Bee Eu Tan, Founder of BEu Tan Architect

With a career spanning across continents over two decades, Bee Eu has been devoting her forte in designing large-scale resorts and high-rises to passion projects since founding her boutique practice BEu Tan Architect (BETA) in her hometown of Penang in 2015. Having a diversified portfolio that includes breathing new life to old, dilapidated structures, she has embarked on a sensitive approach to adaptive reuse—observed to be one of the most underestimated typologies in construction—for her works in Penang and beyond.

The architect-and-academician shares with Construction+ her perspectives on this sustainable, worthwhile approach, from on-site intricacies to potential for wider take-up. She also details her first award-winning venture, Penang Digital Library Phase 2, which emerged top at the Pertubuhan Akitek Malaysia (Malaysian Institute of Architects) Awards 2019 in the alteration and addition category. Bee Eu is among the three jurors of the BCI Interior Design Awards (IDA) 2023.

How does one distinguish adaptive reuse from restoration?
A holistic restoration reinstates the original condition of a structure inside out. Adaptive reuse projects often comprise a certain amount of restoration. After adjustment, the disused building’s lifespan can be extended to serve a new purpose. Laypersons may think that adaptive reuse is just simple renovation when in fact it is one of the toughest. The easiest step would be to design on an empty piece of land, akin to a blank paper, without constraints.

What are the main to-dos that are essential to the adaptive reuse process and why?
Before anything else, assess and reinstate the structural integrity of the existing building. Starting from the building envelope, we conduct thorough checks on the roof to track any leaks, covering its tiles, joists and rafters. If it was made of timber, these elements might already have been damaged by termites and would be hollow.

The use of an open-plan layout enhances natural lighting and visual connectivity at Penang Digital Library Phase 2; image by BETA

How does the sensitive approach to adaptive reuse work?
Drawing a parallel between built heritage and our dear elderly, we treat both with respect and dignity. The whole essence of adaptive reuse is to pay homage to the old, reflecting an honest appreciation of an old building. Just as the saying goes, old is gold. A sensitive treatment incorporates discreet solutions with minimal interventions or additions.

In the sense of visual prominence, any new structural addition must not be ‘louder’ than the preceding structure. The Phase 2 development of the first paperless public library in the nation, Penang Digital Library, that entailed the conservation and extension of a neighbouring heritage mansion, can further illustrate. One of our earliest ventures, the project was completed with a fairly quick design process. An obvious choice was to set back the annexe a little bit further from where the heritage mansion stands, analogous to putting seniors first. The roofline of annexe also stands lower.

The annexe, set back further from where the heritage mansion stands, features a lower roofline; image by TWJPTO

This is an excerpt. The original article is published in
Construction+ Q3 2023 Issue: The inside of architecture/built structures.
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