Sustainable Architecture

by Angela Hijjas

Recently I was asked by a local architecture magazine to write about my house as an example of sustainable architecture. No investigation on the merits of this proposal was suggested, so I duly considered the salient points, knowing full well the outcome. If my home is considered a good example of where the building industry should be going, I hate to think what the general standing of sustainable development is in Malaysia.

Using the word ‘sustainable’ is always a bit suspect, as people apply it to justify something without really computing the environmental equation properly. The problem is extremely complex, and hinges on the materials chosen, the environmental cost in producing them and their life span. To do this properly, one needs to place a value on the natural environment, so that damage or loss is costed. If one were completely logical in computing a building’s total impact on the environment at large, then the only sustainable construction possible in Malaysia might be the Orang Asli solution of using biodegradable and short term materials. No hardwoods, no concrete, no steel, just build a new one every so often when the old begins to fail. In Australia, conscientious environmentalists build from rammed earth and hand made finishes from salvaged materials rather than new industrial ones.

I personally doubt that today’s contemporary architecture is sustainable, but acknowledge that some is more ‘environmentally friendly’ than others. In terms of domestic architecture, I look at my own home and see its many short comings in the eco-argument. It’s too big, it occupies a huge piece of land in a country where land and services are in short supply and it uses materials that devastated the environment from which they were extracted. The copper roof could well have come from the Freeport mines in Irian Jaya that are poisoning everything downstream. The concrete involves a cost in terms of lost limestone hills and caves with their fragile habitats, and the steel was made at huge energy costs that no one cares to compute in the environmental formula.

We did avoid using timber, but form-work had to be made, and the most ‘economical’ method was from plywood, made from our irreplaceable forest hardwoods. Teak parquet in some bedrooms was intended to relieve the use of ‘hard’ materials, and although no one would deny that timber is a beautiful material, it’s extraction from the forests of Burma is hardly sustainable. The inclusion of ‘standard’ features for the upper income group, like a swimming pool, tips the balance again. Chemicals such as chlorine are damaging, and are hard to justify for that occasional dip.

I love my home, but I have been trying to compensate ever since for the excessive use of resources that building it required. We moved here 11 years ago and ever since I have been filling it with artists and planting the rest of my 14 acres with as wide a range of indigenous forest species as I can find. I want to reaffirm a sense of place and cultural development in Malaysia, in the face of the devastation that commercial development brings.

In Malaysia, as in my native Australia, there may well be just one thing that we all share: this country’s land, its climate, its creatures, plants and landscape, its natural environment. This is the only thing that does not divide us from each other, and yet we embrace the foreign and diminish the local at every opportunity. My landscape design is creating a sense of place that no garden planted with heliconias and royal palms can match, even if I am the only one who recognises it.

But I diverge from the topic at hand. Now that the house is complete, it might be termed ‘environmentally friendly’ as it does not use a great deal of energy. We have little air conditioning and depend on through ventilation and ceiling fans. We have the usual overhangs for shade and pitched roofs for run off, and we are experimenting with ground tanks for water retention. We use pond water to flush some of the toilets and to water the vegetable plot during the increasingly common droughts, and therefore save on treated water from Jabatan Air. As well, from the huge storms that flood downstream, we retain water on site rather than draining it away as quickly as possible. Solar panels for heating water have been installed, but I am yet to be convinced that these are positive contributions as they have been replaced once already and the use of new materials and the disposal of the old ones are problems that skew the equation substantially.

I hardly think we make the cut, and know in my heart of hearts that the ‘life style’ that I enjoy and most aspire to is not sustainable. The machinery of the ‘market’, though, has reared us to believe that we are all entitled to aim for this, and that each new generation can expect to enjoy more than their parents did. Delusions, I fear.

The equations change, too, over time, and one should anticipate future trends in assessing whether something is really sustainable. For my home, if you discount the initial cost, at least most of the materials are long lasting and will endure, we are unlikely to change anything anytime soon. There is little that is fragile in the house, it copes with hard wear and I believe it will last at least as long as our kampong house from Parit. Rumah Uda Manap was restored because it is culturally important, but that’s another anthropomorphic equation that has little to do with environmental sustainability.

Made of hard wood and belian shingles, that house is another version of Malaysian architecture that would have been considered sustainable at the time it was built in 1901, if anyone had cared to compute. However, times change, our population has grown and natural resources are diminished, so what is regarded as sustainable now may not be so to future generations. Timber housed everyone in 1901, but it would be impossible now for all 22 million Malaysians to live in a timber house. In this case the escalation of timber prices shows that the hallowed market does indeed respond to resource shortages, but it still never computes the cost of lost trees and the damage inflicted on the forest, it merely tallies commercial shortages.

Surely sustainable development should be about building for now but without penalizing future generations, and not just generations of our own, but of all species.