The Tagal Hut at Kampung Maligan, Sabah uses bamboo and reclaimed timber for the structure, and waste material for the walls. The design incorporated elements of the local culture as well as environmental features such as rain-water harvesting, natural ventilation and solar panels.
Conservation and building don’t always seem to go hand-in-hand, at least not in Malaysia a lot of the time.
But does the relationship always have to be a destructive one?
Arkitrek, a Kota-Kinabalu-based firm which provides architectural design services, thinks not.
Its founder and managing director Ian Hall is, in fact, passionate about integrating its projects with the natural environment and local communities.
“A big part of Arkitrek’s mission is to remind people of this connection, and to figure out how the construction industry can make this relationship a positive one,” said Hall.
It’s a personal mission born out of his love for the wilderness of both his native Britain and Borneo where he is now based. His weekends are spent on outdoor pursuits like rock climbing and mountain biking.
“I love nature and wilderness. Ten years ago, I gave up a high paying job in London because I made the connection that my career in designing buildings was destroying the thing that I love,” he said.
Hall is an architect who had worked in London, Auckland and Edinburgh before starting Arkitrek in 2009 to focus on sustainable design.
To do this, it has had to stay true to its philosophy and principles.
“These principles are at the core of our business, our shareholders support them and we do not compromise on them,” he said.
Sometimes, this means turning down projects such as this resort proposed for a small island, because the client wanted to move out the inhabitants, without their proper consent albeit with compensation.
This is clearly not the best way to make money fast. As Hall (pic) noted, their ‘pickiness’ had significantly reduced the market available to them.
Instead, by being picky, Arkitrek has created a strong niche brand as an ethical design company.
As a result, they had been able to do some stunning work such as the Sepilok outdoor nursery for orang utan to the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre’s visitor centre, both in Sabah.
Its projects fit into the space as if they are part of the wilderness itself, with a focus on energy conservation and the use of natural material as far as possible.
They begin each project by asking difficult questions on two fronts: nature and social environment.
First, the easy ones: “are we conserving energy and resources and using them responsibly?”
This includes the use of recycled materials and natural materials from resilient ecosystems, making new materials from waste, reducing carbon emissions, and using energy from sources that do not damage the environment.
Then, they ask the more difficult questions: “Are our projects promoting social equality? Are they creating social and economic benefits for communities? Do they protect and respect cultural heritage? Do they grow from place and build local capacity?”
These aren’t easy questions to answer but they try, as creatively as they can.
They try to use natural building materials such as bamboo, earth bag and bio-crete.
“We have created buildings that are comfortable without air-conditioning. We have built new supply chains for building materials and construction services that engage local communities,” Hall said.
It’s a wonderful way to do architecture. But are these principles applicable only small buildings with a big budget?
Hall doesn’t believe so. He believes that good design can solve big problems on a big scale. People just have to want the solutions.
“What takes time is for society to start posing the big problems. If a housing developer came to me tomorrow and said ‘Ian, I want a housing development that creates social and economic benefits for communities. Can you design it?’
“I would bite her hand off for the job and yes, we could solve that problem,” he said.
Arkitrek is so passionate about its philosophy that it holds regular ‘Live Design’ camps to build a community of architects who want to use design as a tool to solve social and environmental issues.
In these camps, young architect volunteers are paired with clients on small projects with a large social impact. Since 2011, they have done over 10 projects such as an ecological research station at Malua, near Danum Valley, built from earthbags and oil palm bio-crete.
And so, yes, building and conservation don’t always need to be at loggerheads with each other, as Arkitrek has shown.
The Nanga Sumpa lodge in Batang Ai, Sarawak