John-Son Oei

Back in 2010, a communications fresh graduate ventured into a remote village in Kuala Kubu Baru and found his calling. Today, Oei, 32, is the founder and CEO of EPIC Collective, an ecosystem of platforms and companies that promotes collaborative social impact.

EPIC stands for Extraordinary People Impacting Community. Its flagship programme, EPIC Homes, mobilises ordinary city folks to build homes for indigenous, or orang asli (OA), families in as fast as three days, and develop relationships while doing so.

Inspired by Lego and Ikea, Oei’s idea was developed with the help of friends and more than 40 architects, engineers and designers. The result is a modular building system that has been used to build 137 homes in the past nine years, with over 5,000 volunteers from some 40 organisations and more than 50 countries.

EPIC Collective also comprises EPIC Communities and EPIC DNA, its community and training arms. The group has established itself as a consultant in community development, civilian mobilisation and capacity building. It is also involved in infrastructure projects in Cambodia.

Oei’s work has won him various international recognition and awards, including being accepted into the Ashoka Fellowship; Forbes 30 under 30 2016; The Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award for Dedication 2017; SME Malaysian Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2017; Tatler Malaysia—Force for Good Award; The Edge Inspiring Young Leaders Award; the Iclif Leadership Energy Award 2015; and Microsoft’s Global YouthSpark Star award. He was also Malaysia’s official flag bearer for Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee and 2012 Commonwealth Day.

Construction+ catches up with Oei to find out what his plans are moving forward. 

Oei and his EPIC team

You began building houses for the OA since 2010. What drives your passion and interest in this community?
In Malaysia, we say our strength is in our diversity, and we usually talk about that in terms of our food and celebrations, skirting around a lot of important issues. One such issue is that our diversity leaves a lot of gaps, particularly differences in socio-economic levels, which need to be addressed. For us to fully capture the value of our diversity as we move forward, we need to find a way to include everybody in the dialogue.

The OA people, although a small minority, have tremendous value to give in terms of their resilience, beauty of culture, strength in relationships and community. The Asian way is more on interdependence, but I think many of us have lost a lot of our values in pursuit of a western idea of modernisation. I believe the OA people are still able to retain that identity; we just need to empower them so that they can teach us as a country how to move on.

What is the current housing situation in the OA community?
The problem itself is a big one. It is not that most of them do not have houses. They know how to construct their own, but they are losing access to quality materials and land, as well as skills. As their children start to adopt modern lifestyles, they usually start at the bottom and are not getting full-time jobs or earning enough to be able to purchase materials to build a quality house.

According to the last official census in 2011, there are 12,000 OA families in Peninsular Malaysia in need of homes. We suspect there may be some dent in that number since then to somewhere around 10,000.

Last year, the government allocated RM5 million for OA housing. A government-issued house would cost about RM50,000 each, so that would be 100 houses a year. If we need 10,000 homes and the government provides 100 houses a year, it is going to take forever to be able to reduce this number or eliminate the need.

As of end-2018, EPIC volunteers have built 137 homes

How does EPIC fit in with what the government is doing to meet this need?
Over the years, we have built a pretty good relationship with the government. There is trust and respect in the work that we do, and the people we have worked with have been very transparent with us.

People often assume that government entities have all the resources needed to solve the problem. But the truth on the ground is that there are so many challenges and problems to be solved, and it cannot just be done by the government itself. But the government is also put in a position where it is very difficult for them to go out there and say, “Hey, we need your help too.”

So that’s where we come in. We see ourselves as a civil society-based organisation that can expand the channels of help by tapping on foundations, companies and citizens, and pushing the boundaries that a bureaucratic organisation would not be able to do.

Such as enlisting urban folks to build homes?
Self-building homes, or communities getting involved in construction, is not unheard of. In fact, it’s how we used to do things until we started to be dependent on professionals to do the job. But clearly there are not enough professional contractors and developers who are willing to solve the housing needs for the entire country because sometimes there is no business case.

At EPIC Homes, our goal has always been to empower communities and people to impact the lives of other people. We see some of the real physical environmental factors that hold the OA community back, such as not having enough food or leaky roofs, and try to find solutions and resources to help meet these basic needs.

The homes we build serve as foundations upon which we can add more proactive solutions to help the community—such as in areas of education and economy—so that the following generations do not have to be reliant on government or external aid. Instead, they would be able to elevate themselves and choose exactly where they want to go as a people.

We’re moving into sustainable development and are working on initiatives to enhance economic activities and bringing in solution partners for other areas of needs that they have, as we work towards solving the housing issue once and for all.

What are your plans for 2019?
This is our 10th year since we started. We are very thankful that we can still do what we are passionate about. In the past few years, we have been building 25 to 35 homes annually. But this year, we are going to push this number to more than 100 homes.

I don’t see it as something so impossible. As it is, we have not been actively marketing ourselves or going out there to raise funds. We have just been coasting and looking at refining our construction processes, capacity-building programmes for our builders, and allowing enough time to see the resilience of our designs.

Now that some of our houses have been sitting there for a while, we know what the limitations are and what we can do planning forward before we scale to thousands of homes. We can now leverage off the network, goodwill, strength and credibility of our brand to meet concrete targets.

EPIC Homes is known for mobilising troops of volunteer builders. Will that be changing with this new direction?
We are looking at a need of 10,000 homes, so we’re not just looking at all of them being built by volunteers. We need to get professionals onboard as well.

There is an element of inspiration and hope and cultural exchange—a lot of intangible value—that comes from having volunteers in a build, but we have to address the reality that it may not be necessary to have 100 per cent volunteer-built homes. Our number of build volunteers are definitely increasing, but our current volunteer base will not be able to build all 100 homes in a year unless they are full-time builders.

Apart from that, we want people to know that being a builder is not their only volunteer pathway. For example, we have another route called Pathfinders, where you get involved in the surveying, mapping and preliminary planning stages before a build.

We also see a lot of potential in growing the local labour force within the communities themselves and using this as a means of income for them. We see a lot of OA people who have been involved in building homes develop a real passion towards construction and are dedicated to the craft. So we are looking at working with more professionals to enhance their knowledge base and upskill them with more modern construction styles.

Bridging the divide between urban dwellers and the orang asli community

How have building industry professionals responded to your work?
They have been very supportive, and there are many individuals within these groups who are actively helping us out. We’ve had engineers coming in to look at unique challenges that we have and advise us or sign off on our designs.

The architect community has been very encouraging so far, while developers and construction companies have sponsored builds and helped us improve our site safety and management to reduce accidents and injuries.

We have been talking to building material suppliers and IBS companies to apply whatever solutions they have for our use.

If companies have their own construction system, we get our designers involved with them to see if we can prototype something, and if it works, then we can make it available for future homes.

We are also building a virtual materials warehouse for any excess building materials that are donated to us, which can be used for other projects or home repairs, or to supply to those who want to build their own houses.

How has your house design evolved through the years?
What we have developed over these years is not one type of house design, but a design framework that allows us to collaborate with different material suppliers and explore modular components.

The foundation of our design is based on what the people in the community are already familiar with—raised stilts, pitched roofs, a lot of room for ventilation.

Through the years, we have made some small changes to ensure the house is safer to be built and to minimise errors—because the way it is designed guides the process of construction. We have made some changes to the kitchen, seeing how a couple of families use the houses. We changed the cladding into something that is longer lasting.

Moving forward, we are looking at exploring sustainable materials that are more accessible and nearby to these communities, such as bamboo. If we are able to find an application for bamboo that can be scaled, then that also opens potential for economic growth for the communities.

This year, we are also working with the Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM) for the Kuala Lumpur Architecture Festival (KLAF) design competition to redesign OA homes. Participants will have to design homes for two case studies—a community in a rural area that is surrounded by primary and secondary forests, and one that is much closer to urban areas, where land is scarce and space is constricted, making it harder to transport materials etc. We encourage participants to follow us to some of these communities and speak to the people themselves.

The outcome of this competition is a potential catalogue of design options that families can choose from, for a more enhanced experience in the process of receiving a home. At the end of the day, it’s about giving our stakeholders, the OA people, a choice.

As a social enterprise, how does EPIC Homes sustain its operations?
Over the past 10 years, we’ve been selling the builds as team-building activities to companies, where we make a profit from the team-building component. Every now and then, we get a grant that covers a specific project or goal.

Up to this point, our 40-odd staff wear multiple hats in the different companies under the EPIC Group, which we run to generate revenue to sustain the nonprofit side of things. This year onwards, in scaling up, we actually find a need for a dedicated team for EPIC Homes.

For example, we are currently in villages in five states, but there are more states to be ventured into. We have not been full force in pushing to open up all 869 villages in Peninsular Malaysia—to map and survey these communities, churn out information and data to come up with different profiles, and look at matching resources and building networks to solve the issues that they are facing—because the moment you open up, you build expectations that you have to fulfil. We will need a main EPIC Homes coordination team to look into all these and to actively raise funds.

We also need to expand our talent pool and be able to retain them, so we’re taking on more commercial projects—such as toy libraries, community centres, schools and meditation centres—under our EPIC Communities arm.

We are looking at how to scale up the kind of impact that we have. We have been toying with a couple of concepts for housing under the Hardcore Poor Housing Programme (PPRT) in rural and urban areas. We are also positioning ourselves as a creative hub that people can get involved in for development, in areas such as master planning, energy solutions, food production systems and placemaking.

It seems like all roads are leading us to be that kind of agency that is able to function at a larger scale, not one house at a time, but entire master plans.

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