Home Tour: This Strikingly Unconventional House Boasts Spaces That Balance The Indoors With The Outdoors
Unconventional. That’s how one would describe this monastic-styled bungalow project by Formwerkz Architects. Nicknamed ‘The Cloister’, the property located in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, is a stark contrast to the neighbouring bungalows—typical two-storey, pitched-roof constructs. The minimalist white box fronts the street; the only views in are through a band of clerestory windows that highlights a spectacular, origami-like ceiling.
The family had wanted a change of scene from their much smaller home in Singapore, so the wife—who currently works as a teacher—suggested working with Formwerkz to design their new home. The couple admire the inventive residential oeuvre of the firm; they’re also close friends with Alan Tay and Seetoh Kum Loon, the architects and partners of the Singapore-based architecture practice. “Alan and Seetoh even helped me with the house hunt in Singapore,” quips the husband, who works in the finance industry.
The couple gave the architects carte blanche but requested for privacy and a home conducive for family life. Situated within a gated community, the house’s fortified shell belies an unusually porous interior that celebrates tropical living within a safe haven.
Due to the couple’s frequent commutes between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, family time with their three children is much cherished. The couple also enjoys entertaining a constantly visiting troupe of extended family and friends within their sprawling compound.
The firm took advantage of the large 43,000sqft plot to create a one-storey development. “The best connection to the land—and with family—is through a single floor. And this is befitting given the size of the land,” says Tay. This to him epitomises luxury rather than opulent finishes.
Two precedents provided inspiration on how to organise the spaces: the Tropical Modernist flair of architect Geoffrey Bawa’s 33rd Lane House in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where courtyards bring light and breeze into the deep plan, and the historic Greco-Roman House of the Faun in Pompeii, Italy, which is characterised by multiple cloistered courtyards.
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The five-metre-high boundary walls double as house walls of a large communal block up front. It extends to the rear to a large courtyard, within which sits another smaller block. The former functions like a clubhouse, complete with communal spaces, garage, services, study rooms, guestrooms and quarters for the driver and domestic help, and the smaller block contains the family’s bedrooms.
A covered walkway links the two. Dwarf coconut trees lining one side and the swimming pool on the other offers a picturesque transit.
In the main block, a matrix of courtyards, enclosed rooms and sheltered voids housing living, dining and lounge areas, offers seamless visual and physical interaction. Smaller courtyards create resort-style bathrooms and larger courtyards layer spaces with green vistas.
“We wanted that connectivity where it’s not so direct and there’s a sense of exploration, of wanting to know what’s around the corner. Within the ‘boxes’, you can create another world,” says Tay. One of these “worlds” is an entertainment room cloaked in red with a staircase to a roof terrace overlooking the neighbourhood. Another is a playroom punctured with a ceiling porthole window to an attic-like space accessed via a ladder.
We wanted that connectivity where it’s not so direct and there’s a sense of exploration, of wanting to know what’s around the corner
Other than introducing light and breeze, the courtyards resolve landscaping issues for the large plot. “The courtyards make sense because there are little pockets of green that are measurable, each with a different planting theme. The plants can grow quickly unlike huge trees,” explains Tay. Already, creepers are halfway up the border wall. Large trees seeded on the periphery have ample time to mature.
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The architecture’s pièce de résistance is undoubtedly the dynamic, Merbau timber-clad ceiling in the main block that flows and flexes as it unifies all the spaces under one homogeneous element. The topography of inverse pitched roof forms lifts and dips at parts to create alternating lofty and intimate zones. Functionally, it is an elegant alternative to gutters, channelling water into courtyard gardens and ponds. This gathering of water is also good Fengshui, which the family observes.
Despite the abstract forms, the house is designed for comfort and practicality. “With three young kids, we wanted things that were practical and could be recycled. We also reused some of our old furniture; even if it’s a bit worn, it gives it an authenticity and realism,” shares the husband. “The architects helped to select furniture that are simple and clean-cut. Everything else we had to custom-make such as the three-metre sofa in the main living area, and other furniture sourced from Singapore and Malaysia.”
With three young kids, we wanted things that were practical and could be recycled. We also reused some of our old furniture; even if it’s a bit worn, it gives it an authenticity and realism
Materiality is simple, durable and robust to take the hard knocks of young children. Straightforward detailing and a steel post-and-beam structure with brick infill and cement screed finished internally with white walls and homogeneous tiles address the lack of skilled builders. “The only complicated thing was the roof because of the geometry,” says Tay. They were lucky to find a local craftsman who single-handedly constructed the roof over several months.
The family rarely use the air conditioner in the communal spaces and spend as much time outdoors as they do in. In the bedroom block, a graphic ceiling echoes the upward focus while considering thermal comfort. Heat gain is mitigated with the one-metre-deep structural depth, retractable roller blinds and gaps that expel hot air.
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“It’s a good place for the children to grow up in,” shares the husband. “My son plays a lot of football outside and I know it’s safe. Every use of space is integrated and visible from another. It’s perfect for sleepovers and playing hide-and-seek.” It is also ideal for entertaining, which the couple enjoys. During large gatherings that can run to a hundred, the house does not feel claustrophobic as there are many corners for groups to gather.
The family now spends more time at home; this house has ended up shaping their way of life. “We eat in more and use the house a lot more as it’s designed for our lifestyle. We make it part and parcel of our life, as opposed to just being a place to sleep,” sums the husband.
- Art Direction Khairul Ali
- Photography Jasper Yu, assisted by Jack Yeo