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.

Previously, private developers were mandated to build low-cost houses in their new housing estates. A minimum of 30% of their total number of units were to be houses priced below RM25,000. This proved to be a burden to developers and had limited output, so the rules were changed to encourage more building: 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
The federal government also introduced a raft of other new measures to boost the building housing 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 were set at improved levels, notably the requirement for 3 bedrooms.

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 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

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

By the year 2000, Arkitek M Ghazali had started to work with Peter Davis of Universiti Putra Malaysia who was the top expert for Thermal Comfort. With this partnership, we shifted our focus from "Low-Cost Housing" to the concept of "Affordable Quality Housing". Specifically, this meant a retreat from the emphasis on cost, and looking more at quality.

By this time it was 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 then the selling price. Developers (or rather ordinary house purchasers) had to subsidize the low-cost housing; not surprisingly, developers designed and built them to minimum standards. Many of the new housing schemes looked likely to become slums. The low-cost housing were almost always segregated in the worst location of any development, away from shops, amenities and public transport. The were mainly 5 storey walk-up flats, about 60 units per acre, some with the ground floor empty, with only about one car parking space for every two units, crowded and all badly maintained.

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. Resale values were often lower than the original purchase 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 and lower to ridiculous levels.

In our opinion, it was not so much the size or standard of the apartment units that is at fault (these are already generous), but rather the location and external enviroment. The low cost schemes are perceived as"low-cost flats for low-class people".

In one of our projects in Kajang, whilst the 5 storey mixed low-medium(750sf) and medium-cost(850) flats ranging from RM61,000 to RM80,000 sold out; yet just next door, the 6-storey low-cost flats(650sf), slightly smaller and with a lower quality of finish, were still only about 50% sold a year after completion.

The situation now is 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 can become seriously compromised. But still, they are being forced to build low-cost house that they don't want to build, that the low-income people don't want to buy. 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. Developers being generally smart, shift their focus to the high-end products which can more easily subsidize the 30% or 20% low-cost quota, which they build in less valuable outlying areas; or if they can help it, through delaying tactics and pleas for waiver, not build at all!

In my opinion, there should be a change in the government's policies that relate to housing . Still I am an architect not a politician, and the way that I choose to contribute is by suggesting how to plan, design and build housing for the low-income within the existing policies and regulations.


There are a few key design steps that can be taken that I believe will improve the quality of low-income housing:

First, avoid the creation of a ghetto. This automatically happens when people with low income are segregated exclusively into one location. It can be expected that people with low income are subject to more social and family stresses compared to other income groups, therefore concentrating them can worsen the situation. It is somehow considered normal to design low-cost flats seperated from low-medium cost and medium-cost flats. Some degree of income segregation is inevitable, but placing RM42,000, RM60,000 and RM80,000 flats in one building should be considered acceptable. It also makes economic sense, where the units on the lower floors should cost more than the units on the upper floors.

A survey undertaken among civil servants in Bukit Timbalan in Johor Baru, found (albeit indirectly) that respondents who could afford RM 80,000 flats on the first floor didn’t find the idea of having RM42,000 units on the 4th floor so objectionable. Also in Taman Sutera, Kajang the mix of low-medium and medium-cost flats sold well: the ground floor units were almost RM80,000, the top floor units, just over RM60,000.

Secondly, place the low-cost houses near the commercial section of the new development. This would normally be in a strategic location, near to existing main roads, with easy access to social amenities, public transport and, of course, shops. Shops like to have a concentration of residential population nearby: it provides both customers and workers. For the low income, the cost of transport - to work and to school – take up a high precentage of their monthly expenditure. Therefore being close to social amenities and public transport is important.

We suggest that the way that Developers can be influenced to take these two steps is by developing a new version of a building type that is endemic to Southeast Asia, and that is 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 sidesas 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.

Despite these changes, the “shophouse pedigree” retained the features mentioned above.

In our new proposed building design, we attempt to take the evolution process a step further.


The “Kotapuri” apartment is a new alternative to the shop/apartment 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.

Shophouse problems

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. 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 wherthere are shop/apartmentsand 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.

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 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 a suitable environment for Children

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 coutyard 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 ouside 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.


Managing Waste Disposal

Disposal of solid waste is a key issue. If garbage disposal is adequately tackled, this will overcome the problems of dirty and unhygienic surroundings that we find now in both shop house area and low-cost neighbourhoods. It can help increase the amounts of garbage that is recycled and so reduce the amount of solid waste that have to be taken to land fills. In all areas that we have surveyed, garbage waiting to be collected, often stinking, is a magnet for stay cats, dogs, rats, flies, cockroaches and other vermin.

The refuse collection and disposal problem is mainly a problem of maintenance and management, yet good architectural planning can help. In the case of the “Kotapuri” shop/apartments, the designs help in several ways: first is the attempt to create a sense of community. Secondly, it includes a strategy on how to collect enough money for ensure adequate maintenance (see below).

Electric Grinders
The third step is to incorporate electric grinders under the kitchen sinks of all apartments and houses (a common practice in America, Australia and Europe) to get rid of food waste at source directly into the main sewer line leading to the local sewerage treatment plant, instead of rotting in the kitchen then stinking the streets. It is estimated that in Malaysia over 40% of household waste is made up of organic food waste that can be dealt with by the sink grinder.

This waste food grinder fits under the sink

The simple removal of digestible organic matter directly into the existing sewer system means the rest of the garbage can be clean and dry, and does not need to be put out everyday.

The fourth step is to make recycling of tins, plastic, bottles, newspaper etc. in the home very easy and profitable. Regular and frequent door to door purchase of recycleables at good rates is arranged by the maintenace management with commercial or community groups, perhaps even weekly.

On the other hand, the refuse bin for two or three blocks is located a certain distance away from the flats and shops, not only to avoid it becoming a nuisance to the flats and the commercial premises, but also to make it a bit tiresome for residents to throw their rubbish this way. Thus householders are encouraged to use their grinder, and to clean and put aside recycleables.

In Malaysia today only 5% of waste is recycled. We would be aiming to have 20% of household waste recycled (the average for advanced countries).

Similarly the shop operators will be encouraged to use their heavier-duty electric grinders for organic waste, and to clean and set aside recycleables. Rules for keeping the shop walkway clean and tidy, have to be strictly enforced by the management.


Maintenance Fees

Design has an important role in maintenance. Design with durable, low maintenance features help, but the Kotapuri concept goes beyond this: it attempts to create an income generating model that is capable of generating sufficient funds for maintenance.

Without adequate money, good maintenance is impossible. It is a well known fact that existing low-cost housing schemes are poorly maintained. At the same time it is very difficult to collect even RM10 per month from residents. Even if everyone pays, RM10 is only 1.5sen per square foot (psf). Compare this with 26sen psf typically changed by condominiums or 20sen psf by apartments. Insufficient funds lead to a poor state of maintenance, causing residents to refuse to pay even RM 10 per month, leading to a vicious circle spiraling downwards to slumhood.

Each “Kotapuri” shop/apartments block will collect maintenance charges as follows:


In the “Kotapuri” concept, the income from low-cost households is augmented by income from shops; but it is the carparking charges that make up the biggest part of the income for maintenance.

We believe that 8 sen per square foot is a reasonable budget for routine maintenance and contribution to a sinking fund. The maintenance budget can be compared to condominiums and apartments below :

Two or three blocks are managed together providing for a monthly budget of RM 10,880 or RM 16,320.

Providing and Managing the Car Park

From observation, all shophouse type developments which become commercial successes suffer from lack of car parks. More so shop/offices, Here the demand for car parks for office use and for shops occur at the same time, ie., from 9am to 6pm. For shop/apartments, the householders mainly park at night; as for the shops, demand is mainly during the daytime. Here the residential/commercial mix is an advantage.

Low-cost housing also suffers from lack of car-parks. The current standards for car-parking are obviously too low. In Malaysia, the general requirement is 1 car parking space (cps) for every 500sf of shop or office, plus 10%. As for low-cost flats priced below RM45,000, it is 1 cps for every 2 units, plus 10% for visitors.

In the Kotapuri design, this problem is solved by regarding the car parking space as a revenue-center rather than a cost center.

The car park is planned to be run as follows: it is free for residents at night, weekends and public holidays, but during commercial hours 10am to 6pm car parking is charged at 40sen an hour. Assuming 40% occupancy, net collection of 30sen per hour (10¢ for car park operator) and 22 collection days per month. The income per car parking space is RM22 per month.

Residents pay hourly charges or a monthly fee of RM22 to park during the commercial hours. Because the car parks are a revenue centre, it makes sense to build more car parks than the minimum requirement, as shown below:

By the way, this overcomes a key problem with shop/apartments, more so shop/offices: a chronic lack of parking space.

It is shown in the previous section that potential income from car-parks is far higher than what low-cost flat residents are normally charged.


Ensuring Security in the “Kotapuri” Shop/Apartments

In the Kotapuri design, the security problem has been tackled “passively” through architectural design, but this is can be augmented by a low-cost eletronic security system.

Defensible Space

Firstly, there is the introduction of “Defensible Space” principles. The spatial design clearly delineates the private realm from the public. Semi-public and semi-private areas, where residents have a measure of control and ownership, are created between the private and public domains. Through design, natural surveillance of the semi-private and public spaces is enabled and encouraged.


As described above, the Kotapuri design encourages a sense of community by clustering units together around communal space. Yet, located in a commercial zone where many people come and go, such passive measures may be insufficient to ensure the degree of comfort such that parents feel safe to let their smaller children play outside in the lobbies or courtyard unsupervised.

Smart Community
This is where current advances in the field of electronics and IT can help. At present, the “smart home” concept is rapidly becoming common. As cost have come down, demand has gone up. Yet there are some problems that are best solved at the level of the community rather than the individual. A good example of such a problem is security.

It is said that the best safety measure for anyone to have is a good neighbour. This leads us to the concept of “Smart Communities”. Our working hypothesis is that a group of people as a community are better able to solve the problem of security that a group of individuals acting on their own. A lot of the technology suitable for “Smart Communities” already exists: for individual houses, the cost is high; but shared between neighbours, they are affordable. To prove this point we propose to design a security system for the “Kotapuri” shop-apartment where the residential units are low-cost and low-medium cost flats selling for RM 35,000 and RM 55,000. The cost of providing a security system is targeted at RM 16,000 for each block, i.e. RM 250 per house. At this cost, the developer can include it in his construction budget.

The “Kotapuri” Security System

The proposed system for the “Kotapuri” is as follows:

  • Security points
    There are four entries, Gates A, B, C and D into the residential zone of the “Kotapuri”, one at each corner of the block, each entry giving access to 16 apartments on three floors.

  • Entry for Residents
    Each entry is secured by grill doors with a magnetic dead lock mechanism that is activated by a key pad. Each of the 16 units is given a pin number which is used to release the grill door lock. The keypad is also linked to a central computer, located in the community centre, and pin numbers keyed in are recorded.

    Thus all residents except for the very young and very old are given free access into the residential zone.

    Above three of the four key pads is a notice:
  • Entry for Visitors
    At Gate A, beside the key pad is an MyKad reader. The visitor has to slot in his MyKad into the reader. The reader is linked to the central computer where the identity of the visitor is recorded. Thus any Malaysian above the age of 12 with a MyKad is able to enter the residential zone.

    There is a sign board above the MyKad Reader:
  • Camera Surveillance
    All the entry points have camera monitors which feed into the central computer. Thus we are able to visually monitor and record the following:

    • Valid keypad entries
    • Valid MyKad entries
    • Unauthorised entries : including..
    • Opportunistic entries (coming in as other enter or exit in the approved manner)
    • Keypad entries by unauthorized persons.
    • Forced entries

  • Exits
    To go out residents or visitors simply press a button.

This system on its own will not totally prevent crime but in tandem with Defensible Space principles and neighbourly cooperation crime can be deterrred.

Estimated Costs

A preliminary estimate of the cost of providing this equipment is RM 30,000 consisting of: