaptation to urbanised lifestyles, can we still salvage our understanding of Malay vernacular characteristics, its cultural authenticity and temporality? In the conversation between globalisation and localisation, can sophistication and tradition coexist?

Pre-independence British Malaya saw evidential propagation of eclectic living spaces through systematic blending of colonial architectural styles with local creativity to highlight the layers of cultural diversity that was being incubated. In this scenario, however, the Malay vernacular heritage lost its inherent value because the political objective was to cultivate the image of multiculturalism.2

During the 60s and 70s, the economic development paradigm shifted into broad nationalist agendas. Traditionalism took a further backseat in the raucous rapidity of growth. Enthusiasm for bringing Malaysia to the world stage saw standardisation and internationalisation in architectural design innovations and construction engineering practices. Malaysia was consumed with planting homogenous living spaces wrapped in concrete, with spanking glass skins supplanting tried-and-tested methods and materials.3 This subsequently overshadowed ancient knowledge and regional design values, producing a condition akin to having a body of cultural hybridisation sans its soul.

Figure 2: Perak AgrotourismRumahKutai

The 21st-century has increased our social, collective consciousness about the value of modernisation. We define ‘modern’ through the filters of technological, environmental, social, economic and political impacts, and other evolving phenomena of cultural trends that incur both gains and losses.4 The burgeoning economy urges maximising of capital outlays in driving progress.

Gentrification further challenge traditional aesthetics by isolating the best techniques from existing built legacies, reconfiguring them into montages (hybrid forms) for new living modes, adding to the crisis in vernacular architectural preservation.5According to Sim, when villages and rural communities gradually accept the usage of new construction materials, a loss of confidence in traditional built styles occur: new materials prove their resilience and cost-effectiveness against sources like hardwood, impacting on heritage jungle products once culled and sourced abundantly.4

The process of gentrification destines certain tangible and intangible form(s) of architecture to be lost, and directly impacts our national identity. For instance, the subdivisions of land plots (fences) and sleeping areas (walls) led to an introversion of family life, resulting in designing of more private and personal spaces. Economic arguments for structural maintenance contribute equally. Inferior timber flooring and walls suffer inevitable termite infestation; thatched roofs increase likelihood of water seepage in the long run and are replaced with sustainable modern materials such as aluminium, steel and zinc roofing; these ultimately reduce supplies of indigenous materials.

With rises in energy and utilities costs, public discourses on vernacular conservation have sensibly awakened architects and designers to embrace regionalism and cultural building traditions through sustainable, energy-efficient construction methods for local adaptability. Contemporary housing solutions test the perpetuity of vernacular architecture taking costs and sustainability factors into account. Modern styles cut through cultural perceptions of a house being a shared community space, further insulating its residents faced with the unsettling effects of migration and urbanisation. This loss ultimately disinherits the methods, tools and goals of preservation and conservation knowledge would inevitably be lost with urban development ideologies taking over evolving societies beset by economic pressures to adapt. Predictably, vernacular housing dissipates into memorials, a mere glamorous foreground and its role being to evoke change as disruptive to its values continuum.

A suggested strategy would be divided into three phases; political, industrial and educational. The first phase is constituted by the relevant cultural authorities acting to safeguard Malay architecture. By-laws for the development of local materials must be stricter enforced, regulated and adhered to, whereby jungles are reserved to provide premium materials for public heritage projects.

This instils locals’ pride of place, assuring sustainability of the quality and quantity of traditional methods and materials. The construction sector should promote the development of indigenous-themed living and public spaces featuring vernacular architectural motifs.

The second phase targets the education system. As a conceptional, intellectual and symbolic representation of human advancement, architectural evolution must be part of scholarly discourses. Educators must provide students a range of unique experiences in the “art of vernacular living”. An example: Chulalongkorn University in Thailand offers exploratory studies of traditional Thai living spaces within authentic settings.6 Students gain a critical understanding of vernacular architecture challenges and simultaneous systematic exposure to elements specific to regional climactic and construction needs.

Figure 3: Chulalongkorn University

The third phase is a reflective adjunct to the previous two phases. To nurture public appreciation through policies and evaluative tools, an education system must boldly take sustainability dialogues to national and international levels. This enables architecture design practices to mirror the true national identity, beginning with a purification of destructive attitudes and objections to harmonise past with present, and to find ways to rebuild and reanimate our strongly rooted pride in heritage housing forms.5

Architecture’s loss of authenticity is symptomatic of an undercurrent of diseases, beginning with adaptation for modernity in living spaces. Some argue the shift was necessitated by the search for Malaysia’s modern cultural architectural identity.3But if left unchecked, it will raise generations fed with inaccurate information and misinterpretations leading to the inability to grasp what architecture heritage is. Strategies detailed should be constructed by way of preparing for a war, a battle to reclaim the fading ‘true vernacular living’.




Stephen is a social design catalyst, who has his own particular view of the world, worked and studied all over the Europe. His multicultural background is reflected in his versatile approach and continuous interest in design, innovation and social change. Actively in research, published in scholarly journals, chapters and magazines in sustainable issues and debates on social innovation, digital humanities, built environment, urban studies, discourse across a wide range of culture, media and creative industries fields. Currently, he is affiliated to Asia Pacific University of Technology & Innovation, Malaysia.


Notes Cited

1. Frascari, M. Monsters of architecture: Anthropomorphism in architectural theory. USA: Rowman&Littlefield Publishers 1991; 4.

2. Mohamad Tajuddin M. R., Kamaruddin M. A., Syed Ahmad Iskandar, S. A., Ra'alahMohamad and GurupiahMursib. The Architectural Heritage of the Malay World – The Traditional Houses. Skudai, Johor, Malaysia: UniversitiTeknologi Malaysia 2005.

3. Hoesseini, E., Mursib, G., Nafida, R. and Shahedi, B. Design Values in Traditional Architecture: Malay House. 6th International Seminar on Vernacular Settlements and Contemporary Vernaculars. Famagusta, North Cyprus 2012: April 19-21. Available at:

4. Sim, S. Redefining the Vernacular in the Hybrid Architecture of Malaysia [Thesis] Master of Architecture. Victoria University of Wellington 2010. Available at:

5. Heynen, H. Architecture and modernity: A Critique. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press 1999.

6. Chitranukroh, J., and Buranakarn, V. (2006) ‘Sentiment in traditional Thai architecture’ in Nakhara: Journal of Environmental Design and Planning, 1999; 1: 117-132. Available at:


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